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Setting up Your First Classroom with Focus

When I accepted my first teaching job, I couldn’t wait to get keys to my classroom. I had so many ideas spinning around in my head of what I would do with my first classroom. But when the principal walked me down the hall, handed me a set of keys, and said, “This is your room. Have fun!” I looked around and was immediately overwhelmed.

The first thing I noticed was the lack of a teacher desk. The walls were blank, and when I opened the cabinets, I found lots of things that I didn’t know what to do with: game pieces that I didn’t have any instructions for, seasonal items that were faded from too much sun, and limited curriculum with missing teacher manuals.

At this time, Pinterest was an “invite-only” website, and my sister was able to get me approved for an account, but there were limited teacher ideas. Teacher Instagram accounts were not a thing. In some ways, I'm glad that these did not exist when I began teaching. Today, it’s so easy to look at all these Pinterest-worthy classrooms that are fully coordinated in colors and design, and immediately do the comparison game. We see classrooms that are beautifully organized and look like a bunch of students couldn't possibly have come through the classroom.

Well, the truth is, my classroom looks like a disaster sometimes, because well...we're learning, and learning can get messy. So my firs tip is to avoid the comparison game. The aesthetic, perfect lighting and organization of color-coordinated bins don't always look perfect like that when students are in the room. Trust me.

But with all that being said, I'll share my first classroom picture. I took the first picture the day I walked into my classroom. You might notice in the picture below that I had a massive tv mounted on the wall and an overhead projector. Yes, a projector, that I refused to use. I had the maintenance put it in storage. I was not going back to the dark ages. I decided to make do without it.

I didn’t have much money and most of the things you see in this picture I made myself. The tree was made out of scrapbook paper, and my attempt to cover the gigantic tv with a sun was made out of cardboard. Now thankfully my mom, who is a retired teacher, understood the dilemma of a first year teacher---my first paycheck didn't come until after school started. She loaned me some money so that I could get set up. However, I’ve learned over the years that there are plenty of things we don’t need. The dollar bins at Target are fun, but we don’t need perfectly coordinated bins to have a welcoming and inviting classroom. Instead, there are many ways to get lots of things for free that work just as well. Check out this blog post where I share 3 money saving tips for teachers.

Since my first year of teaching, I’ve been in four different classrooms and have switched grade levels as well. Now that I’ve done the classroom setup a few times, I've figured out a few strategies to help me beat the classroom setup overwhelm. So here are three critical components of setting up your first classroom that I find are most important:

1. Classroom set up

2. Routines and procedures

3. Curriculum

#1 Classroom Set-Up:


When I walk into my new classroom, I decide where I want the front of my classroom to be situated. It doesn’t have to be the same as the previous teacher. In fact, I’ve completely flipped the layout of one classroom and asked the school maintenance to help me move the whiteboard to the other side of the room.

The actual classroom layout of desks and chairs or flexible seating is probably going to change, even after the first week of school. I often notice that I need to move desks, or the flow of my classroom for traffic just isn’t quite right. So don’t stress too much about the layout. You can always change it.

Bulletin Boards

It’s easy to feel like our classroom bulletin board needs to be done and our walls need to display beautiful posters and décor. But the reality is that kids may not remember what was displayed on the bulletin board the first day of school, but they will remember how you made them feel.

I went through a lot of effort in my first year to make my room inviting, and felt like I needed to have it all complete. But now, I just cover the bulletin boards with butcher paper, wrapping paper, or fabric, and then wait and display student work from the first week of school, or with anchor charts that I make with my students. Once I have the walls or boards covered, I can usually breathe a sigh of relief, as I can focus on other things.

Supplies, Manipulatives & Curriculum

My first classroom was missing a teacher's desk. I was nervous to speak up and let my principal know my needs, but when I did, she was quick to help. I was able to work with maintenance to find a desk in storage. If I hadn’t asked, I probably would have gone out and bought a table or desk, so I’m glad I beat the nerves and just asked.

The same is true for other supplies and manipulatives. Before going out and spending personal money on a classroom set of supplies, check with your admin or grade-level team. I’ve walked into a classroom that was missing supplies but found out they were just stored in another classroom or cabinet. There may be shared materials tucked away in another room.

Classroom Library

I love books, and I was fortunate to gain some books from a retired teacher, but the idea of coming up with a classroom library system was overwhelming. I’ve learned that it’s ok to put the books on the shelf and come up with an organization system later. Ask a volunteer to help with alphabetizing or organizing by genre, or use this as a task for early finishers.

If you don't have a lot of books, don't stress it. I love to check out loads of books from my local library. My public library allows up to 50 books at a time, and that's pretty much what I do. I display the new rotation of books on a designated shelf in my classroom which my students have access. I check out books centered around the units we are studying as well as diverse books that my school library may not have on the shelf. If you are looking for some more info, check out this blog about diverse books. My biggest suggestion is to make sure you keep a list or receipt of all the books you have checked out from the library so that you can be sure and collect them all when they are due.

Step #2 Routines and Procedures:

This is an important step in order to hit the ground running on the first day of school with your classroom management and policies in place.

Create Visuals

Focus on creating visuals such as posters that include directions and procedures for specific tasks. Plan to break down your procedures and expectations into small steps where you will explicitly teach each procedure by modeling, and practicing. One option is to sketch out a poster or anchor chart with pencil and then go over it with marker and color when you teach and model each procedure. Visuals are a great reference point, because you can refer to the poster instead of always re-explaining. Plus this will give your voice a break.

Parent Communication

When I was an elementary teacher, I organized all of my policies and procedures in a parent handbook. I tried to be as detailed as possible so that parents were informed and there were no surprises (or at least I tried to limit them)! I explained my classroom management system, how parents could get a hold of me, and so much more. It took me several years to refine and detail out my handbook. As I encountered different situations over the years, I addressed them within my handbook. If you are looking to save some time, you can check out my editable parent handbook, which comes with a parent letter that can be modified to fit your personality, as well as scripted policies and procedures with some ideas and thoughts to consider that can be adjusted to fit your class needs. This is a huge time saver! I have made my handbook available here: Editable Parent Handbook, for K-5

#3 Curriculum

Back to School Ice-Breakers

I like to have ice-breakers and get-to-know-you activities for the first couple of days of school. I did this even when I taught middle school. I believe that building a relationship with students right off the bat is crucial, all the while maintaining classroom management and setting expectations.

Use Your Scope and Sequence

As far as curriculum goes, you don’t need to have the entire year of lessons planned out. You just need to be one step ahead of your students. When a veteran teacher told me this, I seriously felt a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.

But with that being said, I do suggest mapping out your curriculum as best as you can. I do this by looking over the scope and sequence of the teaching manual. I then look at my school calendar to figure out how many weeks I have in each semester (or quarter) and take out any holidays or breaks. This helps me determine how many actual days of teaching I have (give or take a few for inclement weather, assemblies, etc.). I can then use the scope and sequence to determine how much time I can spend on each unit.

While I may not have the actual lessons for each unit pre-planned, I have at least the big picture of what the year will look like. I do this for each subject or class. You might be surprised how many actual teaching days you have, and how much curriculum you need to cover. But by doing this in advance, you can save yourself a lot of stress.

Batching lesson plans has been a lifesaver, but it took me a while to figure out a system. If you really want to get a head start on planning, I suggest batching. You can learn more about how I batch my tasks in this blog post: How to Batch Your Lesson Plans and Get Ahead

Organization is Key

I like to keep all of my lesson plans, small group plans, student data, important dates, calendars, and student info in one teacher planner binder so that I can easily access everything. I use a hanging file folder system to keep track of student work, assessments, or any important forms or papers that need to be kept long-term. If you are moving between classrooms, having an organization system like a rolling cart or crate on wheels is essential.

Free New Teacher Checklist

Grab this quick and easy checklist resource to keep on hand as you prepare for the school year. This includes an essential supply list of items to keep on hand. Grab the list here: Free First Year Teacher Checklist

First Year Teacher Back to School Checklists


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