A Place to Belong

Recently, I was honored to be among the contributors to Education Week’s Classroom Q & A with Larry Ferlazzo. This week’s question was, “What’s the best way to start the school year?” Below was my response.  Be sure to follow the link at the end to read other teachers share their thoughts on a successful back-to-school. 

Even though I’ve been teaching for 15 years, as September approaches, I still get that same feeling of nervous excitement that I had my first year teaching. In fact, it’s the same feeling I had as a student, too. I don’t think I will ever forget what it was like to be 14-years-old—a new student transferring from a small parochial school to a large public high school, from a class of 28 to a class of 200. Particularly vivid are my memories of those dreaded extended homeroom periods during the first week of school. As everyone else exchanged tales of summer vacations, I stared at my shiny, laminated official school folder and read the lyrics to the school’s fight song over and over again.

As I begin another school year, I try to remember my 14-year-old self—her awkwardness, her fears, but also her hope. The hope for new friends, caring teachers, and a place to belong. I think it’s because of my 14-year-old self that I try to start each school year by identifying the students who may need a little more than a warm-but-generic welcome back to school. Too often, in the busyness of daily teaching, I’ve been guilty of asking “how are you?” but not really listening for the answer in a way that honors the question—or the person—as I rush to answer emails or make copies.

So what’s the best way to start a new school year? The answer to that question must always start and end with the students—with making them feel welcome and giving them a place to belong. To do that well—especially if you are high school teacher with 130+ students like I am—requires that we resist the urge to dive into content or read the syllabus or review late policies or everything else that doesn’t directly and tangibly tell us something about who they are and who they can be in our classrooms. (That said, there is a place for all of that, just not the first place).

What does this look like? As an English teacher, I ask students to begin writing on day one, to reflect on their interests and passions, to discover the writing territories that we return to throughout the year. And then we share—always share. I’ve learned to never underestimate the power of simply turning-and-talking with the person next to us. I also invite students to tour our classroom space using a teambuilding scavenger hunt so that we can take care of questions like Where’s the pencil sharpener? or How do I borrow a book? and focus on learning and each other. And most importantly, I survey students on their prior reading and writing experiences. The sooner I can get a sense of each student’s relationship to reading—the titles they’ve loved, the books they’ve hated—the sooner I can get the right book into the right student’s hand.

In a few short weeks, dozens of students will pass through my door. I look forward to welcoming them with a listening ear and an interested heart.

CLICK HERE to continue reading other teacher responses on Education Week’s site.