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Create Wow Moments and A+ Days That Last All Year!

A Back-to-School Guide

It’s that one glorious time of year when new and veteran teachers, administrators, and education support professionals (ESPs) are drawn together by that much-anticipated milepost: the first day of school.

On the following pages, we offer ideas for first-year and veteran educators. You’ll find tips for conducting class, managing your classroom, and making fresh-faced students feel comfortable. NEA members will also share grassroots organizing suggestions on how to advocate for your students and school by getting active in your local Association.


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Here’s how some educators kick off the new school year, welcome students, and recruit new members for their local Associations.

Welcome New Teachers and ESPs

“As a literacy coach for our school, I mentor all new English teachers. Though most conversations revolve around classroom management and pedagogy, I always encourage [educators] to attend our CTA (California Teachers Association) luncheons and meetings. As new educators, CTA can be their voice. When discussing CTA, I like to hear about their love and support of the teaching profession. I then tie that passion in with CTA’s mission. I do the same with ESPs, who are equally committed to the education and safety of our students. We have an interesting job…surrounded by youth, a parent’s most precious commodity. For the sake of the students, we need to make sure clarity can be found when there are disputes between district administrators and school staff. To me, CTA equals clarity. And clarity equals strength.”

‘Something’ to Break the Ice

“We have six feeder schools to our high school. Many of our kids don’t know one another on day one and tend to clique with their eighth-grade buddies. To mix up this grouping in the classroom, I buy two decks of cards. The first deck I split up and tape to each desk. The second deck gets passed out randomly at the door. Students find their seat when they find their match. We then move into the “something” interview. I hand out a paper that says, “Five Things: Something everyone knows about me, something most people know about me, something some people know about me, something a few people know about me, and something no one knows about me.” I split the kids in half and number them off. They find their matching number and interview that person using the five prompts. After the interview, they introduce that person to the class. This breaks down barriers, gets the kids thinking about how people perceive them, and gives many of us the few laughs we need to break the tension of the first day!”

“I try to touch base with each new staff member and tell them about our local organization. I explain how we are affiliated with the Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA). One of the things I try to emphasize is dues deduction. If you start having dues taken out of your paycheck at the beginning of your career, you really never miss the money. In exchange, you get a voice at the table helping to improve the teaching profession, student outcomes, and working conditions at school. I encourage prospective members to visit TSTA and NEA Web sites to see how members are enhancing the quality of public school education across the nation, and to explore professional development opportunities and other resources open to members.”   

1,2,3…Grades are Done!

Connecting with my students and calling them by name on the first day is essential.

It makes me feel like I am off to a good start. Learning names can come naturally, but it can help to place name tags on their desks. Then, there is my student number system. It is a lifesaver. Students receive a number corresponding to their place in the alphabet. From day one, students know their number and use it to line up. The number also corresponds to their place in the grade book. As students hand in papers, I call out their numbers. Eventually, they just know when to come up and hand them in because they are so used to the number system. Once I have the papers in order, they are easy to record in the grade book. I just flip through, and the work of recording the grades is done. Of course, the number system is for managerial purposes. Bulletin board displays at the beginning of the year should include student pictures. As I hang each photo, I am reminded of the name of each person I am fortunate to have in my class.

Conduct Class Like a Pro

Streamlined classroom procedures allow more time for teaching and learning. To keep the wheels turning in the right direction from the beginning, try this:

  • Don’t introduce too many topics on the first day. Think through and organize the way you want to deliver the content before you enter the room.
  • Quickly learn and use students’ names.
  • Consider what you will have students do during those first critical days of school. If it helps, write out your directions before you say them out loud.
  • Set long-term goals and keep them in mind as you do your daily planning. 
  • Give students their next assignment before you collect or return papers. 
  • Don’t interrupt students while they are on task. 

“I’m a big proponent of teamwork, whether it be with my colleagues and students’ parents, or with students themselves. In a classroom, teachers are the leaders. While I might be the one who plans lessons, it helps classroom efficiency when I can get input from students about what lessons are working as I planned and which ones failed to take hold. I hope the approach also encourages students to think critically, to assess and understand how some lessons or techniques or methods work better than others under particular circumstances. It also lets them know they have a stake in classroom efficiency. My students might be only fourth graders, but when I invite their input, they often astonish me with their fresh ideas and insights.”

Climate Matters

The first step in creating your classroom’s climate is deciding how you want the room to look and feel. As you answer the following questions, consider the activities you want your classroom to support.

  • Must your classroom be neat (orderly rows, clean boards, limited clutter), or can you stand a more spontaneous look?  
  • What do you want your desk and surroundings to say about you? Perhaps you want to send a message that says: “I’m neat and efficient. I don’t worry about clutter, but I like some order.” Or, maybe you want your environment to communicate something like “I like flowers and color everywhere. I value students’ work and enjoy displaying it.” Your decorating scheme is a way for students to learn about your personality and values. It’s also a statement of your interests, which could reveal common interests with your students.
  • How do you want students to turn in their work? Do you want them to put it into your hands because it’s easier for you to monitor, into baskets to stay organized, or via email because it helps you to manage clutter? Let them know.

The Band Plays On

From the first day of class I try to set the right tone for the year. For example, I’ll put on a rousing John Philip Sousa marching song to invigorate them and impress that they are in a room where music is practiced, played, and enjoyed. I’ll lay out the course for the year so they will understand playing an instrument takes focus, concentration, and discipline. You can’t be too loose with students on day one. I’ll talk a little about how music relates to math, English, history, and all academic subjects. I will also photograph them as soon as possible and then study their names at home until I know all 270 of them.


Build Union Spirit

Is this the year you become a local leader? Yes!

  • Approach a new colleague and explain current workplace issues at your school. They probably don’t know how local and state Associations function and what they are doing for students, educators, and the community.
  • Be sure to tell new colleagues what you do to stay active in the local Association and advocate for the school, students, and fellow members.
  • Invite new colleagues to the first Association meeting. Be prepared to introduce them to the group.
  • Engage offline with a new educator. Ask them what they think they need to succeed. And give them the insert from this magazine.

“My background as an English teacher helps me organize my thoughts and speak clearly and reasonably when I’m representing [the Greenville Education Association (GEA)].”

“As the school’s character education leader, I attend new teacher orientation every year,” she says. “It is at this meeting where I welcome new teachers and talk to them about character education and Association meetings.”

At school, Stowers is the faculty sponsor of an anti-bullying program, a student talent show fundraiser for students who are low-income, and Give Back Day, where students volunteer to spend a day doing community service. Last April, Stowers signed up more than 200 students who went into town to clean streets, paint buildings, plant flowers, and more.

“Lorna is an extraordinary person,” says Marcus Albrecht, IEA Region 5 UniServ Director. “She shows how being active in her local, her school, and community work hand in hand.”

Last May, Stowers received the Outstanding Teacher Award at the IEA Region 5 Awards Banquet. She was selected for the award based on her classroom, community, and Association activities.

“I have spoken with many teachers about taking a more active roll in GEA, but only after I get to know them,” she says. “It’s not a good idea to bombard new teachers with too many things right off the bat. I think they need time to settle in.” 

“The communication skills required to teach literature and writing are helpful in my work on the communications team. I also draw on my 17 years of experience as a debate coach, which means I consider everything I write or say from the view of those on my side and those opposed to me. This enables me to craft more solid messages that are more likely to be well received by the people I want to reach. Years of teaching kids to handle cross examination also helps me when we go door to door seeking community support on education issues.”

In 2015, Reed helped to lead a successful effort to oust three school board members whose efforts to censor the U.S. history curriculum sparked district-wide protests and school walkouts.

“However,” she says, “I want to stress that you don’t have to be a good debater to talk to people about your profession and the great work of your Association. You just have to believe in it.”

When Working with Building Representatives

“I stay in close contact with our two awesome building reps. Usually, one of us approaches each new teacher in the first few days before kids arrive. I work at a school where we pride ourselves on being very welcoming, so this gives us a chance to welcome folks to our building and say, “By the way, have you had a chance to join JCEA (Jefferson County Education Association)?” 

When a New Colleague Agrees to Join

“We make sure they know who our building union leaders are and open up lines of communication.”

When a Non-member says ‘No Thanks!’

“If they don’t join right away, one of the three of us follows up—but not the one who did the initial approach. We kind of tag team. Our conversations are always guided by whatever the new teacher’s or new ESP’s concerns and interests are. We follow the 20/80 rule: Talk 20 percent of the time—listen 80. We also stay in touch with “potential members” as we in JCEA call them. We have had teachers take almost all year to decide to join, so never give up!”

A Few Final Words

“It’s great to build a personal learning network to reach beyond your borders and seek out ideas that reflect a global perspective,” says NEA Today technology columnist, Gwyneth Jones, a.k.a. The Daring Librarian.

To make those connections, Jones recommends Skype for Education, Skype an Author, Mystery Skype, and Google Hangouts. For more information, search #MysterySkype on Twitter, visit the Microsoft in Education webpage about Mystery Skype. For more geeky tips, see Jones’ technology column on Page 20. To learn how to set up a Mystery Skype session, read Illinois teacher Paul Solarz’s blog post at nea.org/solarz.  


Gear Up!

Think your Smartphone and desktop computer can solve all your classroom problems? No? Well, neither do we. While a YouTube video can exhibit how to remove stubborn staples from a wall, you’ll need a hand tool of some sort to get the job done. Keep reading to see what some of your colleagues might have stashed in their classroom toolbox.

What are we missing? Share your digi and non-digi survival ideas at nea.org/survive.

Be Prepared

Andrew Campbell, district custodian for Waterford School District in Waterford, Mich., says, “A classroom is an imperfect world. I recommend the following items be kept within reach of any educator wanting to maintain their sanity.”

  • Five-in-one screwdriver, since screws come in different shapes and sizes.
  • WD-40 lubricant for squeaky desktops, door hinges, and window locks.
  • Fishing line for hanging projects from the ceilings.
  • Squirt bottle and extra paper towels to clean desks and counters.
  • Batteries for voice activated microphones and other electronic devices.
  • Child-size broom and dust pan for unexpected messes.
  • Super glue…for almost everything.
  • Velcro strips for wall charts and interchangeable displays.
  • Fly swatter for unwanted guests with wings and spindly legs.
  • Thank you cards to present to your friendly custodians for all the crazy things they are more than happy to help you with.

NEA’s Non-Digital Survival Bag

  • Tool belt with a small pair of needle-nose pliers, stapler, staple remover, scissors, and duct tape.
  • Notepad and pen to jot down quick reminders. The first days of school are so hectic it helps to hit the brakes when possible and write down a “to-do” item before moving on to the next thrill.
  • Chalkboard magnets for that student report with no name on it or poster for brief display.
  • Flashlight. Classrooms sometimes lose their electricity.
  • Stain-remover stick. A quick fix for many accidents.
  • NEA membership card. Okay, you don’t really need this ID in your survival bag, but it can serve as a reminder that your Association colleagues are always available to help with an emergency.

Digital Survival Bag

Smartphone. That’s it. One item. You know its potential. It even talks.

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