The start of a new school year: love v loath (and how to make it go more smoothly!)

Screen Shot 2018-12-31 at 18.10.06Tweets, blogs and articles about how to get off to the best start for the new academic year are here in their abundance – and at the risk of adding to the saturation, I thought I’d add in my take on the next few days as we return to school after the summer break.

I both love and loath the start of a new academic year with equal measure!  I realise loath is strong word but after 6 weeks of not getting up at 6am, no bells dictating what I’m doing and being able to wear trainers and jeans all the time, the alarm clock, structured day and change of wardrobe take a bit of getting back into (and I usually swear at least once when the alarm goes off!). But I also love the anticipation of a new year, setting up a new diary with elaborate colour coding (I am a stationary freak!), welcoming students back and catching up and working with colleagues.  The love definitely outweighs the loathing every time.

I’ve had a few people asking me what advice I would give for the start of the new academic year and I’ve tried to summarise it into 6 things below in a hope that it will help remove the ‘loath’ (aka the anxiety associated with a new school year!) and make things go a bit more smoothly for those of you (understandably) a little anxious about tomorrow.  Now plans for Inset days are already fixed and people will have already planned for the first lessons back but here are some tweaks I always recommend to make our lives a little bit easier in the long run.

For Senior and Middle Leaders:

  • We talk about cognitive load for students but this seems to be forgotten when planning the first inset day back for staff.Make sure people get breaks in the information overloading – take a look at that 2 hour session you’ve got planned and surprise people with a 5 minute break just over half way through.
  • The shock of 6 hours of constant adult company will be overwhelming for all – you will have staff who have spent most of their days for the last 6 weeks alone as family and friends were all at work or staff who have spend days with their own children but few other adults – make sure you give people space to find a few minutes of calm and quiet and time to sort themselves out ready to get their heads back into ‘school-mode’.
  • Possible controversial idea – scrap the team building/ice breakers/wellbeing activities you’ve planned for the last hour of the day and give people time for personal planning and preparation – I’ve sat in too many quizzes/afternoon tea/department challenges from 2-3pm on the afternoon of Inset day just thinking of all the things I needed to do to get my classroom ready for the students arriving in the morning to really appreciate the time with colleagues.How about saving it for  the third or fourth week of term when the summer seemed like an eternity ago and it is more likely to be appreciated?

For all:

  • Spend time deciding the routines you will establish in your classroom. How will the books be given out and collected in?  What about other resources?  I haven’t given out more than 8 glue sticks at a time in the last 10 years – and it’s a rarity even then – and it’s made the glue last longer and reduced my stress levels at counting them back in.  Paul Dix talks about planning how you will give instructions and it’s amazing the impact spending a little time really thinking about logistics of an activity or routine and how you will give the instructions can have on your classroom management.  Lastly, make a timed period of silent work the norm in every lesson you teach right from day one – you can build it up and it doesn’t have to be the same length of time every lesson or at the same point in a lesson but it gets students really used to working on their own (and also without being able to ask you for more help either) which is something all teenagers struggle with to some extent.  It also helps with reducing anxiety around tests and exams as it they are used to doing work in silence and on their own all the time then doing it in an exam is no longer as daunting.
  • Ditch the expectations/what you did over the summer/your goals for the year talk at the start of the first lesson for every class you are teaching and just start teaching. This does come from my experience in secondary contexts – students know they sit in seats and put their hands up and don’t shout out , etc, etc and will switch off as soon as you start.  I’m not saying that they will never need a reminder to help them to get back into the habit when they forget but just do it when they forget.  Instead, each time you do a new type of activity/routine, explain and model it at the time and gradually this becomes automated in your classrooms by the students – eg, how to give out books, setting out work, strategies for self and peer assessment, drawing diagrams, etc – as they practice lesson after lesson.
  • Whatever your personal opinion or school’s policy on marking, there is nothing more powerful for establishing relationships with students than checking their books after every lesson for the first couple of weeks and making sure they know you’ve checked them. Now I don’t mean copious marking in their books or even a whole class feedback sheet with DIRT activity every lesson.  I mean something as simple as splitting a class set of books into those with a post it note on the next page and those without.  The post it note doesn’t need anything written on it but students can be told its presence means there was some incomplete work or it was not at the standard you would expect from them – in other words they know you’re watching and holding them to account.  For most students this is enough to get them on track so when you do give them feedback it will be meaningful as it reflects solid effort on their part.  A different colour post it with a well done on or a postcard slipped into a book for those whose work reflects an excellent start to the year also goes a long way to building those positive attitudes to learning.

All the best for the 2019-2020 academic year!

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