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5 Common Back-to-School Mistakes Teachers Regret All Year

It was sometime around October when my principal called me into his office & sat me down for a chat. “Do you know what’s happening behind your back?” he asked me. “You’ve got to muster all the authority you have and regain some control.”

I’m pretty sure he could see the tears I was so desperately trying to hold back.

How did this happen? I wondered. How did I let my class get so far out of control?

5 common mistakes teachers make the first week of school during back-to-school

That conversation was no fun, but looking back I’m so thankful for a principal who cared enough to step in and have that tough conversation. You see, I was floundering.

I remember standing in front of my class, trying desperately (and unsuccessfully) to get their attention while half of the class chatted, a third were wandering around the room, and only a handful actually had their homework done and ready.

It was, in a word, a nightmare.

And it all started the first weeks of school.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had made some key mistakes that really came back to bite me all year.

These are mistakes you certainly don’t want to make. Avoid them at all cost.

Listen to the full podcast episode:

5 Mistakes Teachers Make the First Week of School

Mistake #1: Not realizing the importance of the first week of school

That first week sets the tone for the whole year & can easily be the difference between a calm, productive class and an out-of-control, disastrous one.

If you just let your students do what they want (figuring you’ll deal with problems later), guess what? Your students will get in the habit of doing what they want. And that will make things quite difficult.

On the other hand, if you value the first week of school, you can use it as a fresh start to make big changes from last year.

During this new phase, students are open to change, and you have the ability to set any expectation that you want (within reason).

Recognize the power of this fresh start & use it to your full advantage.

Mistake #2: Expecting good procedures to just happen

Teachers make two mistakes when it comes to procedures: not thinking them through, and just telling them instead of teaching them.

To avoid the first mistake, you must first carefully think through your procedures. If you’re a new teacher, you need to think through a procedure for everything – from bathroom breaks to how students will pass in papers to how & when students will sharpen pencils.

Veterans – stop & think which procedures didn’t go so well last year & brainstorm better options. You can ask fellow teachers for help at your school or post a question in our Facebook discussion group.

I also share specific procedure suggestions in this post: 10 Classroom Procedures that Will Save Your Sanity

10 classroom procedures that will save your sanity

Secondly, it's not enough to simply tell your students what you expect. Instead, you must carefully teach & practice them.

Click here to read my 4-step process for teaching procedures so that your students actually follow them.

How to teach procedures that your students will actually follow

Mistake #3: Letting the little things go

This mistake really derailed me & was the single largest reason I ended up in that awkward conversation in my principal’s office. You see, when I saw little problems like Brandon talking, Rylie wandering around the room, or Elizabeth blurting out answers, I didn’t do anything about it. I figured they weren’t big problems, so I just let them go.

But the problem is that little problems don't stay little.

They grow into bigger & bigger problems, and by the time you realize what’s happened you have a big mess on your hands & don’t even know where to begin addressing all the issues.

I learned to address every small issue the first week of school. This doesn’t mean I have to hand out consequences or be mean. I simply needed to correct problems as they come up. A simple, “Greg, we don’t run into the classroom. Please step back outside and come in calmly” does wonders.

When we correct small problems, we not only nip them in the bud, but we also send a strong message to our students that procedures matter, our instructions matter, we mean what we say, and we’re all here to focus & learn.

p.s. I’ve heard many people give the advice to “not sweat the small stuff.” But here’s my thought: In February, in April, in May, don’t sweat the small stuff. But in August – during the first week of school – please, please do. You are setting expectations. You are establishing the tone. And you will certainly be glad you did.

During the first week of school, please sweat the small stuff. Because little problems won't stay little.

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Mistake #4: Worrying about being liked

We all like to be liked – no question there. But do you worry about it? Do you let that desire drive your decisions? If you do, you’re setting yourself up for a tough year. Your students probably won’t respect you and, ironically, may not even end up liking you.

As teachers, we cannot worry about being liked. Instead, we should focus on gaining our students’ respect. Instead of trying to be our students’ friends, we must strive to be good mentors. And that means instead of letting the little things go, we must have high expectations & hold our students to them.

We must be both kind & firm, personable yet not a pushover, understanding yet still dealing with issues. When we’re this type of teacher, we will gain the respect of most of our students (and – BONUS – they will probably even end up liking us).

Mistake #5: Not being fully prepared

Let me ask you: Do you know what you’re going to do when a student blurts out an answer? When someone just gets up & wanders around the room? When a student uses profanity? Or when any other number of classroom issues come up?

If you don’t have a plan, you’re not going to have much confidence when these issues inevitably arrive. And because you have no confidence & no idea what to do, you will probably not do anything. And that, in turn, leads to bigger problems which result a nightmare situation.

I can tell you from personally experience, it is no fun. I wished so much I had prepared ahead of time what to say & how to handle various situations.

The next year, I didn’t make the same mistake. I came up with a plan, wrote it down, and had it ready to go. I implemented it and – wow! – it made dealing with problems so much easier.

So how do you develop a plan? Talk to fellow teachers either in your school or in our Facebook group. Or, check out these resources I've developed to help you put together a solid plan:

Or, check out these resources:

Looking for A Helpful Jumpstart with classroom management?

Check out our free class: How to Reduce Disruptions without Yelling, Begging, or Bribing.

Get the free training here.

Classroom Management Podcast Series (free)

In Season 1 of the Teach 4 the Heart Podcast, we discuss various classroom management strategies to help you gain & keep control all year long.

Subscribe to the Teach 4 the Heart Podcast

Classroom Management 101 Online Course

Classroom management is nuanced, and if your plan is missing even one of the vital elements, your best efforts are going to be frustrated.

That's why I developed Classroom Management 101 - a complete, organized system to ensure you don't miss any of the crucial elements.

The course will guide you step-by-step through the process of developing & implementing a strong classroom management plan.

Find out more about Classroom Management 101.

What to Read Next
  • Wise advice. Even as a veteran teacher, I would pull out Dr. Harry Wongs’s “The first days of school” and consider ways to improve on last year’s plan. My heart breaks for my teachers who find themselves floundering in February. But I would still urge those teachers to start building in routines, no matter how late. It won’t solve all of the classroom dynamic issues, and it will be hard, but it will bring small gains and give you a sense of what you want to put into place next September.

    • Yes, absolutely! If you’re struggling mid-year, do everything you can to make changes and figure out solutions. It’ll be an up hill battle but you can use all you learn to make the next year amazing

  • Hi I am a new teacher. I teach 2nd grade. These past two weeks have been extremely challenging . My students do fine the first two hours of class but after recess and lunch , I can make them do work. They talk, move, they ate loud. I have implemented lost of recess, and incentives, heads down. It works for a few minutes then everything starts again. Please help!

  • Linda,
    Just found your website, but I am enjoying it thus far. I thought this article was to the point and simply profound. Thanks for sharing.

  • Thank you so much! I’m teaching for 29 years and sometimes you think you have it all worked out !!! I need new fresh behavior management strategies!!

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