Start the year right... top ten tips continued

By Kylie Bice

Recently, I posted the first five of my top ten tips for teachers at the beginning of a new school year (or unit of work).

Here are my final five tips for starting the school year right and ensuring a great culture of thinking, learning and differentiation in the classroom.


Have a conversation about curriculum 

Know who your curriculum leaders are and have an early conversation about how flexible they are happy for you to be with your teaching and learning program. I meet many teachers who assume that they cannot change the teaching or assessments, and while this is true, there are many curriculum leaders who are happy to support their team members to respond to student need and genuinely differentiate learning. At the risk of being accused of inciting rebellion, if you don’t feel supported by your immediate curriculum leader, then try having conversations further up the school hierarchy…for example, I know of a secondary school where the principal is actively trying to facilitate change towards differentiated teaching in classrooms, and is prepared to support teachers to do this, especially when their Head of learning Area is proving resistant. The feeling that they do not have permission to differentiate their program is the barrier that I hear from teachers more often than any other! So start your year knowing where you stand, and then work towards your goal from there.


Discuss expectations with your students 

This includes your expectations of students, their expectations of one another and their expectations of you. Discuss all the usual suspects…behaviour, rules, routines etc, but then also discuss learning, thinking, problem-solving, making mistakes, risk-taking, conflict-resolution, goals and belonging. This sets up an environment whereby mistakes can be made (by you and/or students) , acknowledged and relationships restored as the year progresses. It reminds you as the teacher what needs to be explicitly taught (eg. Organisation skills, goal setting) and reviewed. A word of caution, however…students will test you on this! If you have an early conversation about expectations, it gives you and the students an equal right to bring these up in the future if agreed expectations are not being met. I recommend having an honest think about how you would manage a conversation when a student legitimately questions the agreement you have made. The moment you dismiss the previously agreed expectations, that is the moment you lose respect and you will have to work hard to restore this relationship! May I say that it worth it…nothing engenders respect from your students like being able to admit you have made a mistake! It also models to them how to acknowledge and learn from mistakes with honesty and humility…an important lesson!


Prepare your formative assessment ideas & structures before you start 

This could be before you start a new year, class, term or topic. Formative or ongoing assessment should be quick, easy to do, match the knowledge, skill or concept you want to assess, and easy to record. Be sure to think about ideas for during the learning activity (eg. Questioning, tick off skills in a book or on a tablet, take photos or video of student work, ask students to record one another explaining a concept or demonstrating a skill etc) and/or at the end of the learning activity (eg. Exit cards). Not every piece of formative assessment has to be formal or a portfolio piece. I often see teachers doing a huge amount of informal formative assessment as they move about the classroom, but then record none of it and use none of it to plan future student learning and tasks. If you aren’t ready to do the over-the-shoulder, on-the-go continual assessment then…

  • Your differentiation won’t work effectively because your tasks won’t match what students need to learn

  • You are making more work for yourself later because you are likely to have to design and administer an unnecessary assessment tasks to re-assess skills that you may have already seen that students have mastered.

  • Your post-assessment data gives you inaccurate feedback about the efficacy of your teaching program. For example a post-assessment may imply that your teaching program is effective because students did well, when in fact it may not have been effective if they had already mastered the knowledge, skills or concepts weeks before, or even before the teaching program began!


Find ways to work smart! 

In other words, teachers work hard enough, so don’t make more work for yourself, instead find ways to be more efficient. If students have done the work, tick it off and be done with it. If you have to do the hard work then make sure it will set you up for a smooth routine down the track. Do your homework about your students and put your efforts into planning well so that lessons run well and you see the reward when all your students are engaged and learning. Figure out where the resources are in your school or community to help you from the beginning, not just when things get difficult. Find a system of recording learning gains that works for YOU, it could be written notes, code, Excel, an app. It doesn’t matter as long as it works for your brain, your organisational style, your preferred method of using technology etc. Don’t assume you need to use resources (including support staff) in the way everyone else does if you have a more efficient way to ensure better learning for all students. If you don’t find a way then you’ll end up giving away things such as differentiation, formative assessment and more because it feels too hard.


How will you look after yourself this school year? 

Before things get too hectic (and by Week 4 of term most teachers have already forgotten they even had a holiday!) You are in the process of setting up routines for your students so now is the time to set up routines for yourself. It is much easier to stick to something in the midst of a busy work and home life, if you have made a commitment to a team, a friend, a time or to your yourself. Let your loved ones at home know that this is what you’ll be doing and stick to it, just as you would to any other work deadline or appointment. Find an activity and time that realistically works for you, whether it is coffee with friends, a walk, a glass of wine, listening to music, exercise…schedule it in!


So even if it’s not the start of a new school year for you as you read this, it’s never too late to start over. Think about your goals afresh for your students, do some planning, take a deep breath and walk into your classroom tomorrow or next week with a new approach! Not everything works as first, especially when students aren’t used to what you are trying to do, but persist, explicitly teach, forgive yourself if things don’t work and talk to your colleagues for support and ideas.

Kylie Bice