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Virginia Journal of Education

A Flying Start

15 tips for getting the new school year rolling.

By Stephanie Sowers

A little advice can go a long way. I’ve been teaching for 15 years, and I’ve gotten some great ideas from the teacher prep program I went through at Virginia Tech, from my mentor teacher, Susan Walton, and from lots of other talented colleagues along the way. I’ve learned a few things from my own experience, too.

So I’ve come up with a list of 15 tips and ideas I hope will make your life a little easier, whether you’re a new teacher or a veteran. I offer it in hopes that it will be useful to you and your students. 

1. Decorations are just decorations.
Please don’t stress over these, or spend much of your instructional money on them, either. If your classroom looks like someone actually teaches there, it’s fine. Your room is not a reflection of your ability to teach, nor is it a competition. If you love decorating, carry on, but if not give yourself a pass. It’s fine.

If you need ideas or materials, whether you’re new or not, ask at the next faculty meeting if anyone has any posters/border that they will be willing to donate to your cause. Many veteran teachers have boxes of the stuff and would gladly give you some. I think bulletin boards should be educational from far away (what kid actually goes and reads the small print?) or used to celebrate student successes. Kids love to see their names and pictures on the board as Super Scientists or celebrated as Science Fair participants. I have one educational board idea for each unit. It has key vocabulary colorfully displayed; students can look to it for help in lessons in whichever unit we’re exploring. Once you create it, take it down carefully and put it away until next year—then you don’t have to keep making things. It’s ready to help you help your students learn.

Another great idea is from my first principal, who encouraged us to decorate our rooms and the halls with student work. Students like to see their hard work and talents celebrated.

2. Stand at the door to greet students.
I think I got this from Harry Wong’s book, First Days of School: How to be an Effective Teacher. It makes a difference: You’re either saying, “I’m ready to give you my attention” or “I’m not ready for you, sorry—this is more important than you right now.” Which message do you want to send to your students? It won’t happen for every class because you’ll always have mini-crises and small catastrophes to manage, but try to be at the door for your students. In addition to showing them you’re glad to see them, the hallway is prime territory for students to make some less-than-stellar decisions. Adult eyes can help them choose wisely. Help them by being out there.

3. Change it up—a lot.
Imagine being a student in your class. How would you feel about the level of planning and the strength of the activities set before you to help you learn the curriculum? Would you feel like the teacher actually tried, or maybe just printed the worksheet and commenced to ignore you?

Also think how a student who is not like you feels. You may be happy as a clam singing and making up a skit, but to some students these activities may be pure torture. Make sure you have choices, so students can pick something that suits them. Change up your review games, your lesson style, the types of projects, and the modalities you use to teach. The brain loves novelty; feed it something new often. If your students are happy, you’ll be too. If they’re not, well…

4. Use technology if it’s available.
For some good ideas, talk to your librarian, ask a mentor teacher, check with the technology resource teacher, and look to teachers who use technology often. Most of your students love to use computers, iPads, remote control games, etc. Tap into that interest! If you tell kids they’re going to read the book, take notes, and draw pictures about plant types, you’ll probably get a lukewarm reception; if you tell them they’re using iPads to take pictures on the nature trail and then using an app to create a concept map, most of them will jump in. Some of them still won’t and will prefer the paper-and-pencil version, but either way students are learning. They appreciate the choice and variety.

5. Get to know your students.
Learn their names, know what they like, review the student data spreadsheets, read their writing, and grade a bunch of their work at first so you can understand where they are and where they need to grow. You’ll probably have a wide variety of ability levels in your classroom; figure out who’s who so you can give them what they need to be successful.

6. Feedback, feedback, feedback.
Give it often. If you collect an assignment, try to give it back sooner rather than later. If you keep it for a long time, students won’t usually be terribly interested in reading the comments you wrote. Immediate feedback is best if possible; that way they can correct what’s wrong and learn from it. If the assignment is “Read this page, draw a picture of it and summarize it,” you can read it as they finish and correct misconceptions right away. Also, having the students switch papers to peer check, grade their own papers, or coming up and checking the assignment with answer keys on your desk are good ways to get immediate feedback. Because of the temptation to cheat, don’t make these type of assignments important grades. But if it’s a normal classwork, this can save you a ton of time you’ll definitely need for other activities, like grading, meetings, planning field trips, writing grants, preparing for labs, etc. 

The other important kind of feedback is what you receive from students: Pay attention to what’s happening in your classroom. If the kids are bored, confused or upset, you need to tweak the lesson to make it better for everyone in that class and your subsequent classes. Ask students how things went, if what they did worked, and what you can do to make it better. Along these lines, if you notice a hiccup in a lab or activity, change it in your files now—don’t wait until next year and try to remember what was wrong. You’ll appreciate this next year when you’re frantically trying to get the lab set up.

7. Ask questions. Ask a lot of them.
I think I drove my mentor teacher crazy the first year but I wanted to use her experience to help me be effective and to prevent me from falling on my face. Ask questions of your mentor and other colleagues about what works well for them. Also ask the kids questions when you’re teaching; get them out of their seats and moving, have them act out whatever it is you’re talking about, or talk with a partner about the topic. They don’t want to sit there and listen to you talk ad nauseam. Get them involved if possible, ask what they think is going to happen, why they think something happened, etc. If you have a demonstration, get them to do any part of it they can. Students love to help and it definitely increases engagement.

8. Seek resources and network.
There are lots of grants out there for teachers; if you need something for your students, look into it and write a grant. You may well get what you need. Just like the bulletin board border I mentioned earlier, ask. All people can say is no and you haven’t lost a thing. There are also lots of free things available to teachers online, so hunt around and keep an eye out for possible resources. Say, for instance, you run across a bucket of free yarn: Think of a way for kids to make that into something you’re learning about. Use what you have and what falls into your lap to make your class fun and multidimensional.

Make connections in your community. There are subject experts, museums and universities willing to help. In my area, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and other organizations have provided depth and amazing field experiences to my students. Ask around about what’s available near you. Also, parents are a great resource as speakers or volunteers in your classroom.

9. Be yourself.
Believe in yourself. Do your best—every day, and expect this from your students. Teaching is not a competition; your teaching style may be very different than your neighbor’s, but try not to grade yourself harshly. If your students are learning and having a good time most of the time, you’re doing great!

10. Be fair.
I know this sometimes seems impossible, but really try. If you say the kids can’t eat in your room then you shouldn’t, either. I personally let my students eat healthy snacks. A hungry kid is a kid who’s thinking about food, not the lesson. But if that makes you uncomfortable, it’s your domain. Do what helps you make your learning environment better. Likewise, if students aren’t allowed on their phones, you should have yours put away, too. Lead by example.

11. Tidy up. Every day.
Yeats wrote, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” and this is true in your classroom. If you don’t make a concerted effort to fight clutter and mess, entropy will reign supreme. Take a few minutes every day to clean up. Your back counter will turn into someone’s locker if you let it, and the lost and found will be in your classroom if you don’t take it elsewhere. Make an effort to get materials back to students, but if you can’t find the owner, send it to lost and found. The top of your desk will be a disaster, too, if you don’t fight the good fight. Make a system for papers or you’ll lose them, causing headaches for you and your students. And remember the earlier reference to feedback: get student papers back quickly. I know you won’t always be able to keep your desk clean, but try. Also, be sure you tell students not to put papers on your desk. Your desk will eat them. Especially if he or she didn’t put it on there…but said they did. So, if a student tries to give you a paper but you can’t take it at that moment, have them put it in the class tray, or in some designated place so your desk doesn’t engulf it, never to be seen again.

12. SOLs are not all bad.
If you’re new, you’ve heard about them in your teacher prep courses; if you’re a veteran, you have an array of feelings about them. Here’s my opinion, take it or leave it: they’re useful because they tell us what our students should know and how in-depth we should explore a topic. Then, assessments can measure how well our students are learning and how effective we are. Accountability is a good thing. However, aspects of these tests need to be corrected. In some schools, I know too much emphasis is put on them, to the detriment of the overall educational experience. I also know a few students could probably take the test the first day of school and do well, and others won’t pass the test because they’re far below grade level and the test is impossible to them. Kids need recess and a variety of classes; to narrow the curriculum and emphasize one test seems like a really bad idea. We need to educate the whole child, not just the part that remembers math facts or the phases of the moon. The SOLs are a tool for assessment, not the whole point of the year. Educated citizenry, that’s the point.

13. Communicate with parents.
There are many ways to keep parents informed about how their child is doing: online grade books, Remind apps, email, your class website and periodic letters, to name a few. Use them. Parents really do want to help. Sometimes a phone call makes a big difference, sometimes it doesn’t. But you have to try by picking up the phone.

14. What you do is important, but what the kids do is far more important.
Some teachers spend a lot of time prepping for an aspect of the lesson that takes about five minutes to do. You only have so much prep time—make it count. Think about activities students are doing every day and change it up. What are they learning? How do you know they’re learning?

Insert play, if possible. Make things a game; competition is a fun way to make vocabulary more interesting. Bingo, Science Says, relay races, sidewalk chalk art contests, clay modeling, the list goes on. Science Says is a game, a kinesthetic way to make vocabulary practice fun. It is played like “Simon Says” but instead you act out the vocabulary. For example, when I call out “nucleus” students point to their brains, “cell membrane” they point to their skin and make some great sound effects, “vacuole” their bellies, etc. If they do the wrong thing they’re out. If you are learning about symbiosis have students play a version of “rock, paper, scissors,” “thumbs up, down or sideways,” two thumbs up= mutualism, one up, one down= parasitism, or one up, one sideways = commensalism. Use your imagination to make up silly games with your content to get your kids out of their seats interacting with each other and the content wherever possible.

15. Ask this question: “Is it good for kids?” 
Does this lesson help my students be better thinkers, writers, creators or scientists? Will this activity help them with their interpersonal skills? Whatever’s most important for you to impart to your students along with the curriculum, like love of literacy, inquiry, or stewardship—does your lesson help teach it well?

So there you go, some ideas born from my experience. I hope some of it can help make your year a little better. Know that every day is not going to be fun. There will be challenging days when you will feel completely defeated and worn out. But also know that you do make a difference and you have the opportunity to make the world a better place on a daily basis.

Conversely, know that if every day is tough, then teaching may not be your calling. Many people try it and find it’s not right for them. To be successful at this gig, you need to like kids and enjoy working with them. Spending your days with young people and helping them become productive, creative, informed citizens should be a rewarding and fulfilling endeavor (well, most days).

To quote Mahatma Gandhi, get out there and “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Sowers, a member of the Gloucester Education Association, teaches life science at Peasley Middle School. Last year, she was a state finalist for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science. She can be reached at



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