By Gayle Solis Zavala
Special Education Teacher, Gove Elementary, Belle Glade, Fla.
CEC 2009 Clarissa Hug National Teacher of the Year
It is my pleasure and honor to participate in the CEC blog. I have just returned from a wonderful trip to Lake Tahoe, Calif., for a family wedding. My first bit of advice to my fellow teachers is that you DO make time in your busy lives to relax and take time for yourself and time with family and friends. And not just during the summer time, but throughout the school year.
Teachers do not only impart knowledge and new skills to students, they are also caretakers of hearts and feelings. But teachers must take time to care for themselves so that they can be physically, mentally, and emotionally prepared to reach out to their students each day.
With that said, I want to encourage teachers to prepare for welcoming their students back by getting organized and helping their students get organized. I am going to admit that organization is one of my weaknesses, so I have really had to consciously work on it. But in the end, the more prepared I am, the better teacher I can be.
Some things that I think are important to prepare for (if you haven’t already) are visual supports, which I have found to be effective aids in the classroom. They include a class picture schedule (i.e., bathroom break, seatwork activity time, learning centers, fine arts time, lunch, speech and language, brain gym activities, playground, literacy period). Of course, the picture schedule also needs to include activities that are not part of the typical day (i.e., field trips, assemblies, special programs, special visitors, special celebrations). If you have access to Boardmaker software, it offers a wide range of clip art pictures that can be personalized for your needs. The clip art available through word processing programs (such as Microsoft Word) also offers a great deal of visual supports to aid in preparing schedules.
I also use individual schedules for some of my students who have difficulty staying on-task and understanding what to next during learning centers. If you know who your students are going to be prior to the start of the school, you could prepare these individual schedules ahead of time. If not, then getting it done as soon as possible will keep the students organized and focused on getting through the school day. Of course, including a desirable activity (i.e., computer time, puzzle time, independent reading) toward the end of the individual schedules is vital to keeping the students motivated.
I also use visual supports in my classroom to help remind students of behavioral expectations during specific activities. For example, prior to starting whole-group activities (i.e., calendar time, read-alouds, social skills time) I prepare a large poster with visual and text reminders for my students to sit up in their seats, clear their desks, quiet hands and feet, listen to teacher and classmates, and raise a quiet hand for questions or comments. I also always include classroom jobs and if you are unable to find ready-made classroom job signs, you can easily make them using Boardmaker software or other clip art programs.
It’s important that teachers establish a sense that the classroom is a welcoming climate. I like to think of my own classroom as a temporary home away from home. As I said previously, the students do not just bring their homework back to the classroom, but also their feelings and their need to fit in and feel part of the classroom family.
And as every teacher should be encouraged to do, I am always anxious to learn new ideas that can impact student learning. A few years ago, our school and many other educators in our school district were fortunate to receive training in a Positive Behavioral Support program called “Capturing Kids’ Hearts.” Among the many strategies they shared, which I have incorporated in my daily routine, is greeting the students each day with a handshake or other friendly physical contact. If the students are open to exchanging a few words of how they are, it always seems to make such a difference in starting the day on a positive note.
I also like to schedule a time for “good news.” Students will always have stories to tell–and sometimes not always good news. But everyone is given their time to share a short personal story and, of course, everyone is expected to be respectful listeners.
At the end of the day, which I have to admit I still need to work on, I schedule time for students to share positive affirmations of each other. This can be difficult to accomplish at the end of the day, due to the hectic events and the challenging relationships between students and teachers. But it is an important activity to commit to because it reminds us to look at the positive side of each student and remember that we all have self-worth.
I hope my readers will share their own effective classroom climate ideas!