It’s the first week back to school. You’re likely at some workshops, listening to hundreds of new ideas – and you’re told every one of them is important. Upon hearing this, your eyes glaze over and you become the proverbial deer in the headlights.
How will you get around to implementing all these new ideas? We’re here to tell you that you don’t have to, and you shouldn’t! The key to a low stress first week of school is FOCUS.
Here are the four most important things to focus on in the first week of school that will set you up for success.
1. Know Your Learning Priorities.
This means “plan for the big things and don’t sweat the small stuff.”
How do you know what’s big and what’s small though?
That’s easy. Look at the course outcomes and decide what’s vital for your students to learn this school year. Your school district might dictate this to you. But, often in special education, you get to decide based on IEP needs and where your kids need to be.
Once you’ve identified what they need to learn, plan backwards with a rough outline on how to get them there.
Anything that doesn’t fit into this plan is “nice to know information.” You can ignore it. It doesn’t matter if it’s something your school is stressing you to integrate. If it isn’t a requirement and it doesn’t help your kids reach their learning objectives, IGNORE IT.
You are the boss of your classroom. You are an expert. You know what your kids need to learn to be successful, functional adults someday. Don’t lose your mind tilting at every windmill that someone else says is important.
I often wasn’t sure what I would be teaching until the week before I taught it. Last-minute schedule changes and special education go together like peanut butter and jelly. This is panic-inducing.
My first step was to look at the levels of my students and the general education guidelines for that class. Then, I would determine what each student needed to progress towards general education.
Sometimes you’ll teach a class without a general education equivalent. When I was teaching freshman strategies, I would think about the skills my students needed from it. I based my outcomes on the skills I observed students lacking, such as the ability to keep a planner and make goals.
Once I knew what my students needed to learn, I focused all my efforts on those things and let everything else go. How freeing!
2. Get Organized!
Famous chef, Alton Brown says, “organization will set you free.” I wasn’t a believer until I became a traveling special education teacher.
I found there are three main areas of organization to focus on:
Organize your physical stuff
This step is the easiest. Think about all the tasks you do and make a place for what you and your students will need.
It’s helpful to have folders and bins for students to turn in their work and for passing out graded work.
Put your materials back in the same place every time. Label those spots. Never have two places where something goes.
When I was a traveling teacher, I had a crate that was a classroom on wheels that I toted around with me. I had folders inside it for each classroom, a place for my computer, pencils, pens and highlighters. Before I left each class, I collected all my things and put them back where they came from. In fact, my students often helped me. They appreciated being able to find what they needed in the crate fast.
The time I saved by having what I was looking for when I was looking for it was immeasurable.
No one system is going to work for everyone. The key is to think of your needs and the needs of your students and to make a system that meets those needs. Continue to tweak it until you have a system that works for you.
Organize your digital stuff
Organize your digital things just as well as your physical things.
Any time spent looking for things in a messy filing system is time you could be focusing on your learning priorities.
I recommend choosing a platform and creating a filing system that works best for your needs. I chose to put all my files on Google Drive. I liked the flexibility of it syncing my files between the school’s computers and my personal laptop.
If you do most of your work on a school computer, you may want to use your district’s server or a USB flash drive.
Whatever system you decide to use, make sure your files follow consistent naming conventions and you use separate folders for different topics (IEPs, lesson planning, professional development, etc.).
Set aside five minutes a day to clean up your files. Move any files that have piled up on your desktop and in your downloads to their correct folders.
Your reward will be files that are easy to find, and tons of time saved throughout the year.
Organize your time
Routines aren’t only for your students – they can also be a great way to simplify your work life.
Having daily activities in your class like bell work can give you extra time to take care of things.
Put systems in place for everyday annoyances like how your students access their bathroom passes. This will save you time and hassle from disruptions.
Structure your prep time with daily and weekly routines. For example, you could check your email in the morning, lesson plan on Mondays and work on IEPs on Tuesdays.
Organizing my time helped me prioritize my tasks and lower my stress. It made me feel confident that everything had a time and a place.
3. Know your non-negotiables in your classroom
You are the boss of your classroom (or the co-boss if you co-teach). It’s important to know what your non-negotiables are. These are the things that drive you nuts and prevent you from functioning as a teacher.
A non-negotiable could be when someone sharpens a pencil when you’re talking. Or, it could be when students forget to silence their phones before they come to class.
Decide what those things are with your students and feel free to be a control freak about them. Continue to enforce them for your mental health.
For me, students packing up before the bell rang and pooling at the door made me have heart palpitations. I couldn’t handle it. I wanted to be the “cool” teacher who let her class go with the flow, but this one thing was non-negotiable.
I realized that I had to have a routine in place to limit this behavior and give me back my sanity! I allowed my students five minutes to pack up and clean up by setting a timer. I established this routine in every class I taught. Students quickly learned the routine. When they didn’t follow it there were clear consequences – for every minute they started packing up early, they would have to stay a minute after the bell.
It only took a couple of times of staying after the bell before the kids knew that this was a non-negotiable for me. After that, it was automatic.
While setting up and enforcing your own rules is important, you also have my permission to ignore any rules you don’t agree with. Rules that don’t serve your students are distracting and have no place in your classroom!
4. Be yourself!
To connect with your students, bring at least part of your authentic self to the classroom. You must also maintain professionalism, but it is possible to find a balance.
My peers told me when I first started teaching how I needed to be. I had to be hard, never sharing anything about myself. A good teacher had to act a certain way, and my nerdy, over-excited self was not it.
They told me my experiences weren’t appropriate unless they were 100% positive.
Over time, I learned that not all good teachers had to be school-worshipping robots. What a big difference it made!
When I was a student, I felt like I could never be myself, and I hated it. I failed my freshman and sophomore years in high school and went to a charter school.
Being a kid is hard, and my students appreciated knowing that I wasn’t always perfect.
The fact that I was open about my shortcomings, and that I had a life outside of school was reassuring to my students. Someone who they could relate with managed to do ok for herself without being perfect, so they could too.
Being human with my students made them more human to me. It made them more likely to share difficult things they were going through. It also helped them to be more accepting of each other.
Being myself was my way of modeling the kind of adult I wished for in the world when I was their age. And it made a world of difference with my students.
Also, who likes the pressure of waking up and trying to be someone they’re not every day? How exhausting!
Don’t believe it when you hear that every new idea is equally important this school year. Whether you’re a new or returning teacher, that’s a quick way to get overwhelmed! Focus on these essentials instead:
Know your learning priorities. Get organized. Know your non-negotiables. Be yourself.
Following these steps will free up more of your time and help to lower your stress.
If you’re having trouble with that whole work-life balance thing, see our blog on it here.
Need to start the year out right? Try our beginning of the school year packet: