Practitioner’s Corner: Crack the Books on the First Day

By Sandra C. Birchfield
Principal, March/April 2013

Teachers and other school personnel often complain to principals about a lack of time to get things done. Time management, in today’s realm of accountability, means stretching out every second of the school day and school year. Teachers are hard pressed to fully cover the curriculum when they factor in time spent for snow days, half days for students because of teacher in-service, all day teacher work days, assembly programs, field trips, fire drills, and stranger alert drills. By preparing for the next school year in the spring of the preceding year—including class assignments and orientation—principals can ensure that students are ready to learn on the first day of school.

Importance of Preparation
The first day of school can be an instructional day worth remembering if students have the self confidence of being well prepared. At Wise Primary School in Wise, Virginia, we start plan­ning for the first day of the new school year as early as February of the previous year. I call all faculty members, for each grade level, to a meeting where I ask each faculty member to make a list of his or her students. The teachers rank the students according to high, average, or low abilities. Special education and gifted program students are also labeled on the list, as well as students who do not get along with each other.

Each grade level has six or seven classes, so we have a large list that I arrange for each grade level with boys at the top and girls at the bottom. Each resulting class list has, as close as possible, the same number of students. If we have six special needs children, I divide them up with faculty who have agreed to do a collaborative classroom. Faculty mem­bers, teaching in the collaborative class­rooms, always volunteer. I need teachers who want to reach as well as teach these children. We also typically have two or three gifted students equitably distrib­uted in each classroom.

I meet with each grade level several times to make sure I have the names correct and that students who need to be separated are not placed together. The names of the teachers are not on the list until the evening before the children get the opportunity to meet their teacher for the coming year. The evening before the next to the last day of school, I put the list in the faculty members’ mailboxes.

On the day before the last day of school—a half day—the children spend 45 to 60 minutes with their new teacher. They receive their supply list for the following school year and also get to see the friends who will be in their new class.

Few Changes or Requests
Parents have that day, the last day of school, and all summer to discuss their child’s placement. Over the nine years that I was principal, I probably had to change 12 to 15 students. Some years, no one complained. If a parent does not contact me before the first day of school I assume they are satisfied. We are ready to start instruc­tion on the first day of school.

Wise Primary accepts teacher requests from our four pre-K classes as long as the kindergarten classes have the same number of students. Chil­dren pre-registering for kindergarten also can choose their teacher. All other grades are assigned.

If a teacher is retiring or not return­ing, then a resource teacher will meet with the new class. When a teacher is hired for a position during the sum­mer, we arrange a day when the stu­dents are notified to come and meet their new teacher so that they, too, are ready for the first day of school.

The children in kindergarten or first grade who are retained are also excited about meeting their new teacher. In some cases the parent and teacher agree for the child to have the same teacher again. [I am consulted in these decisions, but ultimately the decision is up to the teacher and parent.]

On one of the last teacher workdays before summer break, teachers place students’ cumulative folders in a box in the cafeteria that corresponds to their new placement. These records are secured in filing cabinets within a couple of hours. This saves the school secretary a lot of time in sorting records of 700 students. All fourth-grade cumulative records are boxed up and sent to the middle school.

Students leave school for the summer with their final report card, which also lists the name of the teacher for the following year, supply list, and a smile because they usually get the teacher or friends that they wanted to be with.

This practice of assigning and meeting teachers before the end of the school year is not new. Years ago, when I was in elementary school, I too had a smile on my face. I had the teacher and/or friends that I wanted and I did not have to worry about my class assignment all summer. Like the students at Wise, I had to do a lot of work that first day of school.

Sandra C. Birchfield, a retired principal, is an assistant faculty member with Lincoln Memorial University’s graduate education program.


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