First day of school

Aug. 18: Charleston, Dorchester 2 and 4

Aug. 19: Berkeley

With the start of a new school year just a week away, students aren't the only ones in the Lowcountry with the back-to-school jitters - teachers, too, are getting anxious.

And it's not only the first-year teachers; even some with decades of experience say they can't help worrying if their classrooms and lesson plans are ready.

"I still have the back-to-school nightmares," said Kelly Kennedy, an Alston Middle School teacher in Dorchester District 2 in Summerville who's been teaching for 25 years. "It's good because it shows the teachers are thinking about it and want to get off to a good start."

Every minute of every school day is considered precious these days, with districts, teachers and students under pressure to meet ever-changing educational standards. Teachers and students don't have the luxury of using the first weeks of a new school year to get back into the flow of learning.

Meta Van Sickle, chairwoman of the teacher education department at the College of Charleston, said the key to getting students learning as fast as possible is setting expectations and classroom routines right away.

"We always recommend you start that the first day, the first minute," she said. "Routines help you not lose time that's important for instruction."

Setting expectations

In Megan Profit's seventh- and eighth-grade math classes at Rollings Middle in Summerville, students get a say in what's expected of them. Profit said she and the students in each class work together to define academic goals and expectations for behavior.

Homework is non-negotiable, though.

"We do have discussions about why it's important to have homework," Profit said. "I usually ask them: 'Is really having no homework going to benefit you in the long run?'"

The list of expectations is turned into class contracts which each student signs.

"I think the reason I use that," she said, "is because it creates an investment from the child."

Former Berkeley High teacher Jessica Benton, who will work with other Berkeley County teachers this year as a mentor, said it was important that expectations and consequences were clearly spelled out with her 11th- and 12th-graders.

Benton also said she stressed the need to be professional and communicate clearly with her.

In elementary schools, expectations have more to do with behavior than academics and can take a lot of reinforcement. Laura Shaw, who teaches fourth grade at Charleston Progressive Academy in Charleston County, said typically the students at her elementary school are excited to learn something new. The challenge is teaching them all the day-to-day rules that will make it possible for them to learn.

Younger students often need reminding, Shaw said, of things like how to stand in line for lunch and how to enter the school the proper way.

"Being consistent and being on a schedule is so important for any grade," Shaw said.

"Find that bridge"

Pressure to make sure students are learning as much as they can weighs on teachers not just at the start of the school year but all year long.

"Teachers are always worried about getting the students to learn as much as is humanly possible," Van Sickle said.

But, inevitably, students need some review to dust off the summer cobwebs.

"Every teacher knows they are going to have to do a subset of review to build from," Van Sickle said.

Profit said she always starts her middle school math students with "baby steps" before throwing them a new concept.

"I always find that bridge from what they know to where we're going," she said.

Michael Petry, who teaches at Cane Bay High in Berkeley County, plans to have his 10th- and 11th-grade English students do a writing assignment the first day of school.

"It gives me immediate information to find out where my students are," Petry said. "It's really important that rather than jump right into new material that I establish a framework or benchmark (of students' skills)."

Most teachers agree that being flexible in the first months of school and meeting students where they are academically is key to getting them to learning more effectively.

"We don't teach students where we want them to be," Shaw said. "We teach them where they actually are."

Meeting students where they are is maybe more true in kindergarten than other grades because the students' skill levels can vary greatly, from students who can already write their name to others who are just using a pencil for the first time, said kindergarten teacher Kent Riddle, who will be teaching at the new Meeting Street Elementary at Brentwood school in North Charleston.

"I can set up instruction based on what I think they need to learn but if they don't know how to write (the alphabet) you're going to start there," Riddle said.

But perhaps the most important thing to getting a student of any age engaged in learning is making sure they feel a connection with their teachers.

"It's important that I immediately establish a rapport with the students," Petry said. "If they don't like the facilitator, if there's not a level of respect or a level of desire to be in front of that facilitator that's a hurdle to learning."

Reach Amanda Kerr at 937-5546 or at Twitter.com/PCAmandaKerr.