This past year, my daughter, Zoey, began middle school in the building where I teach. Never in my life have I been so nervous. I’ve always been confident that my kids were doing just fine, and to be honest, I didn’t give much thought to their days at school. However, because I teach in a big school of about 1,300 students, and I know the ins and outs of middle school really well, I had lots of specific concerns. As I helped my daughter make a plan for her first few weeks of school, it occurred to me that all students could use an “insider” to help navigate the complexities of a new atmosphere, even if it is just a change in grade. Having taught both seventh and eighth grade, I can attest to the massively different expectations that teachers have from year to year. As I worked on my second book, The Flexible SEL Classroom: Practical Ways to Build Social-Emotional Learning in Grades 4-8, I found myself thinking about ways we, as educators, can help our students be successful from the start. Here are three tips:
Tip 1: Help Students Find ‘Your Person’
One of the first things I did was help my daughter identify what I call “your person.” Every child needs someone he or she can turn to when the day goes awry. Most of the panic and frustration with school can be alleviated if students know that the adults are there to help. I introduced Zoey to our guidance office secretary, Brandy. Brandy knows everyone, can make small talk with any type of student, and is a great person. In my book, I explain how I offer to be my students’ person.
Here’s how I explain it in Chapter 5, “Relationship Skills”: “And then I tell my new students that they don’t know me yet, but I’m offering to be their person. I tell them to come to me if their lockers won’t open, they rip their pants, they are crying, they need lunch or a pen or a Band-Aid, or they want to use my phone to call home. As you might expect, many eighth-graders look away skeptically, but some need this reassurance immediately, and over the course of the year, many more come to me simply because we all need a person.” Helping alleviate the stress of school is one of the best ways we can improve the lives of our students and, in turn, help them to learn more and be successful as individuals.
Tip 2: Tell Students EXACTLY How to Handle Bullying
I bet you’ve said this vague and fairly useless statement as many times as I have: “If you are having any problems, tell a trusted adult.” Think about that for a second. Here’s what a child has to process when we say things as unclear as that: Who is a trusted adult? What do I tell the adult? Should I use names? Will the other person find out? Will this make matters worse? Instead of speaking in generalities, be as specific as possible. ShareMyLesson.com has some awesome resources that will help you and your school start a “Not In My School” campaign, which is overt about what the expectations are for handling bullying and what it means to be an upstander, including this great video to share with your class.
The way I handle this in my own classroom is to make sure students know the protocols of how we treat each other, and know that I will hold them (and myself) to it. I don’t do “rules,” per se. I explain to students that almost everything in my class is up for negotiation—they can lobby for me to change the day of a test, bargain for a retake any day and switch projects when they need to; however, I have several “non-negotiables,” and I tell them exactly what they are:
- Be kind.
- Listen actively.
- Be your best self.
- Don’t complain.
- Take risks.
- Respect our community.
I let students know that if one of those protocols for our relationships in class isn’t working, I will ALWAYS handle it before or after school, or at lunch. Don’t pick up the rope! You will never win a tug of war with a student, especially with an audience. When I do meet with the student, I come from a place of concern: “How can I help this protocol work for you?” Believe it or not, kids will tell me what they need. Often, they need me to intervene in a way they can’t. They may need to be moved away from a talkative best friend, or need me to figure out what to do about another student who is harassing them. Sometimes, they are finding the content too hard, and thus giving up and not paying attention. No matter what the problem, they know we will solve it outside of class time, because we value both the class itself and each other enough to work together.
I also provide students with some of these book options.
Tip 3: Let Your Students Know You Are Going to Brag about Them (and Do It!)
Tell your students that you will brag in public, correct in private. This is how I’ve raised my own kiddos at home, and I’ve found that when I share the positives my children and students are doing, they are willing to work much harder for me. Of course, families want to hear about academic gains, but remember that most people have access to their child’s grades through student data reporting systems like a parent portal or online report card. What can you share about a child that will not show up on a report card? This is something I care about deeply. By letting the other people in a child’s life know of his or her particular talents, kindness, improvements in behavior or special contributions to class, you are valuing the student as a whole child, which is how we build relationships that lead to better achievement. This has an important impact on diverse learners, which you can read more about here. Basically, we should find ways to help students be seen, as that is one of the things depressed teens say causes them pain.
There’s so much at stake during those first 30 days of the school year. If we help students navigate all the changes they will encounter and offer to be “their person,” establish clear protocols for behaviors and hold students accountable when they need more help, and brag about them for who they are as individuals, teaching and learning will improve.
What do you do to get off to a great start? I’d love to hear about it. Tell us about your strategies and lessons in the comments.