Getting Back to School & Setting the Tone

Leslie Byford, Communications Strategy Associate

I can hardly believe that summer has come and gone and a new school year already is underway. It seems like yesterday that teachers were packing up classrooms, students were turning in books and parents were doing their last minute scrambling to try figure out how to keep their children’s minds engaged and active over the summer. Nevertheless, here we are again. I, for one, always was excited at the prospect of a new school year. It meant that I would not only have the chance to see old friends and make new ones, but that an entire year of educational discovery and lessons awaited.

While the entire year was important to both my educational development and personal growth, looking back, it was that first week of school that truly set the stage for what was to come. In the book The First Days of School, authors Harry K. Wong and Rosemary T. Wong write: “What happens on the first days of school will be an accurate indicator of your success for the rest of the school year.” The first week of school is more than just going over the syllabus and getting a list of needed materials. It is about setting expectations, not just for students, but for educators and parents as well.

So, as school districts across the country prepare for a new school year, the following fundamentals should become an integral part of those first days:

Celebrate the First Week Back

According to The First Days of School, each year an estimated 700,000 students drop out of school. Therefore, it is important that all education systems celebrate that first week back. These celebrations should include everyone associated with and interested in the successful education of young people. At Oakland International High School (OIHS) students, teachers, families and school leaders all come together for Community Walks. These walks, which a student often organizes, are meant to break down barriers, create connections and most importantly establish a positive learning environment. Activities, such as the Community Walks at OIHS, underscore that the more schools, local communities and families are united, when it comes to educating youth, the greater the likelihood for student success.

Have Positive Expectations

Harry K. Wong and Rosemary T. Wong note that it is important for teachers, students and parents to have and establish positive expectations during that first week. They explain that these objectives should not be confused with educational standards. Cougar New Tech and Scott’s Branch High School (SBHS) are two schools in rural South Carolina that are engaged in developing positive expectations through a practice called Critical Friends. This method helps educators and students to not only provide feedback, but also to communicate with one another in an affirmative manner. Engaging students in this manner, during the first week of school, not only benefits everyone involved, but also promotes a successful learning environment.

Have a Well-Managed Classroom

Classroom structure is the focus for most educators during that critical first week. Teachers emphasize lessons, lectures and other activities as a means of jump-starting a productive student-teacher relationship. Harry K. Wong and Rosemary T. Wong define classroom management as “All of the things that a teacher does to organize students, space, time and materials so that instruction in content and student learning can take place.” One strategy in particular that is becoming more and more popular among educators as a means of managing their teaching space is “flipping the classroom.” This concept reverses the traditional learning environment by delivering instructional material, often online, outside of the classroom. Alternate techniques, such as this, assist in the expansion of the learning spectrum. An educator’s ability to effectively manage a classroom during that first week increases student engagement and academic success.

Spark Learning

Although housekeeping tasks are important, capturing the imagination of the students on the first day cannot be understated. After the attendance is taken, rules covered, and course outline explained, the time is right to rekindle that spark and joy for learning. Schools across the country are finding ways to engage their students through such methods as project-based learning initiatives. By varying instructional strategies, students recognize  that the classroom is going to be the center of exploration and discovery from day one.

During the academic year, the first week of school will come and go very quickly. Remember these days are vital and set the stage for what is to come. It has been said “first impressions are lasting impressions.” This is true is many instances, but none more crucial than in that teaching-learning environment, where educators, parents and students all play a significant role.


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.