Exciting. But also terrifying.
That’s how Paula Thompson sums up her feelings about the beginning of a new school year.
She could be referring to what many students go through as summer wanes and the classroom beckons—whether it’s for the first time or something they’ve gone through several times already.
“It’s one of those interesting times. We’re a little bit sad, because the holidays are over, but we’re really excited for a new beginning.”
Or, she could be speaking for parents, especially those about to send their firstborn off on that first foray into the world of institutionalized learning.
“It’s a normal time to be anxious, and everybody’s going through it, and there’s comfort in that.”
Actually, Thompson is talking about what she and her fellow educators often experience at this time of year.
She should know. She spent several years in the classroom after moving here from northern Ontario in 1995 to take her first teaching job at Del Van Gorder school in Faro.
After a stint at F.H. Collins Secondary School in Whitehorse, Thompson returned to Faro as principal.
She’s now the math consultant for the department of Education, a job that entails working with teachers around the territory, including many who are just starting their careers.
“Change is change, and there’s a first day of school for teachers. There’s still a first day of school for me now, because I teach new teachers, too. It’s the same anxieties, like first day of a new job, the first day with a new boss,” she says.
“You want to do a good job, and you want to make a good first impression, and you want to make sure the kids are comfortable with you. It’s just all that normal angst that people have with change, I think.”
One coping strategy Thompson likes to impart to new teachers is to plan ahead, but not to be too rigid.
“Get the kids registered, get them settled. Smile,” she advises.
“You have to go with the flow. You can plan all you want before the first day, but things change pretty quickly when you meet the new group you’re going to be working with.”
One goal she set herself when she was in the classroom was to know the name of every student by the end of the first day—no easy task at the high school level, where a teacher might be dealing with 120 different faces.
“If I did that, I was really happy,” she says.
Thompson has never been a supply teacher, and doesn’t envy those who often go from one grade, one school, or one classroom to another on very short notice.
“The hard part is that you don’t necessarily have a relationship with the kids and that’s what you need to be able to learn and live and love each other.”
Another key piece of advice she passes on to new teachers is to develop relationships with other teachers and parents as soon as possible—something she says is easier in Yukon than in much larger urban centres.
“Lots of stuff goes on at the beginning of the year, and there’s lots of opportunities, because everybody wants to get to know people.”
Although Thompson has no children of her own, she has worked with hundreds of them over the years, and her husband raised seven children, so she also understands some of the strategies that can help make the first days and weeks of a new school year a success for children… and their parents.
She also recalls some of the things her own mother did to make going back to school fun for her and her siblings.
This included making paper-link chains that could be disassembled link-by-link in the final weeks of summer holiday.
Some of those links had daily activities written on them, such as going shopping together for school supplies, or making special trips to the grocery store to scout out items that could be used for preparing school lunches.
“It’s really important to keep it stress-free and build on the excitement of the new beginning. That’s one of the great things about school. There’s closure and there’s fresh starts and new beginnings.”
One of the annual highlights for Thompson as a child was getting a new outfit for the beginning of school. It’s something she continues to do for herself, even though she’s no longer in the classroom.
There’s nothing like “wearing your new duds and looking fancy” on the first day of school, she says.
Still, Thompson advocates what she calls “doing normal” even during holiday times, as a way to keep stress levels down as opening day approaches
That includes trying to ensure there is an educational component to family activities, especially with younger children, by reading together, cooking together, or playing games that can build both learning skills and social relationships.
It also includes trying to maintain a fairly consistent pattern of meal times and bed times throughout the year.
“Kids need a lot of sleep, and that’s tricky, especially when it’s light out. Little kids can need up to 12 hours in those early years,” she says.
“So just getting enough sleep is a really big thing for learning, and having a good breakfast,” she adds.
“And again, not stressing yourself out about that. You don’t have to have a big, fancy breakfast, but make sure your kids have breakfast before they leave, even if it’s peanut butter and toast.”
One final piece of advice Thompson has for both parents and teachers is to keep the lines of communication open between home and school.
“Parents love their kids. They just want what’s best for them, so I think it’s our job to make sure they’re comfortable with all that, and have comfort in the fact the teacher’s going to be OK and do their best for their kids.”