Ah, the smell of new notebooks, freshly sharpened pencils, and clean classrooms. Everywhere you look there are clothing sales, Labor Day barbecues, and parents checking off supply lists. Now, maybe I’m alone, but when I see all of this, I only have one thought: “Back-to-school season sucks!” If you, too, get the back-to-school blues, here are some tips for approaching the first day of school.
My History with Back-to-School Season
I’m not like other teachers. Maybe this is one of those fundamental differences between primary and secondary teachers. Maybe it’s just the extra dash of cynicism that I personally bring to the profession. But I absolutely hate the back-to-school season.
Administrative paperwork, learning names, getting-to-know-you games, and classes in which I do the majority of the talking: these top my list of Things I Hate About Teaching.
These also top the list of Everything that Must Be Done in the First Two Weeks of School. (See my post on teaching with social anxiety.)
Blegh. I spend the first half of September longing for the days in which procedures are in place and work is getting done. I even look forward to students having missing work! Then, they can’t give me that “But I have nothing to do!” line while texting on their phones.
However, we all must get through the beginning of the year (or semester) in order to get to the good stuff. Here are some of my tips for making it as painless as possible.
Beat the Back-to-School Blues Tip #1: Don’t Compare Yourself to Others
There are always enthusiastic teachers out there overdoing it, and making the rest of us look bad. You’ve seen the Instagram posts. Some teachers seem to work full-time during the summer trying to transform their concrete and barren rooms into magical and cozy environments. Their classrooms are better decorated and more organized than our kitchens at home. It’s hard to feel adequate next to them with a couple of lousy posters on the wall.
Ignore them. They’re not normal. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else–just prioritize readying anything you and your students will need to be successful. A classroom theme will not help prepare your students for the real world any more than a couple of store-bought posters will. Do what you can, but don’t focus on the cosmetics. Instead, make sure your first week is planned, you know what procedures you want to introduce, and you yourself are ready to show up and bring it.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t spend the time decorating if it makes you happy and will make coming to work easier. But just remember no one sane is spending hours and hours doing unpaid, DIY projects for work.
Beat the Back-to-School Blues Tip #2: Have Something to Look Forward To
And I don’t mean winter break.
Having things to look forward to and work for is essential to getting through the slog of everyday life. This could be an extravagant vacation, but it could also be a date night, lunch with a bestie, or a Netflix and ice cream binge. Knowing there’s more to life than work and grading essays is more than important–it’s essential.
If you’re really dreading going back to work, maybe choose something you love to teach to cover first. Shakespeare can wait. Start off with a novel or concept that gets you jazzed!
I hate going back to school, but I love, love, love Halloween. Knowing that September also means decorating, carving pumpkins, and watching horror movies makes me dread the end of summer a little less. It’s also an excuse to teach some fun horror stories!
Beat the Back-to-School Blues Tip #3: Focus on the Kids
I admit, I struggle with this. I’m just no good at building relationships (any relationships) when I’m stressed out (and I’m stressed out all of September!). I feel like this is a weakness of mine, but I’ll share what has helped me in the past.
On the first day of class, try to get kids working on something independently. (The “About Me” station in these back-to-school stations is perfect!) This will give you time to walk around and chat with the kids. Try to comment and ask questions as you walk around the room. (“Oh! You have four siblings! Mealtimes must be crazy!”).
This is also a great time to front-load some positive reinforcement with your students. Students feel good hearing how excited you are to meet them or how impressive their introductory letter was. Early compliments help instill pride in their work and demonstrate your expectations in a positive way.
For example, if a student is organized on the first day, I’ll gush over it. Any great writing during that first week gets extra praise in the comments. Tell students how excited you are to have them in class. Seeing your excitement will make them happier to be there, too.
(Tip: try to avoid complimenting appearances. Unless they really are rocking a fantastic look, focus on building kids’ sense of self-worth by focusing on their abilities, not their looks.)
Beat the Back-to-School Blues Tip #4: Plan Lessons that Don’t Revolve Around You
I have pretty bad social anxiety–I know, teaching should have been my last career choice. If I plotted out an entire year of anxiety on a graph, you would see it peaks during the first week of school. I have nightmares, my heart races, and I can’t stop sweating.
Between having twenty pairs of judgemental teenage eyes on me at a time and the pressure of learning a whole bunch of names in just a few days (with partial face blindness) I’m a bundle of nerves.
I have found that my lessons go better, and I’m less stressed when I’m not the focus of the lesson. So plan some activities during that first week of school that don’t depend on you.
The earlier I get students discussing with each other, and working as a team, the sooner I feel at ease. This also provides me with a chance to walk around, quizzing myself on names, and getting to know the students. Once I have a relationship with students, I can relax a lot more.
This Free Back-to-School Scavenger Hunt and my Back-to-School Stations are lifesavers. Students can work independently without you, but you can still guide them and start some conversations.
Beat the Back-to-School Blues Tip #5: Prep Your Year-Long Resources First
It’s tempting to deal with the nitty-gritty day-to-day details first when you’re preparing for a class. It makes sense to want to plan day 1, then day 2, then day 3, but that leaves you in a cycle of planning the night before.
But while it’s still summer, work on those overarching goals, projects, and resources.
For example, I have several independent reading exit tickets that I use with all of my English classes throughout the year. I love having those done every week because then I don’t have to think about it. Knowing my warm-ups for my entire Creative Writing class is done makes me feel good, too.
If you know you’re going to need bell ringers every day, a quiz every week, and a project every quarter, tackle those first.
I also love having all the pieces of a long-term project done (instructions, graphic organizers, rubrics, etc.) because that stuff often takes more work and comes up faster than I ever anticipated.
As you know, the first couple of weeks of the school year are crucial. You probably also know that they can be some of the most stressful.
Focus on planning, organization, and the students, rather than stressing about content. Yes, the curriculum is very important, but so is your sanity (and do we really ever get to everything anyway?). (If you need some help planning a novel study, I have a great post on getting it done quickly right here.)
A Final Word
I love being in the middle of a school year when I know students’ names and they know procedures. But starting anything–especially a new school year–is tough.
It’s also really hard to say goodbye to naps, extra time outdoors, and a flexible schedule.
Use these tips to prepare for the year, focus on the great things to come, and build relationships with your students. If you can do this, then next summer you’ll have a wonderful year to reflect on!