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September's Teacher Success Tips

School Supplies, Learning Names, Collaborating with Colleagues, and Setting Goals

(Psst, teachers! This is ONE MONTH in my popular 12-month series! See the whole series here and have an awesome year!)

Fill Your Teacher Planner

Ahhhh, my teacher planner. My baby, my precious, my LIFE! There are two things that will make me turn the car around and go home if I’ve forgotten them in the morning: my cell phone and my planner. My cell phone…well I could live without it for a day. But my planner!? No way. I LIVE in my planner. (BTW I invest in an Erin Condren LifePlanner every year and LOVE it! Yes, it’s worth the price.)

If you haven’t invested in one yet for the school year, then now is the time! Use it for planning lesson, mapping out units, striving for balance between personal and work time, and scheduling in the other important things: self-care, appointments, travel!

No matter which planner you decide is best for you, treat it like a working document. Just as we ask students to mark up the texts and interact with what’s in front of them, your teacher planner should be no different! If a lesson was A-MAZING!, write that down. Celebrate! And when you come back to review what *exactly* you did during this unit, you’ll be reminded of your success and definitely do that lesson again. Write down what didn’t go so well–you’ll know what needs to be modified or revamped for next time.

Here’s a few more of my favorites that work for my organization style.

Stock Your Classroom

Back to School season is a great time to make sure you have all the tools you need to make teaching smooth this year. Take inventory of what you already have. If you’re like me, you probably have *way* more staples than you’ll ever use! What is it you really do need? Visit your school supply room. Ensure you have enough sticky notes, 3×5 cards, highlighters, rulers — those supplies that you know will make learning easier for students.

A few thoughts about supplies…if you’re lucky enough to work for a district that provides a budget or funds for buying school supplies at the start of the year, congratulations! My first teaching job gave me a $250 budget to stock up on school supplies every year. If not, lean on your head secretary (or whomever buys supplies) and ask for your essentials! There are also lots of charitable organizations who help with school supplies this time of year. Perhaps your school puts out supply lists to families; it may be too late to update your list but put it on your calendar for the Spring to remind your list-maker of the edits.

In my heart I know that many of you have spent some of your own money for your classroom. If that’s the case for you, then there are two things I’d like you to hear – I’m sorry. And THANK YOU!!! Many of us understand the real struggle. And hopefully the day will come soon when classrooms receive the funding they need to support all teachers do.

If you do have money to spend, shop the SALES! There are incredible price slashes this time of year on the products you love. Crayola Crayon 24 packs for A SONG at Target and Walmart!? That just makes you want to buy a bunch of crayons!

Learn Student Names – Quickly!

Learning student names quickly is one of the best tricks for gaining classroom management and showing students that you care about them as individuals. It tells students: I see you. You matter. You are known here! It’s one of the best strategies that I’ve learned for quickly gaining respect from your students which allows you to launch into great instruction.

I make it a top priority on the first day of school to master student names (as much as possible)! I can hear you now… “Are you kidding me!? She’s crazy.” But trust me, as a secondary teacher, some years I had up to 180 names to learn in a very short amount of time! I have worked in both trimester and semester systems. Some years I’ve had the same students all year, and other years I’ve had to switch students mid-year. Trust me – I understand that the struggle is real!

Don’t tune me out yet! Let me share with you my best strategy for mastering student names very quickly. Without exception, I greet students at the door on the first day of class; in fact, I make it a practice to be on my door as much as possible, every day. As students enter, I introduce myself and ask them their name. It is an easy way to de-escalate students’ first day jitters and help them start to feel at ease in our classroom. Then (still on the first day) I always set aside time for a silent activity where students are sitting and writing – time for working independently. This activity has been different every year it seems! (I’m sure some of you can relate! Awesome ideas in the summer become our Day 1 genius!) Perhaps I’m having them fill out short surveys so that I can better understand their learning preferences. Or they are filling out pre-assessments to help me understand their baseline knowledge before we launch deep into curriculum. Either way, I have the students work silently at their desks. Then I use my roster and seating chart to study and memorize every student’s first name. And I work HARD!

I literally go around the classroom over and over again in my mind until I have mastered every student’s first name. I save last names for Day 2! Yes I struggle, and yes I make mistakes. But that short little activity on the first day helps me launch into knowing their names from Day One.

The really cool part about this is that as students are leaving on that first day, I say goodbye to them using their name. Sometimes I will even do it in front of the whole class if we have an extra minute to spare. I will say, “Okay let me see if I’ve got all your names…” You wouldn’t believe how amazed they are at my memorization skills! They look at me like I’m a mad scientist or a genius. It’s very cool.

One added bonus to learning names quickly is that students seem less likely to pull shenanigans, as well, because they know that I know their name. I’ve heard them say to their friends, “Oh no! She knows my name!” And they all laugh. So I know it matters to them and I know they feel known when they are in our classroom.

Get to Know Your Teammates

When it comes to getting to know colleagues, that’s a little bit trickier for me. I have worked in huge schools (with close to 200 educators!) as well as small schools with a much smaller staff. The bigger the school, obviously, the harder it is to master everyone’s names. For me I find it’s best to start with those with whom I work closest. This may be your grade level team or your department. In addition, there is no greater blessing than knowing your secretarial staff! When in doubt, I have always found answers from a helpful secretary who has their finger on the pulse of so many aspects of school life.

Finally, it’s important to know the names of your administrative team. In my first teaching job, there were six administrators and each of them had very distinct roles. One oversaw discipline; another the master schedule, etc. So it was important to know who oversaw what element of school life. It help me quickly know whom to ask my specific questions.

I used the same memorization technique from my classroom during all-staff meetings. As a new teacher, I would acquire the staff list from one of the secretaries or find it on the website (although they weren’t always up-to-date on the first day of school, especially if there were summer hires). Then I would run down the list of names and try to locate the person in the room. I also took the opportunity to do that ever-so-awkward introduction whenever I saw a new adult face in the building. Some of those folks I never interacted with again (we ran in different worlds), but I then had a face to put with a name.

I also really appreciate when teachers put their photo and name on the entrance to their classroom. Not only is it helpful for students, but it’s very helpful for the adults!

Then comes the awesome opportunity to make teacher besties and start growing relationships. Some of the best friends I’ve ever known I got to teach beside. There’s nothing like teaching together to bring some of the coolest people together in lifelong friendship!

Call Home

This is one of the most important tricks I’ve learned for proactive, effective classroom management. I know it’s time-consuming and some of us legitimately will not be able to find the time to pull this off. But for me, this was a strategy that I worked really hard to prioritize every year. I literally call home and say hello to everyone of my student’s parents! This was not as tough of a task when my class size was around 80 total students, I was single, and didn’t have any children of my own! When my rosters ticked up closer to 150 or more (and I got married and had babies!), this was a little more challenging and I must admit, I didn’t do it perfectly. But it’s worth striving for nonetheless.

Some years I couldn’t get to all of my families but I sure tried hard! Rarely did folks return my messages; that was okay. I aspired to start a dialogue and the call was good enough in nearly all cases.

I always want my first communication home be neutral – or better yet, entirely positive! This small strategy makes it very easy to start my relationship with parents on a totally low-stakes note.

So how did I do it? The phone calls didn’t last long; often 45 – 60 seconds. I would simply say the following: “Hello! I’m just calling to introduce myself and let you know that if there’s anything ________ needs this year, I want them to be very successful. Here’s how you can contact me.” Sometimes I would include my office hours or tutoring sessions. Ultimately I ended up answering more questions about the start of school then questions specific to my class.

Therefore this was a good move in general, as a goodwill gesture on behalf of the school. Parents were pleasantly surprised to hear from a high school teacher the first week of school. In fact many of them joked, wondering if their student was in trouble already! I learned a lot about my students from these phone calls, heard the voices of those who love them most, and started out my family relationships on a very positive footing. Win win!

Logistically I could get all my phone calls done over the course of two or three days for about an hour each afternoon (again…single, no spouse, no kids! Those were the days!). I recognize that we are all super busy and for some of us this is not realistic. But if this is an option for you, take it from one of us that it was well worth it and a practice worth sharing. For what it’s worth, there you go!

Plan As Far Ahead As You Can

September is a time of excitement, optimism, energy and enthusiasm. In order to help yourself be as successful as possible for the rest of the year, I suggest doing as much planning as you possibly can in the month of September.

I don’t necessarily mean making all the copies and getting down into the minutiae. Instead, plan “big picture” units and guiding concepts. I know I’ve said it over and over again but your planner is vital for pulling this off!

When it comes to planning, I think of it like the analogy of riding downhill on a bicycle. You get going so unbelievably fast that it’s possible to coast for quite some time after the hill is over. The best thing to do on that downhill is to continue paddling super hard so that you can coast just a little further.

It’s the same way with planning for me and the month of September. We have all this energy and momentum, and lots of enthusiasm for teaching in the fall. By The time November and December roll around, we’re in the doldrums! So I suggest leaning into your planning while you still have a ton of enthusiasm. That way, when those hard days hit and you just want to recharge your batteries, you have the freedom and preparation to really focus on some much-deserved self-care.

Basic planning for me looks like identifying when I would like to start each unit and then working backwards to design assessments, lab activities, and other Keystone events. Backwards planning is a teacher’s best friend when it comes to taking a large curriculum and breaking it into manageable chunks. Fortunately a lot of curricula out there does this type of sequencing for you. If not, spent some time unpacking it for yourself (or with your department or grade level team), wrap your head around it, and then let it go!

Set Goals For the Year

September is also an amazing time to set new goals for this school year. Most of us already do this in a very informal way. I do a lot of dreaming and goal-setting during the summer as I am reflecting on the year, and thinking of the amazing things I want to do in the year to come.

Perhaps you’re like me – during the month of September, our school district has all licensed employees write formal Professional Goals for themselves; these help steer coaching conversations with our administrators. These are a great way to capture those ambitions we’ve come up with in the summer and create a little more accountability for ourselves. Why create new goals for your bosses instead of just doubling your efforts on the goals you have for yourself? This is a perfect opportunity to do both!

Your goals don’t have to be something you’re going to share with someone else, either! Have you made a goal to connect better with particular students? To update your gradebook in a more timely fashion? To walk with a teammate at lunch? Perhaps your goal is personal or related to self-care or your family.

Whatever your goal(s) may be, September is a great time to put those in writing. Very quickly October and November hit and they are crazy freight train months! It can be easy to lose sight of those ambitions when the rubber meets the road. Write them down, or make them more formal if your district requires you to do so anyway.

Keep Breathing! Pace Yourself

September is an absolute whirlwind. There are so many events that are adrenaline-draining, insomnia-inducing and nerve-wracking during this month. Where do I start!? The first day of school. Meet Your Teacher Night. Open House. And all the other high-energy events that are crammed into the month of September.

The best way to survive the craziness that is September is to keep breathing and pace yourself! If you haven’t already, September is a great time to focus on self-care including relaxation and fitness routines. The best thing to do is pace yourself, get lots of rest, and keep your stress at bay (if possible). I promise – it will all come together! You’re an amazing, intuitive teacher. You students will learn your routines. You will learn everyone’s names. And this will be your best school year yet!

Check out next month’s Teacher Survival Tools HERE!

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