Podcast panel: Tips for a successful start to the school year

This podcast from Teacher is supported by MacKillop Seasons, whose Seasons for Life project supports schools with loss and grief following a suicide and other loss event.

Hello, and thanks for listening to this podcast special from Teacher magazine, I’m Rebecca Vukovic.

We’re right at the beginning of a new school year here in Australia. That means most of you are busy setting up your classrooms, meeting new students and establishing relationships with them and their families. For those students who are moving up from preschool or primary or for those educators who switched jobs over the summer break, it could mean getting your head around a completely different school and local community.

In today’s special episode, I have spoken with several winners from last year’s Teacher Awards to ask them their most valuable tips, strategies and priorities for starting the school year off right and giving yourself the best chance for a successful year. The panel of teachers and school leaders all work in a diverse range of settings across the country, and all have a wealth of experience to share. As you’ll hear in the episode, they offer some great advice on establishing relationships with both students and staff, setting routines and boundaries, and how to get the most out of your preparation and planning. Let’s jump in.

Rebecca Vukovic: First up, we’re going to hear from Todd Zadow from St Margaret’s Berwick Grammar in Victoria. Todd was named winner of the Cultivating an Inclusive and Positive Culture category of the Teacher Awards last year. Here are his top tips for those first few weeks of term 1.

Todd Zadow: Hi, I'm Todd Zadow. I'm the Science Learning Leader and Learning Analytics Coordinator at St Margaret’s Berwick Grammar. We're a co-educational, non-denominational independent school about 50 kilometres southeast of Melbourne.

At the start of the year, I think it's really important to invest time into building that positive culture and that relationship between you and your class, because that will pay dividends later on and one simple way that you can do that, at least at the start of the year, is to get to know their names. I know it sounds simple, but it's a really powerful thing. Not only in terms of giving the perception that you care about them, and research shows that students do learn best when they perceive their teachers as liking them, and this is one very simple way of doing that, but also learning their names can be really powerful from a behaviour management perspective, calling students out specifically by their name can often be just all that's required.

So get to know their names. There are a few ways that you can do that. One is, you know, you can turn it into an artistic kind of activity where they can create little colourful name plates for their desks and they can bring that with them every class. But you can also do various name learning activities and team building activities with them, but just be mindful that other teachers in other subjects may be doing the same sort of activities with this class and you run the risk of a bit of overkill. So just touch base with the other teachers perhaps as well and just make sure that you're not doubling up on some of these activities. So getting to know their names, getting to know the pronunciation of their names is really important because it shows that you are making that conscious effort. But also, don't be afraid to reveal a bit about yourself too, to your students. Maybe some of your hobbies or your interests because that will help build that reciprocal relationship, which again will pay dividends later on.

So in addition to getting to know your students, maybe your students getting to know you a little bit, also set clear expectations and boundaries for your class. And one way that I often do this is basically like a brainstorming activity. The students will have some idea of what appropriate behaviour is already, so just brainstorm on the board a bit of a contract, some norms that we can all agree on and that is a contract that you can always refer back to then. You can even take a photo of it and down the track, maybe in term 2 or term 3, when they've gotten a bit more confident and maybe a bit more rowdy, you can always refer them back to that original contract that you created and that they all agreed to as a class. So there's just a few tips I think for starting off the year.

RV: Next up we are going to hear from Catherine Young, Leader of Learning PK-6 at Newman College in Western Australia. Catherine was the 2023 recipient of the Improving Student Learning and Progress award. On the topic of setting up routines, boundaries or practices early on with students to ensure you have a successful year, Catherine shares this wisdom.

Catherine Young: I like to spend time at the beginning of every year teaching the routines, boundaries and practices that I like to implement in my lessons, and this really helps to lead to a more successful year. I like to discuss the behaviour expectations with my students by using a picture book. My favourite is the story What if everybody did that? and this is a story of a little boy who doesn't follow the rules in his little world and all the things that go wrong because of it. So the students then start talking about our classroom and the expectations of behaviours. What are the norms that we expect to see in our classroom and in our school as well? And we talk about, well, what if we don't follow those rules? What would we then see? What would we then experience in our classroom and school? And by talking about it very explicitly, it makes it clearer as to why we have these types of rules in the classroom and in the school. I also find that having this discussion that is student-led is far more powerful than me just preparing a list of rules on a piece of paper and putting it up on the wall in the classroom.

The second area that I spend time teaching is the routines and procedures that I expect to see in the classroom. How do the students manage their belongings, their textbooks, their pencil cases? All these little things I find that explicitly modelling and showing them how to do this successfully really gives them the independence and empowers them to be more successful, to have agency over their own learning. And it has less intervention from me if I spend time doing this early on.

I also spend time explicitly teaching the engagement norms that I use in my lessons. So this includes the attention signal. I like to use call and response a lot and this varies depending on the time of the day or the level of noise in the classroom and what's needed. One of my favourites is waterfalls, where I say ‘waterfalls’ and everyone says ‘shhhh’. I find it quite calming and more low key when I need everyone's attention for learning. I also use mini white boards regularly in my lessons and for checking for understandings. So I teach students how to chin it to show me what they've done on their work. And how to manage the resources collecting, handing out, organising, storing and all of those things. I also teach the phrases that I use for instruction like ‘track with me’ for when I expect students to follow along with the text that I either had on the board or on a piece of paper in front of them, or ‘read with me’ when I expect students to read along as a whole class with me. And by spending time explicitly teaching all of these routines and expectations, then my lessons actually run a lot smoother, and I find I can spend all my time and energy on the content, skills, and processes that I'm trying to teach, as opposed to managing the lesson.

RV: We all know how important it is to establish positive, respectful relationships with students and here, Catherine shares how she goes about doing this in the first few weeks of a new school year.

CY: Establishing positive, respectful relationships with the students and with their families, I find, is the first thing that I work towards in the school year. This is then what we build on for our learning and creating a safe environment for students to take risks and to have a go and to make mistakes and to feel safe and for their parents as well to trust me in the teaching and learning processes that I'm using in the classroom. Before the students arrive, I always share a profile of myself on Seesaw so the families and students can learn a little bit about me and maybe find a way to connect with me through picture of my dog or my favourite foods and hobbies. I always ask students to create their own profile in a creative way where I can display this in the classroom throughout the year and it's a way that I like to create a sense of belonging in the room and I always find a way to discuss some of the things they shared and little points of connection that I have with each student.

I also like to use whole class games to create a climate of cooperation and positivity. One of the games I like to use is called Who is the leader? where everyone sits in a circle and follows a leader doing simple hand motions. One detective then leaves the room while the leader is chosen and when the detective comes back, they have to figure out who everybody's following. It's a great way to practise names of this class and the students and to work together as a team because we have to try and fool the detective. Following those sorts of games, I like to use a ‘why chart’ to talk about what respect is, and so the students share what it looks like, feels like, and sounds like. And this can really clarify for the class what everyone is expecting and what they want from the classroom and how they want to be respected. So it's a good teaching tool for what behaviours show respect and then following that, that's what we expect in the classroom.

As well as all these discussions about the student expectations, one of my favourite activities is where the students get to tell me what are the teacher expectations that they have. It's a very useful way to let me know of how the class is feeling. What's the climate of the class? And often their previous experiences with different teachers will inform these expectations that they have. What were the things they loved in their last teachers? And they'll share this with me. So everybody gets a sticky note and they get to write down what they want from me throughout the school year. The responses usually have 2 main threads – they want to have opportunities to play and they want their learning to be fun. And so this leads me to planning what type of things that they find fun and using that information to build the engagement in the lessons that I'm planning.

RV: According to Catherine, preparation and planning are one of her main tips for starting off the school year successfully. Here she is chatting about how she does this in her own practice at Newman College.

CY: At Newman College, we start preparing the year before by having a really thorough handover process. We have assigned meeting times where we get to meet with the previous teacher and we discuss every student’s learning needs, behaviour and social and emotional needs. And this information is really invaluable as I plan for the incoming class and helps me prepare and have differentiation and supports that are needed.

I really enjoy the planning and programming side of teaching. And one of the first things I always have done is to map the curriculum across the whole year. So this year in my new role, I've shared this with the staff so every unit is actually mapping the curriculum for their year level. I find this is a really useful way to get to know the curriculum really deeply, but also to see opportunities for alignment of where integrated units could be prepared and planned so that time is used really wisely. As we all know, there's not much time in the day for everything we need to get done. This type of curriculum map really saves time when it's time to start planning units of work, as the outcomes that are need to be addressed is very clearly laid out and the timeframe that is needed to get it done.

My last tip for being prepared at the beginning of the year is to have a really clear idea of what are the expectations from the school on you for planning your term. Are there any assessments that you need to get done? Or what weeks are they expected? And by really understanding and knowing all of these things, you can plan for them within your unit programs so that you don't feel overwhelmed or end up rushing to get things done in time and feeling like you've sort of lost track of the purpose of the lessons that you're doing. This is something I found really useful at the beginning of every term is to include what does the school want from me in the assessment schedule? In any excursions that are happening? In any whole school activities that are happening? And by planning to accommodate these, it really reduces the feeling of overwhelm when everything starts to happen at once and the school year starts going.

This year, I actually prepared the year's assessment schedule and planning expectations and everything like that and gave it to the staff at the end of last year, because I really wanted to help reduce the stress around the busyness of the school year and I feel like being prepared and planning for all of these things can really lead to a more successful school year.

Coming up, we hear from more of our Teacher Award winners who have plenty more to share on how to best prepare for a successful school year. But first, here’s a quick message from our sponsor.

You’re listening to a podcast from Teacher magazine, supported by MacKillop Seasons, whose Seasons for Life project supports young people affected by suicide and other loss events throughout Australia. Free for Australian high schools and based on the strong evidence-base of the Seasons for Growth change, loss and grief education programs, the Seasons for Life project builds wellbeing, resilience, social and emotional coping skills, and strengthens supportive relationships.

RV: The winners of the Special Contribution Award at the 2023 Teacher Awards was in fact the entire school community of Broadwater Public School in New South Wales, whose school, homes and township were devastated by floods in February 2022. Broadwater itself is a small town of around 600 people. The school is a small school – it has 51 students, a staff of 3 full-time teachers, including a teaching principal, 2 part-time teachers, 2 school administrators and 2 school learning support officers. Here, you’re going to hear from Debra Watts and Bronwyn Cole on their top tips for the 2024 school year.

Debra Watts: Hi, my name is Debra Watts. I'm the [year] 4/5/6 teacher at Broadwater Public School.

Bronwyn Cole: Hi, I'm Bronwyn Cole. I'm the relieving principal at Broadwater Public School.

DW: So in my experience, when you start off the school year and you'll probably agree with me, Bron, is that you really have to be really organised, have your programming right down pat. I really think you got to get to know your class. You've got to see what works. I mean, you can have your seating plan set up, but you're really got to be flexible around it, because it also depends how the class goes at the beginning of the year and I really believe starting a starting and establishing routines from the day dot really works.

BC: Absolutely. Yeah, I would definitely agree with all of those. I also have the ideas of having a sense of ownership for the students. So getting their artwork or their classwork up nice and quickly, having a talk with them about expectations for in the classroom. Giving them a bit of a chat about routines and having yourself those high expectations for behaviour and for their effort and setting the bar high.

DW: Yep. Do you see any difference between a senior class and a kindergarten class?

BC: Yeah, I would think so. Absolutely. I think most definitely it's different between junior and senior class. For example, in the junior classes, when I've been teaching, you might be teaching routines like how to glue a little piece of paper into a book or where does a glue stick go, which would be much different to what you would be teaching in a senior class.

DW: Yeah, so with the senior class I've been really working with the class to try and write their own class expectations and making established routines that's going to work for the class themselves. So like we said before, giving them some ownership in their own learning from the beginning. I think both classes you’ve got to be really explicit with your instructions, so how you want your classroom to run, has to start from the very beginning and let them be aware of that. And I also think an early parent meeting so the parents are also on board with the class expectations, so they know how you like your classroom to be run and what's going to be happening with homework and things over the year.

BC: Yeah, we do a class meeting here at Broady at the start of each year where the parents can come in and meet with the classroom teachers and go over exactly those things Deb has just talked about. It's also a really good opportunity for the parents to share things with us that they might like us to know about their students too, because it's so important to get to know your students but it's also very beneficial to get to know the families and the circumstances around that as well.

DW: And we're probably lucky, Bron, when it comes to establishing a relationship with the students and staff, because with the advantage that we work in a small school and we actually do know our students and staff quite well. I have a quick chat about the students and getting to establish routines with them. I think it's really good at the beginning of the year to have ‘getting to know you’ activities, find out what their passions are. I also like the idea of sitting down, maybe in a circle and having the class share what they want to happen over the year and like sort of jotting those down. Do they want to do more sport? Do they really want to do a lot of art? So at least when you're programming, you can program for what they enjoy. And as we said before, really explicit in that beginning time about routines and expectations.

BC: Definitely. So in my role as a relieving principal this year, I've had a wonderful experience with my staff here who are all an amazing group of people that work very, very well together. In my role, I feel like it's important that the staff feel that they're being listened to and that they feel confident enough to share their ideas and thoughts and know that action will be taken on those things. Doing things like having a morning tea or a special lunch just to get to know each other outside of the school context also really helps gives you some more ways to relate with each other. I truly believe that staff that feel valued and listened to and staff that are encouraged to share their ideas like I mentioned, in my experience are more inclined to engage on a deeper level in their role and I think that truly here at Broadwater, they do that very well.

DW: Yep, definitely we are appreciated here in Broadwater, 100% Bronwyn.

BC: Thanks, Deb.

DW: That’s OK. And lastly, preparation planning, it comes down to again being organised – books, equipment, programming – everything has to be ready to go day one.

BC: Yeah, even in your classroom set up, I know it's easy to get caught up in (and I'm guilty of it myself) spending time in the holidays, researching different classroom layouts and different ways to set up displays. I think it's very, very easy to get sucked down the wormhole with that or the rabbit hole and sort of lose your focus. So I think definitely focus on what you're going to teach and know what you're going to teach and the classroom set up as a basic setup and the rest of it will come.

DW: Yeah, know your content and classroom setup. I think also with the classroom setup, I think with a floorplan you have to be flexible because sometimes in your mind, you’ve got this great set up and then when you get the class in and you're like, ‘Well, that doesn't really work. I can't see that certain student. They need to be moved around here.’

BC: Very true.

DW: So I think you have to be prepared but flexible.

BC: Absolutely.

RV: There were so many fantastic tips there, and so interesting to hear their different approaches from both a teacher and school leader perspective. Okay, up next we have Kate O’Donnell from GOAL College in Sydney. She won the Improving Health and Wellbeing award last year and here are her top tips for starting off the year.

Kate O’Donnell: Hi everybody. My name is Kate O'Donnell and I am the principal at Goal College in Sydney. I think for starting the year successfully, my biggest tip would be to be organised and to get to know your students and I'd include in that not only the brand-new students coming into the school, but the ones who are returning. It's always a good idea to go in with fresh eyes and to allow yourself to get to know who those kids are and what strengths and challenges that they're bringing. I think if we are open to knowing our students before we focus on the teaching of the curriculum, that's probably the best tip I can give you to make sure that you set yourself up for success.

RV: According to Kate, it’s really important to establish mutual respect between teachers and students in the first few weeks of a new school year. Here’s how she goes about doing this in her own school context.

KO: So I think in terms of establishing relationship with staff early on, there's a couple of things that are really important, and one of those is genuinely being open and available for staff to be able to approach you, to let you know if they're struggling or to talk to you about what they need.

I do a couple of yearly formal check-ins with staff, but one of the things my staff have said to me is that actually having me around in a less formal sense, going into classrooms, sitting in staffrooms, actually chatting with them is really helpful to them in knowing that they have a connection and that it's safe to come and talk to me as a principal.

In terms of making connections with students for the teaching staff. I think there it's about again being really open as students want to be seen, they want to actually know that you know them and that you are prepared to listen to them, and particularly for senior students, it's really important to them to know that the school is a safe place for them to be able to talk about who they are and the challenges that they're having both in and outside of school. I think that is around creating an atmosphere of trust and as much as possible, a calm atmosphere for students so that they know that if they're perhaps dysregulated in their emotion, this is still a safe place and they're not going to get a similarly dysregulated response from the adults that they are interacting with.

In terms of establishing mutual respect and bearing in mind that my school is a senior school just for year 11 and 12, so these tips are more useful when you're dealing with senior students I think, rather than very young students. But respect is something that is earned over time. If you have students who are coming into school who have not had good experiences in school or with teachers, they will not automatically necessarily respect or trust the adults that they're interacting with. It's really important for senior students to understand that they will be listened to if there is a dispute or there is a point of crisis and that requires calmness on the part of the adults.

I can strongly recommend, if you have a situation where a teacher is struggling with a particular student or a student has a difficult relationship with the teacher, that a mediated conversation with a calm, external third party and in many cases in our school that will be me as the principal – but our counsellor or other senior staff can also take this role – where we actually work through what is this conversation going to look like? So I will sit down with the student in advance of the mediated conversation and allow them to express whatever their frustration is and talk them through what the other side’s point of view may be. And I similarly do that with teachers because teachers can be very anxious in this situation as well, feeling that they're potentially being undermined or that they're not going to be supported in managing a difficult situation with a student.

So having pre conversations with each of the people who are in the relationship that is struggling and then going into a mediated conversation where the role of the mediator is to control the conversation, to allow everybody to speak, but to make sure that that is managed in a mutually respectful way, is an incredibly helpful strategy to use if you're in a position where there's difficulty. And of course, with students coming back to us, they might be coming into the new year already bringing, you know, negative attitudes, bad behaviour or resentment. You need to get on top of those things before they become major problems. Otherwise, you know, then it becomes very difficult to disentangle.

RV: And finally, we’re going to hear again from Todd Zadow. This time he’s offering some tips for early career teachers on how to best plan and prepare for the school year. Here’s Todd.

TZ: Planning and preparation are so important, especially in those early years, because I remember when I first started, I would pretty much write a script word for word with what I was going to say in each of my lessons. And although they didn't always go to plan and often didn't go to plan, I think it helped me with the level of confidence with which I walked into that classroom and the students pick up on that. If you walk into your classroom and you're not prepared, then you won't have that confidence walking into that room and they'll absolutely sense that. And that can obviously lead to some behavioural issues as well. So do yourself a favour and do your planning. For some people like me, early on that involved breaking the lesson up into chunks, like 2- or 3-minute segments and I used that to sort of guide the progress of the lesson. But for some people it just might involve having a few prompts and using those to guide you through the lesson. But do the planning (whichever level you're comfortable with) because once you have that planning under your belt then you'll have a lot more confidence walking into that classroom.

Best of luck to all of the graduate teachers. This is a really special and rewarding profession that you're walking into. Don't be afraid to ask for help and know that you're going to make a significant impact on the lives of these young people.

That’s all for this episode. A big thank you to my guests Todd Zadow, Catherine Young, Debra Watts, Bronwyn Cole and Kate O’Donnell for joining me on this very special episode. I hope you, our listeners, got a lot out of it and feel that it has helped you with some of those tips and tricks for the year ahead. As usual, a full transcript of this episode is available at teachermagazine.com. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast channel on Spotify, Apple podcasts or SoundCloud, so you can be notified of any new episodes and while you’re there, we’d love if you could rate and review us.

You’ve been listening to a podcast from Teacher, supported by MacKillop Seasons, Seasons for Life, supporting schools and young people affected by suicide and other significant losses. Visit mackillopseasons.org.au.

As a teacher or school leader, what are your own top tips for starting off the school year?

What are some of the routines, boundaries or practices you try to implement early on to ensure you have a successful year?

On the topic of preparation and planning, how do you ensure that you’re ready to go when students start back at the beginning of term 1?