By: Rachelle Dene Poth.

It’s hard to believe that the summer break will be ending soon, signaling the start of a new school year. Although many educators enjoy having a period of time to relax and recharge with family and friends, the summer break presents opportunities for educators to participate in professional learning and to catch up on new trends and ideas in education. Personally, I like to use the time to reflect on the prior school year, take advantage of some professional learning throughout the summer by attending conferences and meeting up with members of my Professional Learning Network (PLN), and also to start thinking about areas that I need to focus on in the new school year.

Deciding on a plan

There are so many things that educators must keep track of and plan for throughout the year. By planning early enough to explore new ideas, identify strategies we want to try or determine areas of our own professional development that we want to focus on, we can hold ourselves more accountable to engaging in what matters and can make a difference. Once the year starts, time passes by so quickly and we get pulled in multiple directions, which means we might miss out on those opportunities. So how can we plan better?

Here are five specific areas that I believe make a difference in our teaching experience, and—more importantly—have an impact on those with whom we lead and learn.

  1. Relationships and those connections

I believe that the most important thing to focus on at the start of each school year (and every day) is building relationships with our students and helping them to foster relationships with their peers. There are many ways to do this, whether by planning specific activities or simply changing our approach to each day. Some ideas include ice breakers at the beginning of the year, getting students involved in learning activities or games where they work on learning the content while interacting with peers, or use random questions to boost student interaction.

We must be intentional about being present and available for students. There were times last year that I missed opportunities to meet students at my classroom door when they entered my room. Make time to greet students in the hallways of your school and include those who are not in your class so that they feel connected.

It’s as important for us to build relationships with our students as it is for us to help them develop their own social-emotional learning (SEL) skills to feel comfortable and confident interacting in the classroom and to feel welcome in our space. By starting with relationships and building a sense of community within the classroom, we as teachers can continue to work on it throughout the year which will benefit students and us.

  1. Family engagement

We need to craft a plan for making initial connections with families and being consistent with our communication. Promoting family engagement is one of our most important responsibilities. With regular communication and building a connection, we can provide the best learning experience and support for our students. At the start of the year, I send home a form for parents to complete with a link to a survey to learn about their preferences for communication, any possible barriers to accessing class resources, and other concerns that families might have. Decide on a plan to keep families informed on a regular basis, whether by sending a weekly email or newsletter, using a messaging platform, or even recording short video updates. By having a strategy in place, we will start strong and create a supportive connection between home and school for our students. 

  1. Creating our learning space

There are a lot of ideas about how to create the best learning space for our students. Many students are used to having assigned seats, which may or may not be lined up in rows in the classroom, which offers very little time for them to move around or interact with peers. Classrooms might be decorated with student work or teacher-made or purchased materials. Whatever we decide to use in our space, we want to be mindful of our purpose for displaying certain items in the classroom. A few years ago, I made a decision to paint my classroom walls light yellow, and then added some strings of lights and other decorations throughout the room. It was colorful and creative, especially with student work displayed and other items that my students added throughout the year. To plan ahead, involve students throughout the year in deciding the look and the layout of your classroom as much as you can. Perhaps even give students the responsibility to make changes each month. When studentseven those who are not in your classcome to you and tell you that the room makes them happy, it is comfortable and they want to stay, I think we’re doing something right. 

  1. A Monthly Focus

One thing I decided to try this year: choose a focus for each month. My plan is to decide on something new that I want to try or to do differently, and explore learning events that will help me continue to grow personally and professionally. By choosing a theme for each month and focusing our efforts on finding resources or making new professional connections based on the theme, it will help us follow through with plans and we will gather new ideas to benefit students as well. For a start, think about topics that you read about over the summer or even ideas that you hoped to try last year but ran out of time. Make a list and hold yourself to it, and even consider creating a plan with a colleague. It can definitely help to have a friend to collaborate with you and you can keep each other accountable.

  1. Finding balance in our days

We know how quickly the responsibilities we have each day can add up. Our work doesn’t end when the school day does (nor over the weekend) which means that our schedules can become so filled with our work that it leaves very little time for anything else. Therefore, part of our plan must involve finding ways to help us stay balanced—at least as balanced as we possibly can during the year—while also saving time for our professional learning as well. 

What has worked for me and may be helpful for others is having specific points throughout the day where we engage in certain activities, whether they be time with family, exercise, reading, writing, or even taking a nap. Once we get started, it helps us to stay balanced and have time with our families, work on our physical and mental well-being, and engage in learning opportunities that will keep us informed and relevant. 

It also helps to have shortcuts for doing the things that tend to take up the most time. The one secret that I have shared the most, that some have called a ‘game-changer’ is that I use the voice-to-text feature of email and documents to do most of my writing. I’ve done this for years and it has saved so much time that I can then devote to family and personal interests. Emails, parent forms, review materials, blogs and even books have been generated by simply speaking into the phone and then editing as needed. Listening to podcasts while walking or using Voxer for conversations with educators around the world add time into my day and help me feel more balanced. 

These are just five of the areas that I plan to focus on as I get closer to the first day of school. I believe these are very important considerations in our roles as educators and also for our own well-being. Starting with a plan of the most important areas and then selecting one at a time works, too. Simply select one and once it has become part of your daily practice, add another. We are always learning and growing.

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