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August 13, 2021

We Belong: The First Week of School I Wish I Had

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Classroom Management
Instructional Strategies
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Credit: Credit: Fanatic Studio / Gary Waters / Alamy Stock Photo

A survival guide to foster belonging from day one.

It’s 2016. I was 22-years old and facing a classroom of students—my classroom—for the very first time. 
At first, I didn’t see signs of trouble. I’d decorated the space to be as colorful and culturally relevant as any other exemplary middle school Spanish classroom: There were flags, globes, grammar posters, and desks appropriately placed for group work. 
The first few days were a breeze.
Why does everyone say teaching middle school is hard? I wondered.
But then it started: Because I hadn’t prepared for effective boundaries and strategies to connect with my students personally, some began to test limits—one stole pipe cleaners meant for a later activity, another lounged on his chair and sulked for an entire period (presumably because of something that happened at home), refusing to participate, and the loud voices in the room became domineering, silencing the students who were trying to learn. 
For many months, I pondered what went wrong in my first week of teaching, which subsequently set the tone for the academic year. Now, finally, I can tell you. 

To Foster Belonging from Day 1, Preparation is Vital 

According to the recently released ASCD book, We Belong: 50 Strategies to Create Community and Revolutionize Classroom Management by Laurie Barron and Patti Kinney (ASCD, 2021), classroom management and belonging go hand-in-hand. 
“Good, positive management will always be beneficial,” they write, “but on its own it’s not enough to make the kind of headway on belonging that students need for an optimal school experience.”
If I could turn back the clock to chat with that fresh teacher full of ambition but short on experience, this is what I’d say: Do the work early to prepare for an environment that fosters connection and community and set yourself up for success immediately. 
For example, We Belong recommends writing to family before school begins or within the first few days. Looking back, while I’d sent a form letter to parents, I hadn’t written a personalized letter to every student that invited each of them into our new community—instead, I’d written in general terms, kept it formal, and neglected to portray much excitement. But the letter home is not the only key to fostering long-term belonging; the first day of school can be just as vital.
Barron and Kinney recommend that each student, no matter the grade level, should leave your classroom the first day of school believing the following:
  • I’m going to be safe here.
  • We’re going to be serious about learning, treating one another well, and getting along. Everyone here matters equally.
  • Learning is going to be active and creative. We’re going to work together as well as on our own.
  • I can be academically successful here. 
  • We’re going to be heard. My ideas, interests, and experiences matter.
  • I’m going to belong here.
  • I want to come back.
It’s an ambitious list. So, how do the authors recommend getting there? Helpfully, they provide a “Day 1 Checklist” full of compelling ideas: 
They also provide a template to help teachers sketch out a day-one plan that “emphasizes a spirit of enthusiasm, learning, and belonging.”
Preparation for belonging is a powerful tool to add to any teaching arsenal, and it doesn’t have to feel overwhelming. As the authors state, practicing self-care leading up to and during that first week is key.
2016 wasn’t a total disaster for me. I followed many of the self-care strategies referenced by Barron and Kinney: I rode my bike after work and made sure to leave space on weekends for “nothing” time.

Why It Matters

Gearing up for a new school year can be intimidating, especially for first-year teachers. Sometimes I think no amount of work could have completely prepared me for that first week of school. 
Still, the strategies offered by Barron and Kinney are useful, even in hindsight. It is always a good idea to brainstorm and check current practices (even for veteran teachers). And it is especially useful to reflect how, as the authors suggest, one’s current classroom management strategies can enhance belonging.
As it happens, Barron and Kinney’s work also addresses one of the most pressing issues facing education today: As recent studies show, the pandemic has negatively affected students’ well-being and sense of connection. 
This makes We Belong an especially timely resource. “Any effort and time you invest in increasing connection for students,” the authors write, “will have a profound effect on their overall social, emotional, and academic well-being and on how your classroom feels and functions.” 
In turn, educators can spend more time cultivating a sense of belonging in their students and less time on behavior management.
It’s a win-win for yourself and your students. 
The first few days of a new school year will never be a breeze (as I thought), but with these tools, teachers can create a space where everyone belongs.
If you would like to read more, the first chapter of We Belong, which addresses the strategies in this post, is available to read online.

Esteban Bachelet is the associate writer of Educational Leadership magazine.

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