Simplifying the Start of the School Year


I ran into a former colleague of mine at a local community festival last week. After some quick catching up, I asked how the preparations for the new school year were coming along. He responded with, “It is not like it used to be. Remember how the first day of teacher in-service was the plenary meeting followed by the trend of the year training, lunch, and then department or grade level meetings? Day two was simply setting up your classroom, textbooks, and lists. Ah, the good ol’ days!”

So, I asked him what his upcoming teacher in-service days were going to look like. He shared that day one was going to be a series of technology trainings focused on logging in to the new school system daily, proper email access, the new student management system and how to handle grades with attendance, updating and maintaining a webpage, and the proper methods for digital documentation for any classroom or parental issues. Day two was going to have the morning filled with state and federal updates (I did clarify that the blood-borne pathogens video would be part of these sessions!) while the afternoon session was a brief one led by the counselors on how to support the students.

To say I was shocked was a mild understatement! Where are the meetings with the departments or grade levels? Where is the focus on the student and the teacher – not on the administrative tasks? Now let me also state that there are many districts with whom I have spoken where more student-centric sessions are being conducted. I also know of districts where the conversations are focused on access and holistic support. Unfortunately, those do not appear to be the norm.  Even my son, who has entered the ranks of substitute teachers this year as he pursues his acting career, shared with me that he had a two-hour session completely focused on the “acceptable” ways to interact with students. The videos all focused on what not to do, without giving solid strategies for positive interactions. At the end of my meeting with my former colleague, he asked, “How would you recommend the school year start? Let me know as I will look to start next year differently.”

All of the described topics are very important for teachers, administrators, substitutes, and other staff to understand. Focusing on those at the beginning of the year does not always set a good tone for what we are attempting to do in school though – educating our students. These topics can be interspersed with other important student and teacher-centric topics as well as be presented in a virtual format with accountability measures built in to know that the material was reviewed. How can we align topics like the ones above with solid professional development at the beginning of the year? Simplify!

What I mean by simplifying is not to water down information or minimize it in any manner. Instead, review what needs to be shared and the way that information can be shared. After my conversation, I connected with colleagues throughout the country to see how they were handling the start of the year.  Major topics varied from district to district and state to state.  here were several that stood out, though, and those will serve as the basis for our simplified start to the school year.

1. Focus on the teachers - I had a couple of interesting ideas from administrators regarding this.  The one that stood out to me was an administrator who sent out a message in July asking each teacher to list out their three most important ideas for the upcoming school year. All the ideas were placed on a list and the suggestion mentioned the most was given a 90-minute block for discussion and idea sharing. In this school, there were eight suggestions that received four or more people bringing it up. Obviously, the first suggestion had its own session for everyone. The other seven sessions were each given a classroom and two 60-minute sessions.  her day was divided like this:

  • 8:30-9:00 introduction to the day
  • 9:00-10:30 most mentioned topic
  • 10:45-11:45 Session 1
  • 11:45 – 12:30 Lunch
  • 12:45-1:45 Session 2  
  • 2:00-3:00 Session 3

Each of the sessions contained seven rooms with each room dedicated to one of the other ideas. By the end of the day, teachers had attended four sessions, three of which they selected on their own. That was purposely done on day one so that the teachers knew they were being heard. Day two began with a 60-minute session by the administrator on the most important updates she had to share along with a link to videos she and others created to go more in-depth on those topics. There was also a two-hour session which focused on mental health support for the students and faculty. After lunch, there were brief grade level meetings and then time for classroom set-up.  

2. Create Sessions that can be used with all students - Years ago, some of us would see sessions that focused on specific groups of students or sessions that had great ideas but limited examples of how to utilize them throughout the year. Think about any experiences you might have had with interesting and potentially great sessions which died on the vine because the ideas were presented in a vacuum with no follow-up by anyone. Don’t minimize the time allotted to these sessions either. If the session and idea behind it is important for the students, then it is important enough to have significant amounts of time given to it initially and on a regular basis

3. Give Teachers the time for their own preparation - I remember back in the mid-80s, the first day of school was relegated to handing out textbooks and writing down the correct textbook number by each student’s name as well as developing a seating chart. Imagine that the first day of class was filled with administrative tasks for the students! We have come a long way.  However, teachers and administrators alike need time for the final touches on classroom and student preparation. Build that into the in-service days as well. That takes pressure off teachers by not having all classroom prep be done on their own time at the end of the summer.

4. Make the Classroom as User-friendly as possible - Set up the classroom with an organizational mindset to help facilitate the classroom behaviors you wish to see from them. Use color-coded areas for things like homework or daily activities. Have visual cues throughout the classroom to assist in understanding what goes on in certain areas. Have some simple AAC devices like Talking Brix2 or Big Macks in places where auditory reinforcement would be helpful. Finally, as you are creating presentations and videos for the students, make sure they are accessible with captioning and alt text to enable a larger number of students and their parents the ability to access them through different media. By creating accessible materials initially, you set the tone of inclusivity along with having materials that can be used and easily updated for years to come.

5. If it can be done and accessed by video, MAKE A VIDEO! - Administrators, review some of the administrative topics you must make sure the faculty and staff understand. Can you turn what you were going to say into a video? If so, do it and put it into a library where only individuals with permissions can access them. Speak to your IT people as well and learn if you can also receive reports on when people accessed these videos. That way, you have a record of their viewing. A question I get asked often is, “What if they simply turn on the video and walk away? Then they did not learn what they needed to learn.” My response to that is you have no way of making sure that they would be paying attention in person either. So, use your time with them for information to which they will pay attention.  

Teachers, make accessible videos for your students with instructions and guides that they can refer to at any time. These videos are helpful for those with processing issues as they can go back, watch, and listen to your information multiple times.

There are five ideas to help simplify the start of the academic year by focusing on what we can do to best support our students. Again, the other administrative information is important, but can also be shared in ways that support the members of the school community. The old days weren’t always better, and we did not have all the advantages that faculties have today because of technology. In the same way, the advantage we did have is that there was more simplicity in approach, and we did not have the same levels of information or anxiety as individuals have today. Simplify and your year will begin well!


Posted in Special Education and SH Special Education Today Newsletter