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First Day of School, Again: How to Keep Starting Over

Remember when the first day of school happened just once at the end of summertime? Students would show up in our classrooms, bright-eyed and excited to start a new year. Now, we are facing a very different reality. For the first time in our collective memory, teachers are returning to classrooms in fits and starts with a new challenge: to build either a fully in-person or hybrid classroom community after nearly a year online with students. How do we do the first day of school again not just once more, but sometimes many times over again as children move from one learning setting to another in waves?

Prioritize Stability

They say that the more things change, the more they stay the same, but whoever coined that expression probably hadn’t lived through our constant shifting around from virtual classrooms to physical ones. The question is, what structures and practices can we keep the same no matter where we are? For starters, routines that students did when they were at home can be maintained or replicated in another setting. For example, class time usually begins with framing the day’s learning, sharing the objective, and engaging in an activator. By transferring the same process from a virtual space to a physical one, both students and teachers can take comfort in familiar elements of the class, no matter where they happen to be. Along those lines, maintaining some of the ties to technological tools will also help with consistency, particularly with engaging students who are still learning virtually. Why write on a white board in the building if a smart board is available that all students can see clearly from their respective locations? Thinking about what structures can remain stable will ground everyone in the learning, rather than in the space.

Keep Trying

A few years ago, my family visited some friends with several young children. The house was a wreck and the baby was sitting in a guinea pig cage with his hand in a salad that was supposed to be communal. My husband whispered to me, “They’ve given up.” We are destined to fail, over and over again. Does that mean we give up? Or does it mean that we lean into one of the best parts of teaching, which is the ability to try again as many times as we need to? Suppose that one day, you completely fail at serving the group of students who are still virtual in your efforts to help the kids in the classroom. All that means is that the next day, you go into the classroom with a plan to check in with every virtual student and be mindful of not making the same mistake again. Even subpar moments serve as wonderful learning opportunities, and our growth mindset background tells us that even if we haven’t figured out new systems yet, we will.

Don’t Be Your Worst Enemy

In pretty much every conversation I’ve had with a teacher in recent memory, someone is busy self-flagellating for doing what they think is a poor job in the classroom. To be honest, nothing is more discouraging than these self-defeating conversations. If we are going to survive endless changes to how we teach, we need to stop picking apart our classroom practice to the point that we stop believing in ourselves. Let’s all collectively decide to end negative self-talk and instead of admiring the problems, work on fixing them. Last week I taught a class and I knew that I was talking way too much, mainly because I was uncertain about how to navigate with students who were only reachable through technology. At first I was upset with myself, but then I shook it off and realized that as usual, the only way out is through. This week, I have adjusted my lesson plan to include more interactive activities, and it will be better. As long as we stay focused on solutions and not self-disparagement, we will be all right.

Accept the Pivot

If we expect to keep starting over, we will not be startled every single time it happens. There is a difference between reacting to constant change with anger and distrust vs. proactively planning for the future. My lesson plans lately have taken on a sort of fluidity. Version A has a virtual setup, Version B has a hybrid setup, and I already have the plans for Version C (a.k.a., The Before Times). In my plans, I highlight any sections that remain the same regardless of setting, and that is helpful for my own planning ahead. The most helpful part, though, is simply having a draft of what lessons might look like for any scenario to act as a sort of security blanket. When we are prepared, it helps avoid the feeling of being constantly spun in different directions. In other words, expecting the unexpected is a best practice right now.

Starting over is part of teaching, whether we recognize it as such or not. Each year, we start afresh with a fresh group of students, and maybe a new curriculum, and often a new classroom or administration. We should be used to starting over, but doing so throughout the year is a whole different ball game. Still, by adjusting our mindset to expect change, valuing ourselves, continuing to try our best and planning ahead, we can make it through the next few months as the weather warms and a light emerges at the end of the pandemic tunnel.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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