This blog post was originally published January 4, 2023 and was updated on January 3, 2024.
Happy New Year! Hopefully, you had some time to relax and refresh over the winter break and are feeling ready to head back into the classroom. If you aren’t feeling 100% ready to be back, you aren’t alone. The first day back from a break can feel challenging for many teachers—and students. Whenever it was time for me to head back to the classroom after an extended break, I relied on these 4 strategies to help ease my students, and myself, back into classroom routines and set a strong foundation for the second half of the year.
1. Acknowledge the Reality
The first day back isn’t going to be the best. And that is totally fine. Students haven’t been in school in two weeks and we don’t necessarily know what those two weeks have held for them. For some students, this might be the first time they’re out of bed before 2pm. For other students, the breakfast they get today could be the reliable source of nutrition they’ve been waiting for. Regardless of what students have been doing for the past two weeks, it is going to take them a little bit of time to get used to being up early, and sitting in a classroom all day.
Acknowledge that struggle with your students. Share with them how you are feeling and let them know that it’s ok for today to feel hard. As your students see you being open and honest with them, they will feel more comfortable being back in the classroom. If students have forgotten certain routines or classroom norms, don’t hold it against them too harshly. There will be time to review and reteach if needed, but in these first moments, it is important to just show students that you missed them, you're happy they’re back, and you are all going to get settled back into the school year together.
2. Create Space to Share
My favorite part of being a teacher has always been talking to students. The first few days back from a break are a perfect time to build community in the classroom by letting students simply talk and catch up with you and with each other. Create space in the day for students to share what they did during the break and ask open ended questions that allow every student, regardless of whether or not they did something special, to share.
We can’t expect our students to go weeks without seeing their friends and not jump at the opportunity to catch up. Rather than fighting against students talking during the lesson, give them the opportunity to just be kids and talk. The day after a school vacation I always intentionally made time for students to talk in pairs or groups either before a lesson or as a brain break during the day. This made it easier for students to focus when I needed them to because they either already had an opportunity to talk to friends, or knew that one would be coming up soon.
3. Review Norms
Once you’ve welcomed your (probably seemingly sleep-deprived) students back from the break and given them some time to catch up, it’s important to shift your focus to classroom norms and routines. This will look different depending on the age of your students and what your routines looked like before the break.
For lower elementary students, you might need to actually reteach some of your classroom routines and continually review them on the first few days back. This can be a fun community-building activity during which students that remember routines can model the correct—or incorrect—ways to carry out various classroom tasks. I have seen many students love the opportunity to act out the wrong way to do things in the classroom!
For upper elementary and middle school students, you will probably be able to just review the routines and classroom norms. Because it is the start of a new calendar year and the second half of the school year, you could also use this opportunity to introduce new, or shift old, classroom routines. In my own classroom, we introduced a few new student jobs during the second half of the year and shifted from silent hallway transitions to talking transitions. Asking students to consider what new responsibilities they want to take on or new norms they want to set, can help reinvest them in the classroom community and feel like their growth is being recognized.
In a high school setting, you will likely want to focus on a quick review of routines you hope to keep and then focus on introducing new norms for the second half of the year. With older students, it can be more difficult to invest them in the classroom community and routines. The more involved you allow them to be in the design and roll out of new norms and routines, the more likely they are to feel empowered in the classroom and motivated to finish the school year strong.
4. Culture Over Content
One of my favorite pieces of advice I received from a wonderful assistant principal was this phrase: “culture over content.” He taught me that sometimes, it is more meaningful to focus on the culture in your classroom and the relationships you have with students than to push content. The first day, or few days, after a long break are often these kinds of days.
This doesn’t mean you have to throw all content out the window and just play games with students. Instead, this means you are intentionally finding time to build relationships and introducing content that fosters conversations and community. You don’t want to give a super stressful, challenging exam the first day back from a break. You want students to feel good about being in your classroom and learning with the people around them.
I have always turned to group activities to review content when I want to put the emphasis on classroom culture. Consider having students work through some old problems to activate prior knowledge, participate in a gallery walk and discussion, or use their activities from the break to inspire writing projects and presentations.
We know that it can be a tough adjustment, but taking the time to ease back in and reset expectations will help ensure things keep running smoothly for the rest of the year. You got this!
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Rachel Fuhrman is the Curriculum Marketing Manager at Fishtank Learning. Before joining Fishtank Learning, Rachel spent 5 years as a Middle School Special Education Teacher in New Orleans, LA and Harlem, NY. Outside of the classroom, she has been a frequent contributor to multiple education blogs and focuses primarily on student engagement and instructional practice topics. Rachel earned both her Bachelor of Arts in Economics and her Master of Science in Educational Studies from The Johns Hopkins University.