Reflecting on Routines

Spend a few days poolside this summer getting your routines set and ready before your students enter your classroom.

By Rachel Wilser

One of the first things I do after the school year ends is reflect on the routines I had in place the previous year and think about what worked and what didn’t; did something work for part of the year, and then stop working midway through? I like to spend about half an hour just reflecting on the routines I used in my classroom and how they served us throughout the year.

Then, after I’ve reflected, my next step is to make what I call the MASTER ROUTINE LIST. If you teach elementary school, it’s probably pretty long. If you teach middle school it’s probably a little less long. And if you teach high school, well, to be honest, I have no idea what your routine list would look like. I’ve never taught high school. But I’m sure you’re still relying on routines in your classroom, at least a little bit. Before I talk to you about the Master Routine List, I want to give you a pro tip. If you, like me, love going to the pool in the summer, this is 100% a pool-compatible activity. Scope yourself a nice lounger chair, put your sunscreen on, crack open a Diet Coke/sparkling water/beverage of your choice, and pull out your notebook.

The way that I make my Master Routine List is by thinking about my day from the second I pick up students until the moment they get on the bus/their parents pick them up/they go to After Care. So, basically, what I’m thinking about is what routines will I need in place for 25 to 28 tiny humans (plus me) to function comfortably and learn and live in this space? I’m also going to think about our day and places we need to go, and how to get there. I’m doing this reflection right now with you, and I’m listing below the routines I would want to teach my students at the beginning of the school year.

  • Lining up in the cafeteria at breakfast to go upstairs
  • Waiting in line for classroom greeting/entry
  • Entering the classroom and putting away personal belongings (jackets, backpacks, etc.)
  • Turning in homework and folders
  • Parent notes
  • Morning warm up
  • Coming to the carpet for Morning Meeting
  • Leaving the carpet
  • What to do if you can’t find your pencil
  • What to do if your pencil is broken
  • Getting out materials
  • Putting away materials
  • How to read the LWS/MWS board
  • How to work during work stations
  • Turning in work
  • Showing that I’m ready for our next activity
  • Book shopping
  • Independent reading
  • Putting your name on a paper
  • What if you need to use the bathroom
  • Getting ready for lunch and recess
  • Leaving the cafeteria when lunch is over
  • Students transition in and out for pull-out instruction
  • Quiet Time
  • How to use Math manipulatives
  • Going to specials
  • Coming back from specials
  • Snack time
  • Choice Time
  • Pack up and dismissal

This list is definitely not exhaustive. It’s likely that as I plan these routines, I’ll think of more that we need. Once I have this list generated, I’m going to back through with a marker or highlighter and mark routines that I can create independently, and routines that will require another teacher (transitioning in and out for pull-outs, pick up and drop off to specials, and so on). Once I have those routines separated out, I’ll get down to the grittier business of planning out how these routines work. (I’d advise that you be familiar with your classroom space before putting a ton of time into this, because space can really affect your flow and, subsequently, your routines.)

I start at the beginning of the day, and plan each routine throughout the day. For example, I picked up my students from breakfast in the cafeteria. I taught in a Title 1 school, so everyone qualified for breakfast, and almost all students ate breakfast at school. Breakfast ended at 8:00 AM, and everyone after that was late and had to go to the office to get a pass to class. I had breakfast duty one day a week. Breakfast pick-up was something that was set for us, essentially. All teachers had basically an X on the ground, where they would wait. Duty teachers would dismiss their students to line up on their X and then once students were lined up we would head up to class. This routine required little extra planning for me; I basically just had to teach my students the route back to our classroom, and what the expectations are in line (hands at their side, bubbles in their mouth, small space between them and their classmates). My next routine, entering the classroom, is something that requires much more planning on my end.

I had a corner classroom with a short hallway-like entrance that opened to one large square. I had cubbies on 3 walls. The logistics were a little awkward. I also can’t pretend that the first time I drafted our entry routine was an immediate success; it took some tweaking, for sure, but once it was up and running it was a routine that worked really well for me, so I used it year after year. My students stood in line (luckily on a line on the floor, so it helped with spacing and being actually IN the line) while I greeted them individually. Greeting my students individually was always important to me; it gives you 10 seconds of time to put your eyes on every kid as they’re walking into your room, so you can see if anyone looks a little off in the morning. It also controls the flow of students into your room. You don’t have 26 students all trying to enter at once; they’re entering at a somewhat steady pace over the course of several minutes.

Once students were inside, they hang up their backpacks and jackets in their cubbyies and take their homework and folder to their seat with them, where they start their morning work. (To be totally honest, I have a love/hate relationship with morning work, but I found our morning routine worked best when my students had a task. Usually it was just open writing or reading time. But sometimes it was more structured than that.) Students are called by table to turn in their homework and put their folder in the bin. After all tables have turned in their homework and folders, we clean up morning work and tables come one by one to the carpet for morning meeting. At the beginning of the year, it probably takes about 20 minutes for all of this to happen smoothly. After about 6 or 8 weeks of school, we’re down to 10 minutes.

Two more things that are really important about teaching routines.

1. You cannot teach every single routine the first day of school. You need to roll them out slowly over the first several weeks of school. I triage routines when I think about what to teach first. Students need to use the bathroom every day, and the longer I put off that routine the crazier hearing “I need to go to the bathroom!” is going to drive me, so I make sure to teach our bathroom routine the first day of school. Maybe bathroom questions don’t irk you, but you can’t handle when kids want to constantly sharpen pencils, so for you it makes more sense to prioritize a pencil routine.

2. Kids will perform routines the way you enforce them. What I mean here is if you SAY that when you line up you keep your hands to yourself and you use a whisper voice, but you don’t ENFORCE that, then students will line up however they want. I’m not say you need to give out negative consequences, but you do need to hold students accountable. If they aren’t meeting your expectations, do it again. If you don’t make them meet your expectations they won’t, and in 8 or 12 or 20 weeks you’ll be wondering why simple tasks have become so obnoxious. It’s mundane and boring at the beginning of the school year, but it will save so much time over the course of the year.

Routines are a gritty, mundane, sometimes boring, but absolutely essential part of teaching and planning. Spend a few days poolside this summer getting your routines set and ready before your students enter your classroom, and you’ll hit the ground running this year.

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.

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