Veteran teacher Bo Cheli shares his unique approach to the first two weeks of school. Instead of diving into the work, he spends the time building relationships with his new 'colleagues' and getting them to buy in to their shared purpose.
Those Dreaded First Two Weeks
The only people in the world who don't want summer to end even more so than students are their teachers. I'm not just talking about the ''tired'' teachers, or the ones that are simply over the job, but even the newest and most energetic teachers that can't wait to get back into the classroom…even they dread the end of summer. Having summers off, whether they're willing to admit it to you or not, is one of the greatest benefits of being a teacher…end of story.
Maybe they're sad the dog days of summer are over, or maybe they just aren't ready to sprint into the marathon that is the school year, but most teachers dread preparing for those first two weeks of the year. And here's the reason: No matter how prepared you are, no matter how many copies you have made, syllabi you've created, or green sheets that are actually goldenrod you have produced, there is going to be that one teacher that makes you feel as if you are already behind. That one true pedigree that seems to have gotten halfway through the book and has a midterm scheduled for that first Thursday. The one who humbly brags in the lunch room about how quickly their kids are advancing through the curriculum.
On the other side of the spectrum, you're struggling to get the kids started on an assignment and establish some sort of decorum in your room (at least for the first few weeks until the kids totally obliterate it) -- all the while holding a silent vigil for the long-dead days of you waking up and spending time at home with your family, dog, or yourself and your favorite type of coffee.
So wherever you fall or don't fall on this spectrum, here is the solution to making those first week blues go away completely and forever, with only positive and lasting effects for the entire year: Don't start.
Don't start. Don't teach. Don't make one copy. Don't print out a single syllabus. Don't actively try to remember a single name. And whatever you do, don't you dare make a seating chart. Don't teach. Period. Most importantly, let your kids know this on day one. Have fun watching their reactions.
Get to Know Your New ''Colleagues''
My father taught elementary school for forty-two years and loved every single day until his last. He always reminded me of his favorite phrase: ''You need to know your students as well as you know your curriculum if you want them to know it as well as you need them to.'' After four years of trying to teach my way and running like a race horse out of the gates on day one, I finally had a conversation with him about it and completely changed my ways. Ten years later, I still regret not taking his advice sooner.
Those first two weeks should not be dreaded; they should be enjoyed. You are meeting 100-150 new colleagues, and you are all going to spend up to five days a week together in the world's oldest and most treasured symbiotic relationship. We teachers tend to forget that. Some of us even have the audacity to treat it like a job. Like it's something we do five days a week in order to pay the bills, and that these ''clients'' are just a means to an end.
NO, they are our colleagues, and like any colleague in the workplace we must first earn their respect. I believe there was a time when teachers were automatically afforded a certain level of respect by their students on day one, but those days are waning. We are not the great keepers of information like we once were; students don't have to respect us. We do not hold the keys to unlock the knowledge they desperately need to pry from our hands. Instead, we are largely seen as the adversary who is trying to pry that beloved holder of information from their hands, pockets and backpacks.
You have one job those first two weeks, and nothing more: Get to know your new colleagues, and let them get to know you. Be prepared to smile politely at other teachers who scoff at what you are doing. They aren't in your classroom; they can't see the relationships you are building.
While the first two weeks should ultimately be highly customized to you and how you best get to know people, I'll tell you what my father taught me.
The First Week of Class
On the first day of class, I simply sit there at the front. I say nothing and just smile. Eventually, whether it be a day or a few minutes, somebody will ask some form of the question, ''What are we doing?'' I walk over and shake their hand, ask them their name and let them know how wonderful it is to meet them.
Then, I proudly repeat their question to our new family: ''What are we doing here?'' We are now on our way to establishing purpose, community, individuality, and direction. The ensuing class conversation will take anywhere from minutes to days to a week to establish why we are all here. Why is every individual student there? Where would you rather be? A bond will immediately be formed when it is revealed that for the most part, we'd all rather be on summer break.
Nevertheless, it will be your job over this first week to guide the conversation to this end. We're here to learn, and we have all chosen to be here. Albeit for a multitude of different reasons, but we have all at the beginnings of our days chosen to get up, wipe the sleep from our eyes and march down to this place we call school.
It's worth noting at this point that the kids will follow your lead on this. They will be as open and forthcoming as you. So I caution the teacher who is in it for the paycheck but doesn't care about the quality of their teaching. You will be greeted year after year with students who either have no desire to be there or only care about their grades, with no real respect for the quality of their erudition.
Simply put, my first week is a week of welcome where we engage in wonderfully collaborative, sometimes messy, dialogue with one another. Now, while you'll see that students find this a great class to attend, and you're gaining all sorts of quad-cred, you're ultimately learning the ins and outs of every student. You're also not so secretly planning your yearlong individualized learning plan to cater to the learning style of every student.
The Second Week of Class
To the second week. Now, you norm. Now, you continue the conversation with the trust of your colleagues, their eagerness to attend your class, and a common purpose everyone has agreed to. You start to slowly grip the reins of this horse that is getting fidgety in its stall to take off and start some serious learning. (Students may have heard whispers from their friends that their class is ahead of yours.)
Begin a slow and distinct trot. As a salt-worthy teacher, you're going to have your prized list of rules in hand, and this is the week you go over and explain them all. You explain them one by one, hour by hour, and constantly, constantly, constantly, reflect back on why you are all here. Speak to how all of you will follow the rules, especially yourself. Emphasize that these rules are not imposed upon them, but rather in place for the good of the class.
I have my golden 25 rules, and every one of them is as important as the next. However, every class inevitably comes up with new ones, or asks me to alter one for the good of the class. Never do I have a year when all five sections have the same rules. Every class has different students and they are all treated as individual entities - they love and appreciate this more than I can explain. Though every year, every class has the same first rule: We are a Family.
Teachers are no longer holders of the information. We are no longer the great Master that some of us like to think the Mr. or Mrs. implies. We are not our father's or mother's teachers -- heck we're not even our teachers. To be blunt, I'm not even incredibly fond of the term ''teacher.'' Our role has changed, our students have changed, but many of us have not. We still think we're valued to students and society the way we once were. The hard truth is that we are not.
Developing a Shared Understanding
These first two weeks need to be a recalibration of sorts between you and your students. They need to be that bonding experience that will allow us to race through the year at the speed of the software in the students' cellphones. We need to admit that there is not a teacher in the world that knows a scintilla as much as the device we make students put away the second they walk in the door. Not that we shouldn't have them put it away, but they should know why we want them to put it away, and they should know who this person is that is asking them to put it away.
Student should know who their teacher truly is, and the middle names of all their family members around them. They should know that when their teacher is in a bad mood they should be nice to them because this is the person who told us about their lovely children for that whole first week, or how much they loved their mother before she passed away from breast cancer when they themselves were in high school. This is the person that let them slowly say goodbye to their summer freedom and acclimate into a yearlong journey that will bring more stress into their life than their brains are scientifically proven to handle.
This is the human who didn't just say they cared about them or simply had a poster that said they respected them, but a person who actually showed it. This is that teacher, who through a small investment of their time, showed them that they are truly invested in them. Not just as a student, but as a colleague and as part of a family. This is the person formally known as their teacher who will cry at the end of the year when no student moves when that final bell rings.
Enjoy those first two weeks. You never get them back. Use them for what they were intended.
At the end of the year, if you happen turn and see a professional colleague of yours struggling to control their wild horses, schedule a lunch and share with them the beauty of those ''dreaded first two weeks.''
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