As I’m writing this, you’ve probably already pinned 100 new ideas for your back to school decor on Pinterest. You very well might be simultaneously stalking a corner of the Target Dollar Spot. Maybe you’re even wish-listing things for your classroom on Amazon. And if you’re not doing one of these two things, you’re almost certainly scrolling through Instagram with major “Insta-classroom envy” every other post you see.
It’s hard to not get caught up in all of the back to school hype and the visual overstimulation of the internet and stores that you go to every week. Let’s face it - the marketing is on point. They’ve got us figured out and everything coming out of our favorite stores is just SO STINKIN ADORABLE.
Here’s where things get real though. I want to give you a reality check. I can’t help but wonder, when I look at these Pinterest/Instagram perfect classrooms, what’s missing? Not from the individual teachers who have crafted these gorgeous temples, but what’s missing from our back to school mindset?
Sometimes back to school reminds me of Christmas: with so much distraction, decor, and festivity, it can be easy to lose the importance of the day in all the madness. At Christmastime, we forget how important it is to celebrate family and to be grateful for what we have; at back to school time, we forget how important it is to connect with students and revisit last year’s mistakes with the intention of making each year a better experience for students.
So before you go spend another Dollar Tree dollar, here are FOUR things to do that are MORE IMPORTANT than your Pinterest-perfect classroom.
1. Authentically connect with students.
Every year I build a Meet Your Teacher presentation into the first week of classes. And it’s a long presentation. I tell my students my story - not to boast or to get too personal, but to give them a genuine look at my life and my passions. I share with them some of my biggest trials (shattering my ACL, MCL, and meniscus junior year of high school during a soccer game where I was being recruited by Division 1 schools), my successes (athletically, professionally, and educationally), my worldly travels and adventures (I show as many pictures as possible - so many of them don’t even know travel is possible!), and my education story. This presentation takes precious hours to put together and adjust year to year, but they’re so much more worth it to me than a new bulletin board. After my presentation, the students write me a letter in response about their own stories and let me tell you - after I’ve just been so transparent about my life, I get the same thing back from them. In these letters I’ve read about childhood abuse, pregnancies, divorces, and so many other intimate details of students’ lives that I wouldn’t have learned until much, much later in the semester. Now, moving forward, I am learning how to better serve each and every one of my kiddos.
2. Establish Routines and Systems
This part of back to school preparation might be linked to some shopping and/or decorating, but it’s the system that’s important. Systems and routines make your classroom run: they create the predictability that students need for their best behavior and attention. Think about this year and see if you can answer these questions:
How will students get their homework assignments for each day?
Where do students see targets for each class period?
How will I hand back graded work?
How will class start and end each day?
If students need to leave class for any reason, how will I handle it?
Where in my room can I send a student that needs to relocate?
How will my students be trained to bring their 1:1 devices every day?
What will my assessment revision policy be?
Where will students access supplies? How will I keep it organized?
This is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Make these decisions before you find bins and trays and start going nuts on your label maker.
3. Connect with Colleagues
The teaching profession is getting lonelier all the time. Teachers, annoyed with policies and administration, retreat into their classrooms and only come out when it’s time to gossip. How can you prevent that from happening to you? Your team? Your department? Find time (again, this is time away from obsessing over a HP themed classroom) to meet with your colleagues and build each other up for the school year ahead. You might:
Write a joint mission statement or motto for the upcoming school year
Take a group picture and put the same one on every syllabus - send the message that WE are all your teachers and you are ALL our students
Plan a monthly social event, gathering, or silly thing to do at school
Let’s build schools with community rather than competition. Make it a point to not just be a classroom teacher, but a hallway teacher and a teacher the whole school knows has students as her priority.
4. Reflect and Set Goals
Teachers have the beautiful little luxury of getting the chance to start over. Every single year, we get to hit the reset button and adjust the way things get done. Before school starts, make a quick list of lessons, systems, routines, or other things that you didn’t really like the year before. What was always an annoyance? Next, make a similar list with ideas for solutions to those problems. Finally, set some fun, creative, pedagogical goals for the upcoming year. What are the new trends in education that seem worth trying? Be an adventurous teacher! What will you try next? Gamification? A digital breakout? Digital interactive notebooks for bell ringers? Pick just one or two things you want to try. Keep your teaching fresh by at least attempting one new methodology per semester!
Focus on what matters, play later
Let me be REALLY CLEAR: it is SO MUCH FUN to decorate our classrooms for back to school. It might even be more fun to get lost on Pinterest and Instagram dreaming about the most neon-tastic classroom ever. So many teachers are so artfully talented and their crafting is just off the charts, and to you I say WOW! But to everyone out there stressin’ out about keeping up with the social media classroom decor hype, let me be clear: what happens in your room far outweighs how beautifully decorated it is. Prioritize your summer on these four things: authentic connection, routines, collegial bonding, and reflection and goal setting. Once these things feel established, feel free to resume your Dollar Spot stalking.