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Starting the Semester Strong: Educator Edition


If you were like me, the end of first semester was a limp to the finish line. Hopefully winter break provided a much-needed reprieve and allowed for downtime with friends and family. For many, returning to the classroom may be overwhelming, but there are a few lessons to learn and strategies we can implement to make your life easier (and increase student learning). 

From understanding the power of reflective practices and identifying the “lead domino” that can transform classroom dynamics, to establishing effective routines, organizing digital platforms, and empowering students with self-advocacy skills—each aspect is a stepping stone to fostering a more productive and cooperative classroom for the remainder of the year.

Reflect on the Previous Semester 

Reflection is a cornerstone of effective teaching, offering educators a powerful tool to enhance instruction and student engagement. As educators close out a semester, reflecting without judgment allows us to assess our strategies, identify areas of success, and recognize challenges. Asking “What went well?” and “What was a daily challenge?” helps educators acknowledge their triumphs and understand recurring obstacles. 

Teachers can better strategize how to manage similar situations during the second semester by pinpointing overwhelming moments. Ultimately, such reflection leads to a more responsive, dynamic teaching approach that continually evolves to meet the needs and stimulate the minds of all students.

Questions to Reflect On:

  • What lessons were students most engaged in?
  • When did students check out?
  • What assignments had the highest turn-in rate? The lowest?
  • What days had the highest number of behavior challenges? The lowest?

After taking a break, we can reflect more clearly on the previous semester. Use your answers to help improve the cadence and lessons for this semester. 

Identifying the “Lead Domino”: Initiating Positive Classroom Dynamics

The “Lead Domino” effect is about making a manageable yet impactful change that can transform classroom dynamics, often initiating a cascade of positive changes. At the end of a semester, there are almost too many challenges to count. List all of the most notable challenges and look for one routine to implement that could solve several of these challenges.

I had a 7th-period class with over 20 students who had ADHD. Every day I watched the clock and dreaded this period. I loved the students individually, but as a group, they seemed uncontrollable. It felt like all I did was manage behavior and holler continuously to get everyone on task. Misbehavior started the second the bell rang and persisted throughout the class. 

After reflecting, I decided that my “lead domino” was to teach students how to enter my classroom. Even though it was challenging, I would try to get to the classroom door each day as my students entered. I would greet each one individually and ask them about their lives or anything that happened in school that day. Before the bell rang, I was determined to build the relationship, help them calm down, and enter my classroom in a good headspace. 

The first few days back from break, we practiced entering my classroom and looking for the first task expected of them (they rolled their eyes every time because they were “above” practicing). It took us nearly 2 weeks, but we finally mastered the routine of entering my classroom, and they received their positive reinforcement. We had to keep revisiting the routine throughout the semester, but implementing this one routine helped me build better relationships, put a stop to beginning the class in an anxious space, and assisted tremendously with behavior management.

Something as simple as greeting students at the door and having an engaging starter activity can significantly reduce the need for discipline and set a positive tone for the rest of the class. Small changes like this can profoundly reduce disciplinary issues and enhance the overall classroom atmosphere and your students’ learning ability. 

Establish/Reinforce Classroom Routines: 

Routines are the backbone of a structured and efficient classroom, providing students—especially those who struggle with executive function skills—with the stability and predictability they need to thrive. The research underscores the benefits of routines, indicating that they can significantly enhance the learning environment by minimizing uncertainty and distraction. When students know what to expect, they spend less time adjusting and engaging more with the material. 

This is particularly crucial for neurodiverse students who may experience heightened levels of stress or difficulty transitioning between tasks. By establishing clear, consistent rules, educators can create an inclusive environment where all students feel secure, understood, and focused on learning. 

However, establishing routines is challenging, particularly when attempting to implement several changes simultaneously. The research aligns with the notion that humans are creatures of habit, finding comfort and efficiency in predictability. Just as many New Year’s resolutions falter due to overambition, classroom routines can also fall apart if they aren’t reimplemented after breaks.  

Organize Your Classroom Portal

The principle of “discipline equals freedom,” as applied to the organization of online educational portals (Google Classroom, Schoology, Canvas, etc.), holds that the time and effort educators put into structuring their portals can lead to greater efficiency and effectiveness, ultimately freeing up time and reducing stress for both educators and students. Teachers invest in a smoother, more streamlined educational process by organizing their portals so everyone can understand their flow.

A well-organized online portal directly correlates with improved assignment completion rates. Students who can easily navigate their learning environment and access materials are more likely to understand expectations, keep track of deadlines, and submit their work on time. The clarity and predictability provided by a disciplined approach to organization remove barriers to completion, thus enhancing overall academic performance.

A clear and consistent online structure can significantly: 

  • Improve student comprehension, engagement and assignment completion
  • Reduce the frequency of parent inquiries and emails. 
  • Ensure that accommodations are easily provided
  • Parents have a transparent view of course expectations, resources, and their child’s progress 

When parents, counselors, interventionists, and special education teachers can understand your online organization, you will spend much less time with emails and putting out fires. 

By embracing this disciplined approach, educators can create a more effective and inclusive learning environment, ultimately allowing more freedom and energy to be focused on what truly matters – teaching children.

Teach Students How to Advocate

As the first semester ended, it always felt like my middle school students became more disrespectful. I would go off on “kids these days” tirades in the teachers’ lounge, but the real issue was me. I never taught my students how I wanted to be spoken to.

Teaching self-advocacy is critical in preparing students for the independence and responsibilities of college life. Self-advocacy, the ability to understand and communicate one’s needs effectively, is a skill many students may not have the opportunity to practice before becoming independent.

Educators can create a classroom culture that encourages and rehearses self-advocacy to bridge this gap. One effective strategy is to have students practice various scenarios out loud with a partner. 

This role-playing exercise builds confidence and familiarizes students with potential responses and appropriate etiquette in a professional academic setting. For instance, a student might practice requesting assignment details ahead of an anticipated absence due to a sports commitment or seeking alternative ways to access lecture notes. 

Through repeated practice and constructive feedback, students can learn to navigate conversations with authority figures gracefully and assertively, ensuring they don’t fall behind or feel overwhelmed due to unaddressed needs or concerns. By fostering these skills, educators empower students to find their voice and advocate for their success.

Here is an example of an advocating script that we practice with our students:

Student: Hi, Dr. Smith. I have an away basketball game on Wednesday and will miss class. I see on the syllabus that there’s a writing assignment you’ll be introducing that day, could I please have the prompts ahead of time so I don’t get behind on the essay? 

Professor: Hi, Sam, thanks for letting me know. I can email you the essay prompts right now. If you have any questions before Wednesday, please email me or visit me during office hours. 

Student: Great, thank you so much. Also, what is the best way to get class notes from 

the lecture on Wednesday? I don’t know anyone in the class. 

Professor: The notes are uploaded onto my Canvas. You can find them under the “lecture notes tab.”

Student: I will do that, thank you so much for your help. 

Conclusion

Reflecting on the past semester, embracing the “lead domino” concept, reestablishing routines, organizing digital platforms, and nurturing student self-advocacy are more than just strategies; hopefully, they will save your sanity. Good luck during the second semester, and let us know if we can ever support you. 

For More: 

For Educators: Research-Based Tactics for Improving Executive Functioning in Teens

Teach Like a Champion Techniques

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