Beginning the Day in a Whole New Way
By Susan Caslin
Many students at United North Elementary begin their school day in a new way introduced this year. Keeping with the school’s themes of kindness and respect, they spend a little extra time with teachers and classmates for special morning greetings.
Some teachers have multiple signs posted outside their classroom. Depending on which classroom you are in, the signs depict a hug, ‘hello’, handshake, fist pump, high five, happy dance, ‘Dab’ dance, big smile, and pinkie hug. Each student selects the greeting they want from their teacher, standing at the door of her classroom, sometimes joined by another student. Students and teachers alike love the special moment in the morning. And it has proved to be a daily barometer of the classroom.
First-Grade Teacher Courtney Anderson introduced a form of the greeting last year after learning about it through social media accounts among teachers. “I saw a teacher do it on social media and it just made me smile because I saw the reaction of all the students and how happy it made them to have their teacher be excited to see them in the morning,” she explained. “I just wanted to recreate that for my students.”
This year, Anderson assigns a student to stand with her to participate in the greeting.
Like teachers everywhere, Second-Grade Teacher Keeley Brinkmeier, in her first year of teaching, wanted to develop a connection with her students first thing in the morning as they walked in the door, so that they would be excited to start the day.
“I think it’s important to have a connection with every student, not just a few in your class. So, it’s a great way to start the day and to find that connection with each student. For my class, they get to pick which greeting they do, so it’s personalized to them and to what they want, and it’s something they can look forward to every day.”
Second-Grade Teacher Tracy Howard, a 29-year veteran, began greeting her students in the hallway each morning about five to six years ago. At the time, she had a quiet, well-behaved, high-performing student whom she realized wasn’t getting as much attention as students exhibiting negative behavior. Feeling that unfair, Howard began focusing on talking to each student in the hallway before they entered her room. She introduced the student-selected greetings to her students this year.
The hallway greeting gives her and other teachers at least 30 seconds to a minute with each child, giving each student the chance to blurt out what he or she wants to tell the teacher, and giving the teacher the opportunity to alleviate fears students have about missing books or homework or more serious subjects.
Whatever the greeting, most teachers agree that taking the extra time in the morning not only offers positive reinforcement, but is a good way to gauge the mood of students.
And for some students who prep themselves in the mornings, their interactions with bus drivers, staff, and teachers are their first interactions they’ve had with an adult that day, making the morning a critical time for them, the teachers noted.
“Sometimes we don’t know, as teachers, what happened before these kids got to school, what happened in the gym,” explained Anderson. “And it’s a good way for us to start the day and let them know ‘Hey, you are loved. I’m happy you’re here. I’m excited to start the day. We’re ready to roll.’
“It’s really starting the day off on a positive note.”
Howard said she gets a good grasp on how kids are feeling. “If somebody is coming in and they’re sad, something has happened at home, I can get a grip on it early, so I know how to work with things. It also just lets me get a feeling for what my day is going to be like. You can tell what’s going to happen in your day if you look at how they come in to talk to you.”
Brinkmeier said if she sees a student struggling during the greeting time, she can pull them aside for extra time to discuss what may be bothering them. One of the positive phrases posted above her desk is ‘You are loved.’
“The kids are always reminded of that,” she said.
Students in Brinkmeier’s class also participate in a daily emotions check-in. Each has an assigned number that no other student knows. Every morning, the student places his or her number on the classroom Smart Board under a phrase pertaining to feelings: I’m great. I’m OK. Something’s bothering me. I need to check in. They can thus indicate that they want to have a one-on-one meeting with the teacher to discuss what is bothering them that day.
“My shy kids are the ones who impress me, and my boys especially,” Brinkmeier said, smiling, as she discussed the student-selected greetings. “My boys are the ones who want to give the hugs. And my more challenging students are the ones who want to hug, and they really, really enjoy the morning greeting,” she said. “My boys 100% hug more than my girls,” she added, laughing.
One of Brinkmeier’s students hits every option every day.
“If that’s what he needs, then we do it,” she said.
Anderson said the teachers are giving shy students a comfortable option.
“I had a student last year who wasn’t touchy feely, didn’t like people being close,” Anderson explained. “He liked his personal space, didn’t want a hug. But he was OK with a fist bump or high five to start the day.
“But those are the ones who surprise you the most and need the hug the most,” she added.
Greeting their students in a special way helps the teachers as well. In the hour before school begins, teachers often face an overload of information: questions from various sources, changed schedules, information from staff about students, or they are participating in early morning meetings. It creates anxiety and stress before the day begins, Anderson noted.
“When you feel that way, it’s going to reflect on to your students.” She explained. “When you can start the day and say ‘Hello. I love you. Welcome to class,’ to everybody, it puts you in a different mindset just as much as the kids.”
Brinkmeier agrees. “It’s a good feeling for the teacher when they come up to hug you and they’re excited to see you,” she said. “It always makes me feel good.’
Several teachers in the school dim lights and turn on music to relax students in the morning and throughout the day. “Morning tubs” full of toys, games, or crafts also allow students a few minutes to relax and play while chatting with other students before STORM sessions, where students throughout the school divide up for sessions focusing on their specific academic needs. Anderson and Brinkmeier emphasize that it is critical to give younger students that daily connection with their friends before getting to work.
“Then, when it hits STORM time, they’re ready to go and they’re ready to learn,” Brinkmeier said.
In Anderson’s class they enter the classroom, making a tunnel similar to one at a football game. Each student goes through the tunnel, with Anderson following.
“Some of these kids aren’t going to have people cheering for them in sports,” she explained. “I want it to be like ‘Hey, we’re the football team coming in. We’re ready to start the game. We’re ready to start the day and learn.”
Howard echoes the same. Aside from teaching students social skills and starting their day in a positive way, they get their moment in the spotlight.
“Because no matter what you do, for that few seconds or minute or whatever it is, they get the chance to be spotlighted,” she said. “And that doesn’t always happen every day in the classroom.”
“Even just a few minutes a day of that is good for a kid – that they’re loved, they’re cared for, and they’re welcome here,” she continued. “This should be their safe place and I hope that in the morning when we have that time to talk to each other, that they feel that. That they feel that they are walking into their safe space for the day and that this is a place where they can take a chance and get messy and learn and do whatever they need to do to make themselves the best person they can be.”
All three teachers echo the same goal: they want students to feel safe, happy, loved, and excited to come to school. And all agree that United North does a particularly good job of focusing on that goal and of teaching students to be compassionate and kind. The school attempts to introduce positive character traits in every aspect of the school day. It’s in the school pledge students recite daily; in the themed music played in the gym in the morning; in signs posted in hallways, restrooms, and classrooms; on school spirit wear; and in lessons throughout the day as teachers attempt to introduce such themes in their assignments.
“If you just go in and say ‘I’m going to teach a math lesson, but that other stuff isn’t as important, they’re not going to learn the math lesson or master it as well as you’d want them to,” Anderson explained.
Howard refers to the school as “teacher utopia” because of the positive environment that has always permeated the school, and which has intensified with time
“This has always been a kid-centered building, and that makes a huge difference when you can focus on the kids,” she explained. “And that’s what’s important. It’s not about me having an easy day of teaching or having this be easy-peasy for me. It’s about what’s best for those kids and that has always been the mission of this building,” she says. “It’s what is best for the kids.
“When you have a rough year here, it’s not as rough as it could be somewhere else,” she continued. “We have good kids. We have good parents. We have good staff. We have good support. I don’t feel I’m alone in any of my adventures here, whether it’s a good adventure or a bad adventure. I feel like there’s that support. And I hope that’s what we are doing for the kids - that they come in in the morning and that they’re feeling that support as well.”
“I don’t want my kids ever to think that I can’t see them because I’m too busy dealing with someone else,” she said with emotion in her voice. “Hopefully, that greeting does that: where they don’t feel like they’re invisible to me, because they are not.