Building Your Classes for Next Year

Interesting Ideas

An Interesting Idea came to me when we were beginning our new school. Originally I thought we would only need this process in the first couple of years, but I was incorrect.  We ended up repeating this procedure each year around this time as a ‘way we do things around here’ .  The response from staff was so strong and the results of the process were so successful that we continued the tradition from that day forward.  It does take some time but like many things in our schools, we can give it the attention it deserves when you first do it or you end up having to spend way more time with it later when you are trying to repair it.  

I wanted to share this Interesting Idea with you today. 

At about this time, schools in Ontario are winding down the year and you are beginning preparations for a new school year to start in September.  One of the big tasks that is done at this time is creating the classes of students for the following year.

Prior to coming to the school I had been an administrator in four others schools and had seen lots of examples of how this process was done.  Going to a new school I had seen the process that was in place and I’m sorry to say that in some cases I left the meeting feeling awful about what I had just witnessed and been a part of.

Teachers were coming to the meeting with predetermined ideas of where students should be placed the following year.

Teachers were coming and making sure their colleagues in the next grade got particular students in their classes

Unprofessional comments were made about students and what kind of year they had had

The use of deficit language to describe the skills and abilities of students and even the ranking and listing of students from struggling to highly able was done in order to sift and sort.

The entire process was done in one session, with names on post it notes and teachers just placing them on posters with little or no discussion.

It was not going to be this way.  We were going to take our time, we were going to get lots of information ‘on the table’ and we were going to involve many stakeholders.

Tom Hierck's Seven Keys To a Positive Learning Environment in Your Classroom
Tom Hierck’s Seven Keys To a Positive Learning Environment in Your Classroom

In Tom Hierck’s book, Seven Keys To a Positive Learning Environment in Your Classroom he comments,

‘Establishing positive learning environments-collaboratively created, systemically sustained-is focused, powerful work that every school should consider’ (p.1)

Hierck, T. (2017). Seven Keys To a Positive Learning Environment in Your Classroom

We were going to do our class building, one grade at a time in a process that respected and utilized the following keys:

Common expectations

Collaborative teams

Data-driven dialogue

School wide approach

As a school we shared the process and the proper use of language.  We were going to speak about students from a strengths and needs standpoint.  After all, in our school we honoured our posters that said, ’positive comments spoken here’.

Positive Comments Poster
Positive Comments Poster

We were all reminded that each child is someone’s child and we were going to discuss their DNA (desires, needs, assets)

“ When teachers and learners work together, they can isolate the individual’s learning DNA…Such data are invaluable in the teaching and learning process’(p. 41)

Hierck, T. (2017). Seven Keys To a Positive Learning Environment in Your Classroom

We asked teachers to fill out cards on each student.  These cards could be manipulated on the table top and grouped so we could all see.  After names were recorded that data could be given to the receiving teachers.  The information on the card included important school wide data we were tracking as well as some learning skills (behaviour skills such as organization, self regulation, problem solving).  There would be a section for friends that the students should have in their class as well as a section to suggest partnerships that should be prevented and of course a section titled “DNA”.

Many teachers had asked students for their involvement by having a discussion during class meetings about peers that were helpful to them and friends that would distract them from their learning.  Students were invited to list some peers and teachers brought these notes with them.  Of course this was done in a kind and caring manner and our teachers’ professional judgment was hugely important for final decisions.  However, as a school we felt we needed some student voice.

One of the best outcomes of this entire process became apparent in September. When teachers were building relationships with students during Significant 72 the DNA section provided really important information about each child.

Since we were following a school wide approach, we standardized the class building process, and repeated it each after school for a different grade.  We did one grade a night, so a grade two teacher was asked to attend twice, once as a giver (grade 2 to grade 3 building) and once as a receiver (grade 1 to grade 2 building) if they were remaining in the same grade.  Of course, snacks were provided and lots of up front work was done.

To assist with all the work and philosophy around our RTI program (we called it WIN-Whatever I Need) we asked staff to consider instructional groupings as they came in with their information. As a teacher, which students could be grouped with similar strengths and needs in literacy first, and then looking at mathematics.  If the social dynamics were fine, a receiving teacher would receive an entire group of students with similar educational needs.  Along a continuum, you would have students that were below, at and above grade level in each class but within those categories you would have clusters.

This Interesting Idea was really helpful for our combined grade classes.  You may have two grades in your classroom for next year but you will be able to manage better because of the instructional groupings that are made within those two grades.

The final aspect of our class building that I consider an Interesting Idea was how we used the ‘receiving teachers’.  They were not simply spectators to the entire process but instead they were integral to beginning the entire process.  You see in the first few years of the school we were growing and new staff were coming in each year as we added class after class.  Our staff did not know each other.  How can you send off a child into the following year to a teacher you know nothing about?

The receiving teachers would each take a turn to introduce themselves to others and share a glimpse inside their classroom.  As the educators listened to the story of our newcomer teachers you could see them moving and shuffling the cards in front of them in order to optimize the educator for the learning needs of the students.

I would speak to the receiving teachers ahead of time so they knew that this was coming.  They did have time to think about it.  It was not a job interview, they already had the job and we were happy to have them! 

We did this every year even for those teachers that had been at this school since the start.  Every ‘giving’ teacher was able to see inside the classroom of the ‘receiving’ teachers.

We suggested they comment on things like:

Do you prefer a noisy, active classroom or a quiet classroom?

Describe their literacy program, their math program?

How do they like to have their timetable?

Which subject areas are they most passionate about teaching?

How do they start their day?

When do they schedule aspects of the day such as arts, drama etc?

Which students seem to really thrive in their classroom?

Which students do they love to work with?

How do they like to communicate with families?

Face it, we think we know how our colleagues teach, and maybe you are lucky to team teach and really get a picture of others. But how often do you get opportunities to go into each others’ classrooms?  In reality the classroom down the hall from you can be a mystery and you are about to collaborate with others and make decisions about where students will be the following year.

You may really like the teacher as a person, as a friend, but are they the right teacher for the student?

One of the hiring questions I asked myself all the time was not, ‘’who is the best teacher from those that I have interviewed’, but instead, ‘who is the best teacher for the students that they will have in front of them’ it is a slightly different question, but an extremely important one.  The context of your school and the DNA of your students is a key factor in making the proper decisions for students.  This Interesting Idea is a potential way to slow down this important decision, build staff trust and cooperation, and set each classroom up for success in the following year.

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