Wednesday, December 29, 2010

What to Do When You Take Over a Class Mid-Year

Just before winter break, a friend of mine revealed that she was unexpectedly switching assignments at school, taking over for a teacher who was leaving mid-year. Worse yet, the switch happened one week before the break began, meaning there would be little time to plan the crucial first days with her new class. It was not the ideal situation.

In Boston, I faced this situation myself. Heading into the school year, I was all set to teach Algebra I. The day before school started, my principal emailed me to explain that I would also have to teach a section of Algebra II. A few months later, I took on an additional Algebra II class that had been moved over from a colleague in order to even out class sizes, resulting in students shifts that fundamentally changed the culture of all classes. In essence, I had to take over new classes twice in the same year, so I had quite a bit of unsolicited advice to offer.

If you're in this situation, I'll tell you the same thing I told my friend: first, DON'T PANIC. Secondly, your first day with your new classes should be treated like the first day of school.  This means that your primary goals are:
The course content, while important, is secondary to building the foundation needed for a successful classroom. You can and should try to pick up where your departed colleague left off, but in a way that allows you address the goals above.

For example, one suggestion I made to my friend for the first week was to give students assignments that they could work on independently or collaboratively for the most part (addressing the necessary content), and pull students asides individually for a few minutes each. In these short conversations, you could get their perspective and feedback on the transition, ask what you as the teacher can do to help make this student successful the rest of the year, and tell them the particular way they can contribute to the class going forward.

To facilitate the transition and these kinds of conversations (whether you have them individually, in small groups or as a whole group), start by giving the students simple, open-ended surveys (see below).  Use them to inform what you discuss and how you discuss it.

Besides your philosophical approach, you should think about your new classroom aesthetically. The classroom needs to look different to help put your students in this "let's start over" mindset. Everything from the desk and furniture layout to what's on the walls should reflect this. (Side note: an aesthetic change in the classroom like this helps when you're turning around your own classroom mid-year.)

To help you with your transition, I've collected my most relevant resources to draw from:

If you're frustrated and stressed out about this, I wanted to also give you an idea of the kinds of struggles I've had even after years in the classroom.  Perhaps it can give you a little perspective:
I'm happy to help people who have specific questions or need other kinds of resources.  Just ask.  If you have your own advice (or opinions about mine), please share them in the comments.