5 Steps to Get Rid of Back-to-School Anxiety

Start the year strong and curb back-to-school jitters with these tips and ideas from educator, educational speaker and author, Dr. Harry Wong.

Happy teacher in front of her class

by NEA Member Benefits

Back-to-school is an exciting time, even if you’ve been teaching for decades. Sure, you’re excited to welcome a new class of students, but getting back to class may also bring first-day butterflies, stress and concerns about your ability to groom successful learners.

The antidote to your anxiety, says Harry Wong, co-author of “The First Days of School” and “THE Classroom Management Book” (HarryWong.com), is a carefully thought out classroom management plan. “A well-managed classroom may even be more important to students than teachers since it provides a sense of structure, comfort and security,” says Wong. What’s more, in this type of organized environment, students are relaxed, focused and eager to learn.

Whether you’ve been teaching for years or this is your first year in the classroom, the cornerstone of successful teaching is creating a culture of consistency. Here’s how:

1. Be proactive. Teachers typically fall into two categories: Proactive and reactive. “Proactive teachers plan ahead to prevent problems,” says Wong. “They visualize a classroom that runs itself and proactively create a plan to accomplish that vision.” Reactive teachers respond to problems as they arise. They think on the spot and inevitably waste valuable instructional time corralling class clowns and trying to control chaos.

2. Organize the learning environment. Successful classrooms are effective learning environments because they give students structure, guidance, focus and direction. Having a place for everything and everything in its place also helps streamline activities. The longer it takes students to find a pencil (or their crayons!), the less time they have to focus on the tasks at hand.

3. Establish effective routines. A well-managed classroom uses procedures and routines so learning activities are executed smoothly. Effective teachers create procedures for everything—entering the room, turning in homework and participating in class discussions. Since students do best when they know what to expect, posting a daily agenda is critical, including the day’s schedule, an opening assignment and a lesson objective. “This enables kids to be self-starters who are on task from the moment they enter the classroom,” says Wong. A bonus: You won’t have to waste time fielding students’ questions about what they’ll be learning and when they’ll be transitioning between subjects.

4. Lavish specific praise (but only when warranted). When children meet or exceed your expectations, praise them. But, instead of saying “Good job, Suzie!” Explain exactly what they did correctly. Not only will the student appreciate the acknowledgement—and grow from it—but your other students have another opportunity to learn what’s expected of them.

5. Become a model of optimism and positivity. Your attitude is even more important than your students’ in terms of creating a positive learning environment. “Children sense the positivity and enthusiasm that flows from you,” says Wong. Each day is a chance to wipe the slate clean and start fresh with a new plan. Each moment is a valuable commodity. When you treat it as such, students will match that expectation with eagerness and success.

While these are effective tips for every educator, your approach to creating a classroom management plan may differ depending on your career level. New teachers may focus on building an effective model to withstand the years, those with some “street cred” may need to evaluate where their plan works (and where it doesn’t), and educators nearing retirement might want to shake things up a bit. According to Wong, teachers at each level are guided by different key questions:

New educators: What do I do?

Focus on starting your career with good habits, which is easier than overhauling your approach years later.

What to do: Develop a first day of school script that details your every move, from greeting your students when they first arrive in class to dismissing them after the last bell rings. In between, ensure you have an effective plan for teaching students the procedures they’ll be following throughout the year. But there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Instead, seek out veterans whose work you hope to emulate.

Mid-career teachers: What did I do and how can I do it better?

With years of teaching under your belt, chances are you’ve developed an effective plan, but there’s always room for improvement.

What to do: Think back on the previous year. Where were you successful? Where did you fall short? What can you incorporate into your plan this year to improve your performance? Whether last year was a breeze or your toughest yet, taking time out to analyze what you did well, and what you’d like to do differently, can help you improve your craft. Then you can create a lesson mastery plan packed with tools and strategies to help you teach for better student learning and achievement.

Educators near retirement: Why did I do what I did?

If you’re unsatisfied with the status quo, even this late in the game, you can always learn a new approach to teaching, says Wong. Author Maria Robinson writes, “Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.” It’s never too late to modify your approach to teaching.

What to do: Don’t be afraid to start from scratch. Create an all-new classroom management plan and leave a legacy by coaching others on the do’s and don’ts of effective teaching.