The start of a new school year brings with it great excitement and just a little sense of panic and chaos. We have new students, new classes, new teachers and new challenges. We spend time getting to know each other and building trust. The first few weeks seem to fly by and despite our best efforts we never seem to achieve quite everything we imagined we might. Watch the start of a marathon and you see a similar scenario as runners jostle position and endeavour to gain an advantage in the first few hundred metres. The start is an explosion of adrenalin and colour as the planning and preparation that has led up to this moment is finally tested. But just like a marathon the school year is long and the initial panic of the start is soon forgotten as we enter the second phase between the sprint and the marathon proper.
While the start is important and we all like to make a positive first impression it is the accumulation of our efforts and the little things we do every day that matters most. In this early stage as we set up the patterns and routines that will see us through the rest of the year it is valuable to keep the ‘long game’ in mind. These early days are the time when we begin to understand our learners more deeply and gain a more complete picture of their needs. This is a process that is worth giving time to. Taking a slower more relaxed approach ensures we make the right choices and ask the important questions.
For our students this is the time when they learn to trust us as the guide they will require for the year ahead. Across the days and weeks at the start of each year they are told what to expect and what is expected of them. Promises are made and exciting opportunities for learning are outlined. In the coming weeks they will judge the reality of the promises that have been made and see if what we claim to value in our welcome speeches is evident in our actions. Handled well the result will be students who feel known and trust that their teachers will meet their learning needs; handled poorly and the damage can be hard to undo.
For students new to a school the next few weeks may be very important. The initial celebrity that comes with being new wears off and fresh friendship circles are rapidly forming about them. Some will negotiate this space with ease but many will find challenges here. This is the time when our pastoral care programmes earn their keep and a culture of acceptance and inclusion pays off.
The initial weeks of term are likely to be largely teacher directed as routines are set in place, although there is great advantage in giving students voice and choice early on. If we claim to value student agency in our classrooms we must give them a say in the management of our shared spaces. With this behind us we can consider the opportunities to ensure the learning that occurs in our classes is owned by the students. The classroom by now will be showing signs of occupation and the pretty store bought posters give way to items produced by the students. Evidence of the learning process will start to show through and students should be able to have a say in how their learning spaces are constructed and used. Choice in learning is something discussed previously on this site and it should extend to the way that students interact with the physical reality of their classroom.
Slowing the pace at this point in the year is essential too. The initial panic at the beginning of the year is often a construct of our fear that we have so much to achieve and so little time to do it. Compared to the students who have just left us this new group naturally seems to be in need of so much work; after all they are a full year behind but it is easy to forget this. The desire to bridge that gap as quickly as possible is natural but will not benefit our students. Taking a step back and identifying each little step towards our collective goals for the year is important. This is also the ideal time to remind ourselves that learning should be more about the journey than the destination. Our students might need to be ready for high school or final exams or even University in just twelve months time but they also need to enjoy where they are now with their learning.
For us as teams of teachers the start of the year also brings new challenges. We arrive back at school refreshed and renewed. Some of us will be new to the school, others will be in new teams and some will be renegotiating well known connections. At the start of the new year a period of ‘storming' within our teams is typical as relationships are tested and negotiated. Beyond this phase comes a somewhat dangerous period of ‘norming' where team cohesion appears. This can be a time of calm as much of the stress of the initial weeks is put behind us and the teams natural rhythm surfaces. The danger is that too much cohesion can lead to 'group think’ where divergent thinking disappears. Effective teams should be able to shift back and forth between divergent patterns of thinking where new ideas explode into possibility and convergent patterns where the best of those ideas are put into place. Throughout the marathon that is a school year including opportunities to shake things up with some quality divergence keeps teams fresh.
It might be the start of the term that gains headlines but the coming weeks as we shift into marathon mode are just as vital to success at the end of the year. How we use this time, what we value from our students in these weeks, how we engage them in the process of learning and how we put our philosophies of teaching and learning into practice will set a tone that will carry us though the long weeks to come. This year’s journey has begun, now is the time to settle in and enjoy it.
By Nigel Coutts