Eleven tips teachers can use to help themselves and their students transition smoothly into the new school year
By Lisa Lawmaster Hess
This year will be my thirty-third year as an educator and, if history is any indication, I will be nervous not only on the first day of school but on the night before as well. I sleep better now than I did those first few years, but the first day jitters are by no means a thing of the past. Grateful that my daughter will be at school and my husband will be at work when I go through my first day paces, I’ll take extra time planning, reviewing and packing my bag.
I’d try to talk myself off the ledge, but I have a lot of company out here. Nearly every teacher I know still gets that special mix of nerves and excitement the night before the first day of school. If we feel that way despite knowing what to expect and ostensibly being in charge, imagine how our students must feel!
Transitions can be challenging and the transition from lazy summer days without alarm clocks to structured school days and deadlines can be challenging for students and teachers. Here are a few ideas for crossing the bridge from one to the other.
Take care of yourself.
The first few weeks of school bring an exhaustion all their own. While it might be tempting to give into the adrenaline-fueled urge to power through and go full tilt, don’t. Build stopping and breathing (and eating and sleeping) into your schedule. Remember, the school year is a marathon. And, if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of your students.
Remember that they’re not really in your grade yet.
This is true regardless of which grade you teach. Second grade? You have end-of-year first graders. Tenth grade? You have end-of-year freshmen. Comparing the kids sitting in front of you to the ones you sent to the next level last spring is unfair and will only overwhelm both you and your students. You had a whole year to whip that last bunch into shape. Meet your new kids where they are and have faith you’ll take this bunch where they need to go, too.
Do unto others.
Think about what alleviates your first day jitters. How can you apply that to your students? While you can’t offer them coffee, you can clue them into what you do to manage your jitters. In fact, letting them know that the first day makes you nervous, too, humanizes you and gives them permission to feel the same way.
Greet them at the door.
Just because we know our way around the building and who teaches in which room doesn’t mean our students do. Many returning students will know exactly where to go on the first day, and will help those who look confused, but, depending on the size of your building, a fair number of students, both old and new, may have trouble finding their way. Make it easy for them to find you and associate you with the room in which they’ll be spending their year.
The advice not to smile until October is overrated (and that’s a long time to keep a straight face if school starts in August!) Break the ice for you and for them by starting the year with a warm welcome.
Give them a little space to explore.
So often, we advise students to “find your desk.” Consider revising that direction: how about “Find your desk, then take a few minutes to look around the room?” Chances are you spent a lot of time putting your classroom together to create an inviting learning environment. Why not give them a few minutes to check out your work? Maybe even have a jigsaw puzzle or other activity available for them so they can interact with one another and break the ice?
Answer their questions.
Sure, you’ve got a whole speech prepared, but you might alleviate a lot of concerns if you start out by asking them what’s on their minds. While it’s possible you’ll draw blank stares, you might also get a few high level concerns out of the way right off the bat.
Talk them through the routines.
Focus on highlights and expectations and save the heavy duty rules and regulations for later on in the week. What do they need to know to get through the first day?
Tell them the most important things.
Think like a kid, or an educator plopped into the middle of a conference in an unfamiliar hotel. What time is lunch? Where are the bathrooms? Do they get a bathroom break, or just use it at will? What time is recess? How will they find their bus at the end of the day?
Keep it light.
Yes, school is a place to learn and a place to work, not a place to be entertained, but remember that you’re building a bridge from summer fun to nine months of learning. Keep expectations high, but emphasize the things that last year’s class loved. Giving kids something to look forward to makes it easier for them to get excited about what lies ahead, even when it’s not sandy beaches and sun-drenched mountaintops.
Maybe even make a few, and point them out, using your sense of humor. Many kids who exhibit first day jitters are worried about meeting expectations. If you make it clear from the outset that mistakes are not only allowed, but one of the ways we learn, you might just help them to reduce the pressure they put on themselves. At the very least, they’ll worry less about disappointing you.
The first day of school is the door to the school year. Decorate it liberally, open it wide and extend a smile and a hand to the group who’ll fill your classroom seats and let them know you’re all in this together.
When it’s more than just jitters: School Refusal
While a few tears — okay, maybe even a lot of tears with little ones— are a normal part of first day jitters, kids whose jitters don’t subside after the first few weeks might be dealing with something more deeply rooted. Often, these kids are struggling with fears we can’t eradicate with a smile, a jigsaw puzzle or the promise of planting seeds in the school vegetable garden in the spring. While this shouldn’t stop us from trying everything in our usual bag of tricks, we also shouldn’t be surprised when the precise trick we need isn’t in the bag. Involving other professionals, such as the school counselor and/or the school psychologist, is often the best approach for everyone involved. Both you and the student gain a much-needed support system, as well as someone who can connect families to resources outside of school. For children whose fears go beyond new school year jitters, the most successful approach is one that involves parents, school staff and any other professionals who are working with the family. By creating an action plan that ensures everyone is working together, everyone involved is better equipped to help the child manage his or her fears.
For more information, visit the Anxiety and Depression Association of America website.
Lisa Lawmaster Hess is an adjunct professor of psychology at York College of Pennsylvania and a former elementary-school counselor.
Image credit: Shutterstock 251933839
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