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Back to School: 6 Things to Do at the Start of the Year

Jordan Catapano


As we near the start of a new school year, the opportunities might seem almost limitless. Like a blank canvas, you can express the art of teaching in almost any pattern imaginable, but there are certain back to school components that need to be implemented first.

1. Set Your Goals.

It’s extremely important that you have a clear understanding of how you want to grow this year. On what are you going to focus? The more time that passes, the more difficult it becomes to determine your goals, and to mold your processes to attain them.

So, the solution is simple: Set two or three precise goals, and stick to them. This will ensure a smooth year for not only you, but for your students and colleagues too.

2. Know the Assessments and Standards.

Looking forward as you map out the year, it might help to begin with the end in mind. How will your students be tested this year? What standards of achievement will they be expected to meet? There’s nothing more frustrating than realizing your curriculum doesn’t align with the state tests, and it’s important to avoid confusing, last-minute course corrections in your instruction.

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Think about these things right from the start—final exams, state and unit tests, or other assessments—and make sure you’ve positioned your teaching around those goals. Your students will perform better, and your year will feel much more streamlined.

3. Set the Back to School Tone and Expectations.

Philosopher/historian Niccolo Machiavelli once declared that it is far better for a ruler to start off strict and then loosen up, than the other way around. Drawing inspiration from this controversial historical figure, if we might be so bold, this adage rings true in the classroom as well. If a teacher establishes a firm set of expectations at the beginning of the year, then it is far more likely students will understand and adhere to those standards.

This is true for both behavioral and academic expectations. Make sure it is made clear through your instruction, communication, and feedback what level you expect students to perform. What should they do during each phase of instruction? How should they interact with one another? What’s OK and what isn’t? Be firm and, most importantly, be consistent—this will give you ample room to be a bit more flexible later on.

4. Establish a Routine.

It might sound boring, but in the classroom, a predictable routine is essential. What routines can you accustom your students to? Consider the following:

  • What students do when they walk in.
  • How students turn in work.
  • How students transition into small groups or other activities.
  • What students do with work returned to them.
  • How students take notes.
  • How you conduct classroom discussions or activities.
  • When certain content is focused on during the day.
  • How your assignments, tests, or other work looks and communicates.
  • When going to the bathroom, water fountain, nurse, etc. is permitted or not.

You might have a picture in your head of how class ought to go, but reality rarely matches our imaginations unless a routine is established. Create these guidelines at the beginning of the year, rather than trying to adapt your students to new, fluctuating routines throughout.

5. Teacher Modeling.

“Do as I do” is certainly a mantra that applies to the world of education. Young learners benefit immensely from an educated, mature adult who demonstrates his competency with the material. You need to be the person you want your students to become: Controlled, patient, mature, respectful, intelligent, and hopefully, happy.

When you don’t possess these attributes—even for just a few moments—you are, implicitly or subconsciously, giving permission to disregard them. Make sure you set the tone at the beginning of the year with your own behavior: you don’t want to backtrack as the year goes on!

6. Gamify Your Class.

Consider what kinds of gamification methods to employ in your classroom. Do you need an extensive list of rules or rewards? Will this be for regular credit, extra credit, or other goals? Will students be in teams? How will it supplement your content? How can you easily manage the games without interrupting instruction? Gamification is a great idea for invigorating interest in your students while keeping the learning fun, but the rule remains steadfast: Figure it out now, before you get too far into the year.

Of course, don’t sweat it if you haven’t figured these things out right away—nobody’s perfect. These things take time, trial and error, and heavy consideration to finally find the way that works best for you. Just do your best to get a head start, and you’ll have a smooth year.

What do you think? Tell us what needs to be set straight right away to ensure the successful start of the school year!

Jordan Catapano is an English teacher at Conant High School in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and currently serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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