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Back to School Elementary Teacher Tips

As Elementary school teachers around the world embark upon another school year campaign, students are welcomed back to glistening room decorations, creative learning spaces, and an array of different learning tools. Although Elementary teachers’ decorations and classroom layouts may look relatively simple or perhaps somewhat random, most teachers I know really take the time to plan their classrooms and activities in a very intentional, thoughtful way that will best drive student learning. So, whether you’re a teacher looking for new tips or a parent looking to understand what goes on in the minds of teachers as they prepare for the school year, take a look at the following lessons I’ve learned over the years.

Physical Classroom Layout

The physical layout of the classroom is a very important factor for teachers to consider. Since young children can have relatively short attention spans, good Elementary teachers always like to keep a variety of different activities and stations ready that will accommodate and be conducive to students’ physical movement around the room. As a teacher, I’m also moving around the room a lot, so it’s important that students are able to clearly see the learning activity, whether they’re at their desks or in a common seating area. Here are some other important considerations to take in mind:

  • Can all students see the board(s)?
  • Can all students learning English see the board and tools they need?
  • Can the students get out quickly in case of a fire alarm or some other unforeseen emergency?
  • Do students have enough personal space?
  • Is there space to move about the room without running into things?
  • Are there any sharp edges that could potentially harm children?
  • Is the room split into sections? Such as play and academic?
  • Are there centers? Writing, Reading, and Tech center?
  • Are the tools needed to learn easily accessible and easy to put away?
  • Is there a space for quiet alone time?
The physical classroom layout can often be an overlooked yet important variable for teachers to successfully manage the flow and coordination of classroom activities.
Empty school classroom in cartoon style. Education concept without students. 3d render interior illustration. Back to school design template.

Curriculum, Instruction, and Planning

Once teachers have a physical classroom layout that can serve a variety of different learning styles and activities, it’s time to ensure that lessons are planned that are engaging, aligned to standards, and connect with students’ learning styles. Although a Kindergarten teacher may have taught the same grade level for the past twenty years, let me assure you that his or her lessons always evolve and adapt each year depending on student dynamics, class size, state standards, available materials, and reflection on their previous years of teaching. Effective teachers always take the time to prepare, plan, reflect, and share their lessons so that they can get better each year and improve their craft. Here is a checklist that I have found useful in starting to think about planning lessons for the new school year:

  • Are there any curricular aspects to learn, review, or experiment with?
  • Exploring with new materials and ensuring familiarity
  • Conversation/discussion with colleagues around curriculum hardships and successes
  • Planning themes, units, lessons at a holistic level
  • Writing learning objectives
  • Writing learning objectives in kid-friendly language
  • Where will the learning objectives be posted in the classroom?
  • What will feedback look like?
  • What will assessments look like?
  • What will projects look like?
Designing and delivering engaging lesson plans is a function of teachers’ studying curriculum, collaborating with colleagues, and crafting aligned assessments and learning activities.
Designing and delivering engaging lesson plans is a function of teachers’ studying curriculum, collaborating with colleagues, and crafting aligned assessments and learning activities.

Tools in the Classroom

Everything in the classroom should have a purpose and place in the learning process. Safety and proper use is also an important aspect for children to learn as they continue to develop their motor skills and learn to share with their classmates. As I prepare for each new school year, I always like to make a detailed revision of the learning tools that I have in the classroom and consider the following factors:

  • Do students know the difference between a tool and a toy?
  • Are the tools being used appropriately to learn?
  • Are the right tools available and easily accessible?
  • Do students know the expectations of how to use the tool?
  • Do students know what will happen if and when the tool is not used correctly? (Think of a student hitting a classmate’s arm with a ruler)
  • Are tools being put away?
  • Are different tools out so students have choices? (Example: number line vs. a number grid)
  • Are students accessing tools on their own? (Later on in the year, this is the goal)

Rituals and Routines

A school year is long, and the most effective Elementary teachers I know are able to quickly develop strong rituals and routines with their students. Effective rituals and routines give a sense of purpose to students, promote organization, and most importantly, maximize instructional learning time. Over the course of 180 days, a few minutes gained here and there because your classroom has good routines really adds up! Here are some suggestions to have thought-out, intentional, and taught routines in your classroom to begin the year right:

  • Figuring out transitions in hallways
  • The rules of three (little kids only remember up to three rules at home and at school)
  • Expectations during different parts of the day such as: morning meeting vs. math vs. reader’s workshop
  • Read aloud expectations
  • Expectations when working with a partner
  • How to participate in a whole group
  • What happens when a rule is broken?
  • Logical consequences
  • Writing reflections
  • Bathroom breaks
  • Water breaks
  • Arriving to school and knowing what to do
  • Dismissing and knowing how to pack up
Teacher wellness is paramount: happy teacher, happy class!
Teacher wellness is paramount: happy teacher, happy class!

Teachers Taking Care of Themselves

Although students are always our focus, it’s important for teachers to take care of themselves, too. Sometimes teachers are so committed to their class and their students that they will run themselves into the ground with both physical and mental exhaustion. A tired or cranky teacher isn’t fun for anyone, so when I feel mentally or physically fatigued, I always like to pull back and remind myself to take care of my health – both for my own sake as well as for the students! Effective teachers can keep their energy up by:

  • Changes outside the classroom can make a huge impact on how each day flows and how much happiness is found in each day.
  • Sleep management (manage sleep cycles so one doesn’t wake up in the middle of a sleep cycle in the morning)
  • Working out right after school: teachers often need to be at school EARLY, ranging between 7:00-7:45. Thus, many teachers choose to work out right after school to release stress, transition from work to home, and have fun.
  • Drinking lots of water: teachers drink lots of water as they are talking many, many times a day and the voice can get exhausted and hoarse
  • Meditating or relaxing time. On the bus, or over the lunch break. Before work, on the way home. (Calm app and Head Space are what I have used)
  • Practicing a hobby that brings fun and lifelong learning into the weekly routine. Whether it’s boxing, sailing, dancing, knitting, learning to do something that excites you.
  • Fruits: snacking throughout the day on fruits for that natural sugar and vitamins – very important in dark, cold locations in the dead of winter.
  • Set an intention for the day: today I will ___________. Return to that intention at the end of the day.
  • Set boundaries with devices: outside of the work day, when are you checking emails and responding to co-workers and parents? When are you not?
  • Caffeine: fake it till you make it. If you don’t have the energy naturally, teachers turn to coffee or tea. Just like other professionals. It helps make the day more fun with little children when the energy is high and flowing (natural energy tablets are awesome too for dropping into water).
  • Play some dope jams (Obama’s playlist) before school to get in the mood. Make a before school playlist on Spotify or Youtube it and play it before the kids pop in.

Elementary teachers get to have all the fun: playing and learning with kids all day, seeing light bulbs go off, and watching students literally grow up before our eyes. Yet, sometimes parents, principals, and students don’t appreciate or understand the tremendous amount of detail and preparation it takes for a successful year. So, if you happen to arrive to school early and see your kid’s Elementary teacher rocking out with blasting music while drinking a double shot espresso, just know it’s because we’re getting pumped up for another awesome day with your child!

This article is available and can be accessed in Spanish here.

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