When I first started teaching, I felt overwhelmed. Here I was, straight out of college, with virtually no student teaching experience, staring at the reality that in a couple short weeks, I will be left alone in a room with 20 plus 7th graders and expected to keep them alive, and better yet, actually TEACH them something. I had no idea where to start. Thankfully, I had the guidance of older and experienced teachers who shared the best advice which I still utilize today. I needed to start with a vision.
Like all leadership positions, the tone, direction, and culture starts with you. In order for me to lead my students in the classroom, I had to first understand where I wanted to lead them. I had to ask myself, “What type of classroom environment and values do I want to work towards?” I found this effective. I am happy to say that today, my district student survey results are positive with many of the domains over the ditrict average and some of the domains were even over the state average. My students report that they feel respected in my classroom, and I accredit that to starting with these questions, and then working to build systems around them.
I want to share this with you because I truly believe that to have a classroom where all feel welcomed and valued, it must start with being intentional about the questions you ask yourself surrounding what you want to be true for your students. Here are 7 questiong to ask yourself when you begin to plan your year. I hope it helps!
- What is the goal of the year? What do you want students to walk away with when they leave at the end of the year?
I want you to push beyond data and numbers in this question. The skills and habits you want them to leave with is important, but I would also push you to think about personally and professionally how you want them to feel. Because I teach 9th graders, a big part of what I want my students to leave with are skills to reflect and process emotions. This is something that will not only help them to focus on their work more effectively, but also help them to navigate life far beyond my classroom.
- How do you want students to feel when they come into your room?
This is a big one. Though it seems small, whether a student feels welcome, safe, and seen, plays a LARGE role in the overall classroom culture and if a student will be open to tackle new content and ultimately learn. Think of adjectives that you want your students to feel like when they come in. For me, I want my students to feel safe, seen, open, loved, and empowered.
- How do you envision students engaging with the work?
Do you envision your students up, doing hands-on activities, and engaging with manipulatives? Do you see students regularly engaging in sustained silent reading? Students taking charge of their learning and exercising agency and choice? When you picture the perfect student engagement, what do you see? Since I am an English teacher, I see students tackling rigorous texts and engaging in dialogue about their ideas of how the text relates to their lives, and the world at large.
- With what mindset do you envision students approaching problems and difficult situations in your classroom?
Learning does not take place unless you engage with something new and challenging. So, at least for me, approaching problems and difficult situations is the entire point of school! What mindset do you envision your students having when they approach work that may push them out of their comfort zone? What kind of self-talk do you want them to have? What types of resources do you want them to have access to? How do you want them to proceed when they get stuck?
- How do you want relationships to look like in your classroom? What language do you see them using with one another? How do you see conflict being resolved?
Conflict is unavoidable both in your classroom and in life. One of the most important lessons we can make space for in our classroom is how to approach conflict in a healthy way. It is imperative that we are intentional and explicit with students about how we handle conflict. In order to do this, you must flesh out for yourself, how do you see it taking place in the classroom? What level of voice? What language? At what point do they need to involve the teacher or a mediator? How do we move forward?
I would also push you to think through how you want students to celebrate each other and themselves? Do you have a unifying cheer? Are students leaving shoutouts on a shoutout board? Are you ending each classperiod with glows? Being intentional from the start can make celebrating and positive thinking a staple in your classroom. Especially if you teach secondary, don’t assume that this will develop on its own. Intentionality is key!
- What do you want your students to remember from your class when the year is over?
What do you want as the main take away? For me, it was the mindset of “No failure, only data,” And because I started intentionally from the beginning, by the end of the year, I had students quoting it to me when I found myself in a fixed mindset. I would like to think that is what they took with them moving on. What do you want to stick for your students?
- What do the STUDENTS want to be true in their classroom?
I saved this for last, not because it is the least important, but because you cannot ask this question until after the school year starts. Though you want to have a foundational vision when stepping into the year to build systems around, it is extremely important to get the student’s values and input as to what they want their classroom to be because in the end, the classroom is for them. I ask my students at the beginning of the year what their goals are and what they value. What they want to get out of the class, and I make adjustments to be sure that the students can see themselves reflected in our classroom.
After you think through all of the questions, you can begin to build systems around the answers. If you want students to feel seen when they come into your room, maybe build a system where you are at the door greeting them each class period, or start off with a emotional check in for the warmup before jumping into the work. If you envision your students collaborating, set your room up in groups. If you envision students dealing with conflict in a professional way, maybe introduce them to sentence stems and then incentivise their usage. When you know where you’re going, it is easier to know what systems to put in place!
I really hope these questions have been helpful. Remember, you are amazing, and so many students and parents are grateful for you even though, sometimes it might not seem that way. I will see you next time, and in the meantime, remember, you are enough.