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How to Prioritize During Your First Year Teaching

(This post originally appeared on my blog on August 11, 2016, but I wanted to re-share it today!)

As a new school year begins, I've been reflecting on my time in the classroom and I felt like writing a post for first-year teachers.  First-year teachers have all of the normal pressure of a teacher at the beginning of the school year, plus all of the joys and challenges of being a new teacher.  It can be difficult to prioritize everything you feel like you have to do.  

For me, as a first-year teacher, I walked down the hallways of my building feeling full of excitement and anticipation, and pretty stressed out as well.  How could I possibly make my room look as Pinterest-y as the teacher's next door, plus be as amazing as the teacher who was in my room last year that I keep hearing about, and then on top of it all, be prepared for those 20+ little faces and their families?

To try to help you prioritize everything on your to-do list, I have put together some things that I feel (in my opinion) you must do no matter what, should do to have the best chance at a successful year, could do if you have time or feel up to it, and finally, things that you must avoid.

I taught kindergarten, so my ideas and suggestions are from my kindergarten point-of-view, but I'm sure they apply to most elementary teachers!

1.  You must establish contact with every family either prior to the year or within the first couple weeks.  

Yes, you will hopefully have a chance to meet and greet each student and family at Meet the Teacher Night or Back to School Night.  In addition to that, you must take the time to make a phone call to each family.  This phone call is your way of letting the family know that you are truly interested in working with them to help make their child's school year a success.  Keep the call brief, but be sure to ask some questions about their child and listen to any questions or concerns the parent has.  If they ask you a question that you do not know the answer to, assure them that you will find the answer and call them back asap.

2.  You must know where each child goes after school on the first day and on a "normal" school day.

In my experience, many parents will want to pick up their child after school on the first day, but on a "normal" day, that same child will go to after-school care, ride the bus, etc.  Therefore, know how each child will leave your room after school.  For me, this meant I was on the phone with the bus company at 7:30 a.m. on the first day of school, confirming the bus numbers for my kiddos.  And, once you know where everyone is going, make a list and keep it handy.  Click here for an editable first day dismissal form.

3.  For your students with IEPs, you must know their goals, service times, etc.

More than likely, the special education teacher, SLP, OT, or whoever the case manager is for those students will meet with you before the school year to give you the details you need to know.  Don't be afraid to ask for this information.  If you have students in your room who have IEPs, their parents will likely mention it at back to school night, and it will benefit you greatly to at least know which children have IEPs so you're not caught off-guard.

4.  You must have a lesson plan template or a teacher planner/binder.

We've all heard the quote, "A failure to plan is a plan to fail."  It may take some trial and error before you find a lesson planning tool that works for you, and don't be afraid to ditch something that isn't working and try something new.  Many schools have online lesson planning tools their teachers are required to use.  In my district, new teachers could use any lesson plan tool they wanted, and in some buildings, they were required to turn in lesson plans.  So, it helps to be prepared.  I have done everything from creating my own planning template to purchasing a plan book.  You may have heard about the Erin Condren teacher planner.  There are quite a few ways to customize a lesson planner on their website.  Here's my affiliate link if you're interested in trying one out!

1.  You should think about what type of newsletter or school-to-home communication tool you will use.

Parents and families are happiest when they are kept in the loop, so keep them happy by sending home general information to all of your students' families.  I always e-mailed a weekly newsletter on Fridays.  Some teachers I know sent home a daily update e-mail that included a few things they learned that day, plus any important reminders.  You can find lots of editable newsletter templates on TpT!

2.  You should have your principal or another teacher walk through your room, once it's set up.

Don't be afraid to get a second (or third) opinion on the way you've set up your room.  Someone else might notice that that your guided reading table is in a distracting spot, or that you forgot to hang your alphabet posters.  I would highly suggest having your principal walk through so you feel confident that he or she approves of everything in your room from day one.  Plus, it shows that you are proactive and that you have pride in your classroom.  #browniepoints

3. You should have a classroom management plan.

One could argue that this belongs in the "must do" category.  You really need to have a plan for how you'll handle everything from fighting to quieting down your class.  If all else fails, you can (hopefully) fall back on your school-wide rules until you establish something that works for you.  Definitely consider what you'll do, however, whether it be brag tags or Class Dojo.  Starting with consistent classroom management from day one is important for both you and your little learners.

Now is the time for the things that you could do if you really want, but I feel they aren't 100% necessary to having a successful first year.  Again, this is strictly my opinion and it's subject to change.  :)

1. You could have a classroom decor theme.

We all want to have an amazing-looking classroom, right?  My first year teaching kindergarten, I attempted to have a rainforest-themed room, but I fell short because of all the other demands of teaching and spent the year resenting the way my room looked.  So, for the next year, I couldn't decide what I wanted, so instead of finding something cute, I found something that worked for me.  And that was having no theme.  (Gasp!)  Many teachers pull off having everything perfectly color-coordinated and thematic, and that's wonderful, but you know what?  I loved my second-version classroom so much more.  Instead of feeling pressured to have every little station sign and name label match, I only focused more on what's more important.  I had better environmental print, better anchor charts, and my room was overall, way more supportive for my class.

So if it's your first year and you're struggling with classroom decor, put it on the back burner for your first year.  You can spend next summer working on it instead.  And that's perfectly okay!  Remember that there are incredible teachers whose rooms belong on Pinterest, and then there are equally incredible teachers who don't have anything matchy-matchy.

2. You could have a way for parents to volunteer in your classroom.

Now, this is a hard one.  Many parents want to be able to help with something in the classroom, and it's a wonderful way to strengthen the home-to-school bond.  I always had one parent come to help each day with our guided reading rotation, and it was something I couldn't do without.  However, don't let this overwhelm you.  Begin with having one or two opportunities for parents to volunteer, and maybe have a couple parents who are willing to cut out laminated stuff at home.  Check with your grade level team to find out how they manage parent volunteers.  Other teachers in your building can help you figure out what the norm is for your building.

Now comes the inevitable time when we talk about what you should must avoid during your first year.  

1.  Don't partake in teacher lounge drama, gossip, etc.

Any time you put together a bunch of women (sorry guys, we love you, too!) and place them in a stressful environment with lots of strong personalities, there's gonna be some drama.  So my advice is, if someone wants to gossip about Mrs. So-and-so, just smile and say, "Shoot, I have to go make copies!" because that's probably not even a lie. 

2.  Don't get in over your head with volunteering.

And there will be LOADS of opportunities for this to happen.  Schools need a lot of helpful people to make everything work, and teachers are generous people.  So, volunteer to help with some things, but you don't have to work the carnival, Polar Express night, facilitate a book club, help with student council, AND be a rockstar teacher on top of all that.  Focus on what happens between 8:30 and 3:30 in your classroom, and remember that you have a life outside of school and that life is also important.

3.  Don't negatively compare yourself to other teachers.

...especially those with way more experience than you.  It's okay to pick up on little phrases that another teachers uses that you want to try out, and it's a great idea to ask for coverage to go observe a teacher who has solid guided reading rotations or a really effective math block.  Remember that you are still learning and you have significant strengths, too.  And if there's an area that you aren't too confident with, ask for help.  But don't put yourself down by comparing yourself in a negative way.  

WHEW.  We made it.

So, those are my ideas on how to prioritize some of the things that you will have to juggle this year and every year after it.  Are you a first-year teacher?   How are you finding ways to prioritize everything?  Are you a veteran teacher?  What did I miss?  Leave me a comment and I might add it to my list!

If you're a kindergarten teacher, I have an awesome freebie for you!  This is a mini-book that you can use with your discussion about your classroom or school rules.  Grab it below!

Have a wonderful school year!

Summer Book Study: Goals 3 and 4

This post contains affiliate links.

Happy Friday! As I'm writing this, I'm reflecting on goals three and four of The Reading Strategies Book while listening to a thunderstorm. Something about reading a book you love while listening to rain just makes me so happy!

As I make my way rereading this book, I keep changing my mind on which goal is my favorite!  For today, I'll say that goal three is my favorite, but I'll probably change my mind by next week! :)  Goal three is Supporting Print Work and Serravallo talks about how children must learn to "juggle" three sources of information, which are meaning, syntax, and visual.   Just like juggling anything, it takes a lot of practice!

So many of the strategies for goal three are so effective with the students I'm used to teaching, who are at levels A-D.  Even though I had learned about several of the strategies Serravallo mentions in this section, it's always so helpful to read about them again and remind myself the why behind what the strategy is intended to teach.  Serravallo's lesson language and prompts are really helpful, too!

Here are a few of my favorite strategies:

Strategy 3.1: Check the Picture for Help

I feel like one of my most-used phrases as a kindergarten teacher during guided reading has always been, "Check the picture."  It seems like such a simple thing, but it's essential for young readers to understand that the pictures really are there to help them!  I think a huge part of forming young readers is helping them realize that the texts we choose for them are designed to help them, and one of the biggest ways is that we choose texts with strong picture support.  When I created these sight word mini books for my daughter, I knew that they would only be effective if they featured images that matched the text.  When we use these books, we work on looking at the picture even before putting a finger down to the first word.  

Strategy 3.18: Cover and Slide

This is a strategy for slightly more independent readers (levels E-Z+) and it helps them when they're reading an unfamiliar word part by part.  It helps them to cover up the word and then slide their finger or hand across the word.  They'll focus on the first part, then slowly slide across to focus on the parts individually.  Finally, they'll put it all together.  This strategy is a great reason to teach blends and word chunks!

Strategy 3.20: Skip and Return

This is a strategy that I've been able to use with some of my more advanced kindergarteners.  When a child is really stuck on a word, it can be relieving to him or her to know that it's okay to skip it and come back!  Reading the rest of the sentence gives us more meaning that we can use to help decode the tricky word.  

When I was in college, I feel like fluency was difficult for me to understand.  It wasn't until I student taught with 2nd and 4th graders that I really began to understand the importance and idea of fluency. Here are a few of my favorite strategies for fluency:

Strategy 4.6: Punctuation at the End of a Sentence

This strategy reminds students to pay attention to the ending punctuation.  I've always loved working with my students on punctuation because of the way they raise their voices when they read a question!  

Strategy 4.11: Make Your Voice Match the Feeling

With this strategy, encourage your students to think about how the character is feeling.  This is a great strategy to model first during a read aloud.  One of my favorite book series is the Pigeon series by Mo Willems, and I think that any of those books would be great for modeling this!  

Fluency Phone for Feedback

If you use fluency phones, then you know how much students love them!  I love that they are great for allowing the student to really focus on how their voice sounds when they read.  During guided reading, I always have my students whisper read and these help them not get so distracted by everyone else's reading.  You can use some of the prompts Serravallo suggests, such as, "Really try to hear yourself." (Pg. 119, The Reading Strategies Book)  The first few times they use the phones it might seem silly, but if you use prompts and help your students really focus, they can be very effective!  I have these Toobaloo phones, but you can find tutorials online for making them out of PVC piping!

Thanks so much for taking a few minutes to read my thoughts and favorite strategies!  Be sure to check out the other blogs that have linked up with Teaching Little Miracles!

On My Own! {Mini Math Activities for Kindergarten - Set 1}

I'm SO excited to announce a brand-new resource that I just added to my store!

I love creating activities for kids to do during those times when they are working independently at school.  My morning work tub activities have been so much fun to create because I know kids enjoy doing them and they help ensure your students are engaged with meaningful tasks.  

My newest creation is a new series called "On My Own!".  They are designed to be used by students independently, such as during math center time or as an early-finisher task.  Within the series, each set will have 16 activities that cover four kindergarten math skill areas.  So, there are four games per skill.   They are extremely versatile!  

*They are non-thematic and can be used at any point in the school year.  
*You can use just the activity portion (i.e. don't print the label/instruction cards) as guided math activities, partner activities, or activities to send home for reinforcement!

Although I taught half-day kindergarten, I started my career as a kindergarten special education teacher.  I wish I had this resource back then!  Special education teachers need activities like these that don't have a lot of "fluff" (such as distracting thematic clip art) and are highly focused on one particular skill.  For special education teachers, math intervention teachers, and math specialists, these are perfect to grab for quick skill practice or assessment!

I'm on the plastic photo case bandwagon (who isn't?!) and I designed these so that they fit into those photo cases. Please note that you do not have to buy a photo case to use these activities!  :)  I feel very strongly that although we love neat organizational tools, you shouldn't feel pressured to buy something pricey to make an activity possible in your classroom!  These also fit into pencil boxes or pouches, zipper baggies or envelopes, or plastic shoe boxes and bins.  

Within the resource on TpT, I go into more detail about how to prepare the activities.  Basically, for each activity, there's a label card, an instruction card, the activity itself, and either a recording page or a practice page.  Some of the activities require a recording page, but others do not.  For activities that work without a recording page, I included practice pages just in case you need an evidence of learning tool.  

If you're using the plastic photo boxes or a pencil box, you can laminate and cut out everything.  Then, I used these hook-and-loop sticky-back dots to stick the label on the front of the lid and the instruction card on the back of the lid.  If you do this, you can change out the activities as often as you like!  You can just buy one of the photo cases and store the activities in baggies or envelopes when not in use.

These activities don't require very many materials, but here is a list of materials needed and recommended.  (If you want links to materials, they are at the bottom of the post!)

This specific set includes activities that cover the following four skill areas:

1. Numbers to 10

2. Numbers 11-20

3. Writing Numbers to 10

4. Writing Numbers 11-20

Finally, I've had a few questions about what other activities I'm planning to make and whether there will be a growing bundle available.  I can tell you that yes, I'm going to make a growing bundle of the activities.  My current plan is to make five sets, each with 16 activities.  Set 1 is completed, and I'm working on a calendar of when the remaining sets will be completed.  Depending on the feedback I receive and what additional skills you tell me you need, I am open to creating sets beyond those five.  I will make an announcement when the growing bundle is available!  

Just a side note:  If you want to purchase Set 1 to get a head start on preparation, but want to purchase the growing bundle when it's available, you can contact TpT for a refund for your purchase of Set 1 once you buy the growing bundle. :)

I am SO excited to share these activities with you and your students.  I hope they are helpful!  You can click on the image below for more information.

Here are affiliate links to specific items so you can see what I used:  Plastic spinnersColor-sided diceRed & Yellow double-sided countershook-and-loop sticky dotscolorful cardstockPlastic photo case

Unicorn Letter Tracing Cards Freebie

Happy Monday!  I am just popping in quickly to share a fun freebie with you today!

My daughters (ages 2 and 5) are really into anything magical right now.  I found this ADORABLE unicorn clip art by Creating4 the Classroom and wanted to create some magic for my girls!

I mixed white sand and white glitter (both from Hobby Lobby) and put it into a plastic container.    Then, I made these letter cards and printed them on cardstock.

The container worked great for my five year-old.  I put the sand/glitter mixture on a paper plate for my two year-old so she would have more room.

Although I'm using these at home with my own kids this summer, these would work great at school as a center activity, early finisher activity, or morning work tub addition. 

Grab these letter cards for FREE!  Just click on the image below. Enjoy!

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