Near Year: It really is new (even for teachers!) (Part 3)

In Part 1 of this January-is-back-to-school series, I talked about checking your kids’ progress against your year-long goals and laying out the plans for dramatic academic success.  In Part 2, I talked about resetting your overall classroom norms, expectations, and consequences.  In Part 3, I’ll address those daily moments that can, taken together, make or break your year: routines and procedures.

As I’ve mentioned before, kids are like aliens: they are new to the planet, and they don’t really know how anything works yet.  They don’t know how to do anything you haven’t taught them how to do.  If you want them to line up, sharpen pencils, take out their folders, answer questions, read a book, or have a discussion, you have to show them how to do it and help them practice.  When your kids understand your expectations for day-to-day routines, everything runs smoothly.  When they are not on the same page as you, every event, from sitting on the rug to turning in papers, is going to be a constant, frustrating battle.

First, identify 1-3 times of day that things seem to fall apart–when do your kids get off task?  Do they just stop listening to you after recess?  When does all productivity seem to grind to a halt?  Name these events, and define their beginning and end: this is the event for which you will be developing a procedure.

Second, imagine exactly how you’d like this time of day to unfold.  What would kids be doing?  Where would they physically be standing?  What materials would they need?  Where should they be looking?  How loud would they be?  It’s helpful to write this down for at least one procedure, using the mnemonic: bodies, hands, eyes, mouths.  Remember that this is in service to your academic and social goals for your kids.  I once went on a power trip where I wanted my kids to be silent basically ALL THE TIME.  Mistake.  They hated it, and even though I could get them to do it, we were all miserable.  Letting your kids talk quietly as they come into the room might make it easier for them to be quiet during your math lesson.  Allow them as much freedom as they can handle, but clearly define what the correct behavior looks like.

Third, teach the routine to your kids and practice it!  Name the procedure, demonstrate it and describe what you’re doing, and coach kids to perform it.  (A poster helps too–see the featured image for this post.)  You might have a small group model how to transition back to their desks, while others check their performance against the procedure as explained.  Then have everyone try.  Narrate what you are seeing, making explicit reference to the criteria.  If kids don’t do it correctly, have them repeat it.  Make sure you keep it very positive!  You don’t want to fall into fuming, “WE WON’T GO TO LUNCH UNTIL WE LEARN HOW TO CONTROL OURSELVES IN LINE!!!”  This makes everyone unhappy.  Instead, make it a positive challenge.  They’ll buy it if you sell it!  “Wow, scholars, that was great!  You followed step 1, stand up and step 2, push in your chair perfectly.  We need to work on step 3: walk right to the line.  Let’s try one more time!  Who can remind us how to do it the right way?”

Fourth, follow through!  Sometimes it can seem silly to spend this much time working on these bits and pieces of classroom life, but it pays off.  If you focus on the purpose of the routines–to create the environment for learning and growth to occur productively–you’ll see that they buy you so much time in the long run.  Be careful with consequences: kids who are outright defying your expectations are breaking the class norms and need to have a conversation with you and a parent.  But mostly, kids are either unsure of the correct routine or unsure whether you really mean it.  They need practice, consistency, and positivity from you.  I’ve seen wonderful things happen by using a timer to keep track of how quickly kids accomplish transitions, and celebrating their progress!

Remember, to eliminate headaches around daily classroom events: define trouble spots, describe the ideal, teach & practice the new routine, and follow through.  You don’t have to wait for September to start over–you can start tomorrow!