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S.M.A.R.T. Start to a New Year

S.M.A.R.T. Start to a New Year

For an old secondary school teacher, I always looked forward to second semester. Yes, I would grieve a little over the loss of some of the students from my semester classes, but there was also a tinge of excitement over gaining new students and figuring out how to “do class” better this semester than last. And, for those students who were in my full-year classes, I took January as a chance to restart the S.M.A.R.T. way. Every student deserves the opportunity to walk in with a fresh start. This is their opportunity to learn, and I didn’t want to get in the way.

S—Separate student behavior from teacher self-concept
M—Maximize student choice and voice
A—Aim high with student goal setting
R—Reinforce social status
T—Train expectations and routines

Separate student behavior from teacher self-concept

As a teacher coach and administrator I often have to help teachers realize the behaviors they are seeing in front of them are not attributed to a student’s love or hate for the teacher or the content. It is easy to wear a sense of connectedness between student behavior and self-confidence as a teacher. Granted, there are times that I can draw a direct connection between my actions as the facilitator and the reactions of my students, but mostly that should be a faint, dotted line at best. Each interaction I have can build and reinforce my relationships with students, but outside of classroom relationships, there are scads of pedagogical decisions that resonate with one student and can’t seemingly penetrate another.

Behind each set of eyes staring at me is a wonderfully complicated brain that has levels upon levels of interactions impacting student behavior. When teachers grasp that chronic stress can make a student seem everything from cognitively impenetrable to extremely volatile, they can begin to take the breath they need when responding to a student’s behavior (Knowles, Rabinowich, Ettinger de Cuba, Cutts, & Chitton, 2015). There is hope. Teachers can have an impact! Jensen (2015) stated, “These students are neither lazy nor unwilling to engage; you just haven’t known how to reach them (so far)” (9). To start SMART, you need to couch student behaviors where they belong and realize that students are multivariate.

Maximize student choice and voice

One hallmark of a learner centered classroom is to give students authentic voice and choice in the learning process. Bray and McClaskey (2015) talk about learning that indeed starts with the learner. More than just differentiating an assignment or text material every now and then, it is the student personalizing the learning to explore passions and interests as she moves toward demonstrating mastery. Jensen (2015) describes choice learning as the opposite of compliance learning: “OK, I guess I can do this” to the student saying “This sounds good; I will jump in and give it my best” (162). Teacher ideas for the new semester might start with making all content relevant to the learner; using choice boards or work boards; writing or performing for an authentic audience; or allowing the students to pursue their passion in a PBL project. There is a myriad of methods to maximize student voice and choice in the learning process.

Aim high with student goal setting

There’s no better time than now to start motivating students: You can do it! Successful teachers set “gutsy” goals of themselves and have students do the same (Jensen, 2015, p. 69). The reward in student gains is well worth the effort. Student self-reported grades have an enormous effect size in student achievement (d = 1.44) (Hattie, 2009). Enveloped within the process of student self-reported grades are knowing the learning intentions and success criteria (Nottingham, 2017); understanding how to get from where they are now to where they need to be; and having a willing teacher to help them meet their gutsy goals. Teachers who set specific goals and listen to student feedback on where they are in the learning process increase gains for all students (d=0.73 feedback; d=0.56 goals; d=1.26 teacher clarity from Hattie, 2009). Include short-term goals along the way to celebrate successes early and to build student momentum toward developing perseverance and grit on the road to the longer gutsy goals. These short term wins have an effect size of d=0.97 (Micro Goals; Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001)! How can a SMART start to a new semester NOT include gutsy goals?

Reinforce social status

A new semester is a great time to reconnect students to one another and to the teacher. Positive teacher and student relationships are associated with student achievement a whopping range of d=0.72 and d=0.52 (Hattie, 2009 & 2015). A student-centered teacher consistently models traits of listening, empathy, care, positive regard, respect, and responsiveness. Fostering those traits within your classroom between and among students builds the capacity of all participants to value connectedness and relationships. The subsequent room becomes one where belonging to the group is valued. During those first few weeks, use group strategies to help students see the connectivity between each other. Celebrate both sameness and diversity. Rotate roles and jobs of students within the classroom. Give each student a chance to demonstrate leadership and skill. Praise and coach relationships that model the type of connectedness you seek among students. Have students work with partners, teams, and groups that foster partner/team interdependency. Experts like Dr. Spencer Kagan, Dr. David Johnson, and Dr. Roger Johnson have many resources to help you find the just-right content free activities to start building the relationships and interdependency. It starts with YOU! The SMART start revolves around relationships and status within the classroom.

Train expectations and routines

A positive start for the semester begins with revisiting and modeling classroom expectations and routines. As you orchestrate the learning within your classroom, you will want to use routines that benefit the learning and leave students in positive states of arousal, curiosity, intrigue, and/or anticipation. Eric Jensen (2013) described a great classroom climate for learning starts with good relationships, variety of strategies, and a plan for keeping students engaged. Some ideas that I used in my classroom to teach routines or expectations were looks like/sounds like charts, pictures of expected behavior, praise for effort, student-built rubrics, and class meetings. A SMART start to the semester must include purposeful orchestration of routines, expectations, and attentional state management.

Join the conversation! What do you do to create the optimal learning atmosphere for the start of a new year or semester? Share your ideas by giving suggestions below.

Bray, B., & McClaskey, K. (2015). Make Learning Personal: The what, who, WOW, where, and why. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.

Hattie, John (2009) Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York: Routledge.

Knowles, M., Rabinowich, J., Ettinger de Cuba, S., Cutts, D. B., & Chitton, M. (2015).

“Do You Wanna Breathe or Eat?”: Parent Perspectives on Child Health Consequences of Food Insecurity, Trade-Offs, and Toxic Stress. Maternal and Child Health Journal 20, 25–32; doi:  10.1007/s10995-015-1797-8

Marano, R. J., Pickering, D. J., & Pollock, J. E. (2001). Classroom Instruction that Works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Jensen, E. (2013). Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind: Practical strategies for raising achievement. Alexandria: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Jensen, E. (2015). Poor Students, Rich Teaching: Mindsets for change. Bloomington: Solution Tree Press.

Nottingham, J. & Nottingham, J. (2017). Challenging Learning Through Feedback: How to get the type, tone, and quality of feedback right every time. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.

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