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Back to School Prep Guide: Q&A with Myree Conway

Outside the Box Teaching Ideas


Back to School:’s Ultimate 5-Week Prep Guide is your go-to resource for making sure that your return to the classroom is successful.

Summer vacation is coming to a close and teachers all over are entering the classroom preparation mode. School supplies have been purchased, desks have been arranged, and a great deal of hard work, sweat (and maybe even tears) have gone into creating a learning environment to meet the needs of incoming students. Needless to say, all this work may yield a great deal of questions of concerns. I have found the best place to find answers is to brainstorm with other teachers.

Truth be told, I’m thrilled when a co-worker or online friend turns to me for back to school advice. I may not have all the answers, but brainstorming aloud often results in at least a workable solution. Below are questions I have recently been asked. Although every classroom, teacher, and student is different, I hope this is helpful:

What is the best way to arrange student desks?

There are three ways in which teachers can set up student desks: Individual (rows), partner, and group seating—each of them have their distinct advantages and disadvantages. I don't think there is a BEST way, as it depends on the class dynamic and your plan(s) as a teacher, but certainly if you have an overly chatty class you may want to consider placing desks in rows. This may cut down on talking but is not very conducive to group work.

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Creating partner desks is great for pairing low-level students with higher achieving kids or a shy student with a more outgoing counterpart. Group seating is perfect for cooperative learning, group discussions, and projects, though this configuration comes with the added risk of talking outside of sanctioned time. It might seem obvious, but when it comes time for quizzes and tests, have your students pivot their desks or move them to other stations. Pairing and group work opportunities aside, this setup is great if your classroom is on the small side—rows often take up more square footage, so group seating can make your space feel less claustrophobic.

When should I start giving homework?

As exciting as the first day can be, your neatly arranged classroom turns into a war zone of pencils, papers, and folders as soon as your kids bounce their way into school—fresh supplies in tow. Some teachers prefer to let their student acclimate to the new space, but others prefer to dive right in to assignments—neither of which are wrong. There is however, a great advantage to taking the first few days to get to know your students and introduce the rules and structure of the class.

My rule of thumb is no homework until the second full week of school. Sending home forms to be filled out or books to be covered does not count as homework, but rather treat that as necessary “housekeeping” items. I like to give my students “think it over” assignments the first day or two, something to ponder or share at the dinner table. For example, “Can you name something wherein you cannot find math?” I love hearing the answers they have the next day.

How do I deal with a helicopter parent?

I used to think this was strictly for elementary teachers but it seems the hovering continues into middle school and sadly, high school. As annoying as this may be, remember they are like that because they care about their child and want the best for them. First and foremost, establish a parent-teacher relationship and create ground rules early. You may need to repeat them a few times but be respectful and firm. Keep them informed and involved. Listen to their concerns. Sometimes they just need someone to hear their concerns and reassure them that everything is on track.

Helicopter parents can actually be great allies throughout the year. If you are having difficulty getting a student motivated to finish class work or homework (and provided you established a good parent-teacher relationship), their parents can actually help ensure the work gets done. Additionally, you can help them to feel involved by assigning them homework tasks like cutting laminate, creating packets, and more—which actually takes a load off of your plate as well.

My school has a new principal this year. What are some surefire tips for ways to make sure I get on her good side right away?

I can completely relate to this question, as I have a new principal this year as well. Our principal joined us the last week of school, which was an incredibly stressful time for all involved.

First and foremost I would recommend that you introduce yourself to him/her. To make it easier for the principal to get to know you, make an appointment with the school secretary, and sit down and have an informal conversation. Take the time to share a little about yourself, your classroom, your style of teaching, and questions or concerns you may have. Knowing your concerns and/or goals will help them support you as needed. Being a professional in all aspects. Hard work, reliability, dedication, and effective teaching results will help maintain a healthy relationship with your administrators.

Another recommendation is to invite him/her into your classroom. One of the best ways for a principal to get to know you is to see you in action in your classroom. Don't be afraid to lay out the welcome mat before students arrive. You can tell a great deal about a teacher by looking at their classroom.

Be honest and open. Admit your mistakes and be willing to forgive theirs. Remember you may familiar with routines, schedules, co-workers, and such but this is new territory. Be supportive and understanding if you need to repeat requests.

Try to resolve parental issues without going directly to office. There are some issues that require the principal to step in and resolve, but as much as possible, try to handle things yourself. This will show your principal that you are a problem solver and a great communicator. It speaks highly of your abilities.

Lastly, be professional in all aspects. Hard work, reliability, dedication, and effective teaching are the best ways to build a working relationship with your principal.

I'm nervous about teaching a new topic for the fall. I've studied hard all summer, but what are some last-minute tips for dealing with a new teaching assignment?

Anytime a teacher is given new curriculum or materials, time is needed to become familiar with all the ins and outs. You have certainly started off on the right foot by spending the summer to learn about the new topic. Talking to other teachers regarding the material is a great resource. If you are the only teacher in the building teaching this topic, log on to various teacher sites for suggestions and resources, and join teacher groups. Facebook has several groups like this for educators, and I have found them to be a tremendous asset.

Be sure to know your objectives. It helps to write them out. We are required to write out weekly objectives on the board for students, and I find that it also helps me to stay on task and focus on that goal for that day.

Look for methods that will improve how you teach and present that material. Don't be afraid to mix things up. Not all lessons have to be taught standing at the board. Be creative and flexible. When possible, have a backup plan. Sometimes the activity planned does not go as you would expect. Even the most well-planned and organized activity has the possibility of failing. Being prepared to move on to another activity.

Keep a journal so that next year you can see what worked and what didn't. Don't stress.  Remember, this is a learning experience for you as well. You've prepared, you are ready!

These are just a few questions you may have as you get back into the classroom. Open up that teaching toolbox, grab a large cup of coffee, and get ready to try out some of these new techniques with a smile. Remember nothing you do is permanent—trying new ideas helps to expand your experiences and step out of your comfort zone will ultimately help make you a better teacher. Have a great year.

Myree Conway has been teaching outside the box for the last 15 years in both early childhood and elementary classrooms. She loves sharing her creative teaching tips and inspiring teachers to think out of the box too! 

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