Reflecting on Live Routines

What to do when your classroom routines aren’t working

By Rachel Wilser

By now, you’re probably back in school, and you’ve probably been back for anywhere from a few weeks to almost a month. It’s likely in this time that some things you’ve planned have gone really well, and it’s equally likely some things have flopped (which is TOTALLY okay, for the record). In July, we talked about planning classroom routines before the school year starts, so that you’re ready to go when kids show up on day one. Now, I want to revisit those same routines and talk about what’s working and what’s not.

I want to say this now, in case no one else has told you this yet this year: if you have a routine that’s not working, FIX IT. Do not ignore it. If you ignore routines that aren’t working, it will slowly make you miserable.

One routine that always drives me crazy, no matter how much I tweak it, is pencil sharpening. It just drives me nuts. I know that we need pencils, and that you can’t write with broken pencils, but the constant desire to sharpen pencils that are essentially in perfectly fine condition really drives me crazy. Also? Where are all these pencils going?! How did you have a pencil five minutes ago, and now it’s literally nowhere to be found?! Pencils!!

I’m not trying to be dramatic, but I think pencil management is one of my least favorite parts of elementary classroom teaching. So I think we’ve pretty well established that pencil routines are important to me. I teach them pretty early on in school, and CONSTANTLY REVISE if they’re not working. I think my first year teaching I thought it would be fine if I just let kids sharpen their pencils whenever. I honestly think that lasted less than one day. The way I ultimately came to manage pencils is sort of a three-pronged system.

I number students in my classroom. It was always helpful to me, and my students, so they would get their number on the first day of school. On the first day, it was essentially ABC order, but as students transitioned in and out of our class it would always drift away from ABC order. In any case, students would get numbered supplies (pencils included) on day one. They would usually get 4 to 6 pencils, depending on how many kids were in our class and the sales on pencils I was able to find during back-to-school time. Each pencil had their number, and they were all sharpened and placed in their table bin. If their pencil broke, they would place it in the “Sharpen” box at their table. (I used empty Crystal Light containers for this, and would affix them to each table.)

At the beginning of the school year, I would sharpen all pencils at lunch time, but as the year went on I would get students to sharpen them during Quiet Time, or at the beginning of recess. Pencils would not be sharpened again until after school. If you couldn’t find a pencil, you asked a friend to lend you a pencil. If you still had all your pencils on Friday, you got a small prize (a sticker or something equivalent). This continues ad infinitum. This was the pencil routine that worked for me. And I probably tried dozens before I cobbled this together. It took lots of trial and error, and that’s FINE. There’s no problem in telling your students, or your self, that a particular routine isn’t working.

Another routine that took quite a bit of tweaking to find something that stuck, for me, was pack-up and dismissal. Our school dismissed at 3:15, so I usually started pack-up between 3 and 3:05. My classroom was in the corner, at the far side of the building, so we left through the door closest to us and walked around the outside of the school to the front (unless it was pouring rain). We would put bus riders on the bus as we passed the bus line, and then the rest of us would go to the front of the school and wait for parents, siblings, or family members to pick up the other kids. After all the walkers were gone, I would walk After Care students into the cafeteria myself. Usually, the whole process took from 3:15 to 3:45.

One thing that helped during pick up was playing low key games with my students. Dismissal is sort of an antsy time, and because we wait outside students want to run around, but I could usually pass at least some of the time playing games like “I Spy,” “Buzz,” or “Higher, Lower” with them. I would also let kids read books during dismissal.

Establishing routines is an incredibly important part of the back-to-school season. Don’t get so distracted by moving to instruction that you gloss over routines, and don’t be afraid to adjust routines that aren’t working! Routines are the backbone of your classroom, but they’ll only work as well as you let them.

Image credit: Shutterstock 208672303

Image credit: Shutterstock 208672303

Rachel Wilser has spent the better part of a decade in classrooms around the country — in private, public, charter, elementary, and middle schools. Now, she chases twins and drinks coffee while planning her return to the classroom.

Image credit: Shutterstock 208672303

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