Did They Forget Everything? When Students Return From Vacation

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By Jennifer Cleary, co-author of Classroom Techniques for Creating Conditions for Rigorous Instruction

We’ve all seen, chuckled at, and likely shared memes and other social media posts describing how educators experience the holiday season.

“Stay strong!”

“Brace yourselves.”

“December lesson plans: scrape students off the ceiling.”

They are quite amusing, but many are rooted in truth. Why does this happen? Some students are anxious with anticipation for the time off, while others, unfortunately, are anxious with worry. At the same time, their routines are likely being interrupted with field trips, holiday events, and any other number of seasonal impediments. So, we brace ourselves, stay strong, and survive that final day before break, breathing a sigh of relief that we all made it to the end of another calendar year.

Order your copy of Jennifer Cleary’s book, Classroom Techniques for Creating Conditions for Rigorous Instruction.

As the break comes to a close, and we have had our fill of presents, family, and champagne toasts, our thoughts return lovingly to our students. You know – the ones that have come so far since the beginning of the year. The ones we have molded into well-behaved and highly-engaged students.

The night before we return from break, our clothes picked out and our totes filled with freshly graded papers, we picture our students returning as if the last month had not occurred. Surely, the holiday jitters are out of their systems, and they will come back ready to go, right?

Then reality sets in. Finding their seats, transitioning, and even getting along with one another all seem to be new concepts. Every year we find ourselves asking the same question. Did they forget everything?

What if I told you that, yes, the students forgot – but so did we. We forgot that even before the break started, our students’ routines and classroom expectations were likely altered. During the break, the students had all types of different interactions and experiences. They were likely held to an entirely different set of expectations than they are in the classroom.

If we remember this, and approach the first days back from break with guarded optimism, we can plan to use the following strategies to support students through their acclimation to the New Year, and reduce disruption of learning.

Review the Rules and Procedures

Teaching the rules and procedures is a three-step process which includes explaining, rehearsing, and reinforcing the rules and procedures. Most of us do this at the beginning of the school year. The beginning of the calendar year, or after any other break for that matter, should be no different. As you navigate the first few days after the break, find time to deliberately review the rules and procedures. This helps to level the playing field by exposing students to identical experiences, which helps them develop shared understanding and knowledge of the rules and procedures.

Explain the Rules and Procedures
It is essential to not just state each rule or procedure, but explain what it means, and why it is important. Reminding students of the rationale behind an expectation helps them to relate the impact it has on their own classroom experiences.

Rehearse the Rules and Procedures
During the first days back, deliberately embed opportunities into instruction and student activities that provide students the chance to practice following the rules and procedures under supervision. It is helpful if the rehearsal closely follows the explanation and rationale.

Reinforce the Rules and Procedures
Students will quickly readjust to the classroom setting. As needed, reteach, rehearse, and practice the rules and procedures until they once more become habits.

Establish or Review the Recognition System

Once the rules and procedures have been reviewed, students are more likely to follow them when they know they will be held to those expectations. These forms of recognition don’t need to be grand. A simple verbal or nonverbal cue or affirmation is often extremely effective. More elaborate recognitions include token economies, goal sheets, or home correspondence.

The degree of recognition is less significant than the consistency and balance of recognition. To be consistent, be sure to provide the same motivation to all students. If three students run in the classroom, but only one receives consequences because of his or her earlier behavior, there is a lack of consistency. Running should always have the same acknowledgement. Added to this concept is balance. In order for this strategy to be effective, both positive and negative behaviors must be acknowledged.

“Rules and procedures for which there are no consequences – positive or negative – do little to enhance learning.” Dr. Robert Marzano, The Art and Science of Teaching (2007)


Re-Establish Effective Relationships

Relationships that teachers build with students have the power to foster success or failure. This is a New Year, and it is never too late to establish relationships or continue to maintain them. When a solid relationship has been established, students will view their teacher as being responsible for providing a level of guidance and control – both behaviorally and academically. At the same time, students will recognize that their teacher is concerned for the well-being of the entire class, as well as each student individually.

This requires the teacher to have an understanding of students’ interests and backgrounds. Returning from break is a great time to learn about students because they will have all types of experiences to share. Intentionally scheduling interactions with students, attending school functions, and using humor all add to the effective relationships in the classroom.

Another “must” in maintaining relationships is displaying objectivity and control. Raising your voice, losing your temper, or singling students out will act against efforts to build relationships. It only serves to create instability and uneasiness for students.

“The one factor that surfaced as the single most influential component of an effective school is the individual teachers within that school.” — Dr. Robert Marzano

In this New Year, we have the opportunity to have a strong impact on student achievement. We are capable of both promoting academic success, and stifling it. Using the tips and tricks provided here will jump start your success in the New Year.

Jennifer Cleary is co-author of the new book, Classroom Techniques for Creating Conditions for Rigorous Instruction.  ORDER YOUR COPY HERE.