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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Back to School: 5 things to do before the first day

It's that time of year again - the start of a new school year. You're feeling refreshed after the summer break and are raring to go, brimming with enthusiasm and you just can't wait to get back into the classroom. Well, maybe I am exaggerating slightly, but most teachers who enjoy their jobs are looking forward to starting a new year. However, this enthusiasm can wane over the first few weeks, especially if your new timetable isn't what you had hoped or if that class that last year's teacher raved on about doesn't live up to your expectations.

There are, nontheless, some things you can do to get off to a good start, to try to get the most out of your students so that both you and the class enjoy their lessons and which will help keep everyone motivated and keen.

1) Prepare the classroom.
Spending an hour or two getting the classroom looking decent before the first day is more important than it may seem. For new students, one of the first thing they will notice is the classroom. Make sure that it at least looks clean and tidy, even if the cleaner hasn't been in yet. Set out the tables and chairs in a way that looks inviting and relaxed. Make sure the windows are open and are letting in enough natural light (for daytime lessons). Hide any paintwork defects or stains on the walls with posters or students' work from the previous year. Decorate the walls in whatever way you prefer - with motivational posters, grammar posters, paintings, student displays. I find student displays to be a real motivator with new students as they often admire the work and show willingness to do something similar.

2) Have all books, CDs and materials ready.
This may sound like an obvious one but very often on the first day you forget something and have to go out  to get it, often meaning that the lesson will start slightly late. Not a good first impression! And if you work with young learners it is all the more important - you need to be there, setting an example of punctuality and organisation. If you are using photocopies, make sure you have extra copies. It is very common in private language schools to have students enrolling 5 minutes before the first lesson. Rather than saying that you have to pop out to get a copy because you weren't expecting two extra students, just make two or three extra copies beforehand- don't worry about wasting paper because you can always reuse them as scrap paper!

3) Get the temperature right.
Maybe something for the maintenance man, but making sure the classroom is at a suitable temperature before the students arrive is essential. If you live in a country where the temperature is still 35ยบ C in September, putting the air-conditioning on ten minutes before the lesson is due to start is a good idea. The same goes for heating in colder climates. A suitable room temperature is absolutely essential for high concentration. Students should not feel hot nor cold, as any feeling of discomfort will distract them.

4) Have water available.
This may seem like a luxury, but in a hot country it is important to drink plenty of fluids. If there is no drinks machine in your school, ask your boss if the budget could stretch to a couple of bottles of water per day. If not, bring in water and plastic cups yourself, or ask parents to send their children with individual bottles. Dehydration can drastically lower concentration and sense of well-being. Imagine being really thirsty. Now imagine you are in a classroom. Would you really be able to concentrate on a presentation of the present perfect? Or would you be thinking "I'm really thirsty and if I don't have a drink in one minute I'm going to die!" Point taken?

5) Have everything planned.
Ok, so this is no surprise either. However, many of us don't actually plan much for the first day because we haven't met the students. Of course it is important to adapt a course to the needs of the students, but you should have an idea of what you are going to teach them throughout the year. And even if you haven't yet chosen a course book, have the first lesson properly planned. Explain to the students that you are going to
choose a book specifically for their needs. Don't let them go through the lesson thinking that they haven't got a book, they don't know what the course objectives are and that the teacher doesn't know what he or she is doing. They won't turn up for the second lesson. Even if you prefer the dogme approach, at least explain this to your students. In my experience with Spanish learners at least, students like to have some kind of structure and want to know what they will be doing. They also like to look over things again at home, so if you can give them an outline of the course objectives as early as possible, they will be happy. Like I mentioned before, the first impression counts, and a teacher turning up with no materials on the first day asking the students a few questions and setting up a load of "get to know you" activities does not cause a brilliant one.

I hope these points are useful - I'm actually really just giving myself a reminder of what to do next week but I thought I would share them. If you have any other ideas on what to do before the first day, don't hesitate to post them in the comments section.

Have a great start to the new school year, fellow teachers!

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