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7 routines you need to teach (and reteach) in your high school classroom ASAP

Updated: Oct 3, 2019

There’s a very popular restaurant in my city that sits by a waterfall and has spectacular views of a lovely park. They serve cold beer and fresh seafood and usually have a fella with a guitar playing some sweet background tunes on hand. It is always crowded--like lines-a-mile-long-packed. It can also be a bit confusing. You have to order your food from a chalkboard menu behind a counter and then they give you a number and bring your food to you at whatever vacant table you manage to find. But if you want just ice cream, that’s a different line. And if you want beer only, that’s a different different line. And if you don’t know these things, you could wait an hour in line just for an ice cream cone or you could end up trying to order your Po’ Boy at the ice cream window. But if you have it figured out, you know to get your beer first and then go stand in the long food line so you can drink while you wait to order your food. I have been going there for years so I always get my beer first. But when I first went to this place, I was confused. And I noticed I was not the only one. It seemed like people were always confused there.

Lately, though, I have noticed more and more “how-to order” signs which point out the different lines, outline where to order what and pre-emptively answer the most commonly asked question by stating, “No, we don’t have french fries.” Since the new signage went up, the lines seem to be moving more smoothly. This restaurant has finally figured out that if you want things to run smoothly, you have to teach people your procedures. And your procedures need to be explicit, clear, consistent and efficient.

Why am I telling you this? Because at the beginning of the year or term, your classroom is like that restaurant to your students. When they first come in, it may seem obvious to you that this is where you turn in homework and that is where you look to see today’s agenda and the lab materials are kept over there, but until you teach your students your procedures, your students are just like the confused patrons at my favorite restaurant, milling around muttering to themselves or getting frustrated because they are doing things wrong. If you want it to run smoothly, you need to do what the restaurant managers did and get clear about your routines. Take some time to teach them how to “do your classroom” by teaching them some of the basic procedures.

Below is a list of seven common routines you will want to get ironed out and taught asap:

Entry routine

This seems like a no-brainer, right? Come in, look at the bell-ringer or the Do Now and get started. Yeah except your students just came in from the hallway and in teen terms, the hallway is "party time." You need to transition them to "learning time." Have a solid, predictable routine in place. Post your objectives, agenda, and bell work. Make these easy to find and consistent. Once the bell rings, use a timer so they know how long they have to work on the opener. Make the timer visible. This might be the most important routine because it sets the tone for the rest of the hour.


The worst. Ugh. If we could figure out how to have a whole class with no transitions, we would, amIright? Actually, wait--I have observed those classes. They were hour-long lectures and I wanted to climb out of my skin at the end. No. We can’t teach that way. Our kids don’t learn that way. Moving through the process of learning and through a stellar lesson plan necessitates transitions--from direct instruction to independent practice, from whole-group to small groups and back again, from individual work to partner activities, and on and on. But we can lose a ton of time herding the crowd through these transitions. Figure out what some of your major transitions are (whole group to small group, whole group to partners, etc) and put a protocol in place.

I used playing cards for transitioning to groups. I passed out cards at some unobtrusive point during my lesson and then when I said, “Go,” students packed their stuff, found the folks with matching cards, faced desks in a circle and viola--groups. I also used a timer and we competed against our own best time ("Last time you grouped up in 1 minute, let’s go for 45 seconds today!") It was so smooth that by the middle of the year when students saw the cards on their desks, they already knew the routine was coming. Invest some time into this. It will pay huge dividends in time saved down the road.

Bathroom/Hallway Passes

Make this so routine, students don’t have to see you or interrupt class to get a pass. In my classroom, that meant there was one permanent pass (okay, a slightly permanent laminated thing that had to be replaced now and then--on a lanyard because students told me it’s gross to hold the pass in the bathroom) that hung on a hook by a sign-out sheet. One. If a student needed a pass, they would get up, sign themselves out, grab the pass and go. That meant that if the pass was gone, you had to wait. This also meant that if the pass was gone for a long time, the other students noticed and they made it known when they were waiting too long. That pass system monitored itself.

Of course, your routine may look different. Your building may have a no-pass policy or a no-pass during the first and last 10 minutes. You may have already come up with a nifty pass system that you love. Whatever you decide to do with passes be consistent--this means across days, times and students. And don’t forget to post it!

Getting and putting away materials

Make it clear where materials are kept and put away. If possible, streamline it so that one student is responsible for getting materials for several other students to cut down on foot traffic when it’s time to grab something. (I used caddies to hold markers, scissors, rulers, etc and one student would grab a caddy for herself and three others to share). Keep sharpened pencils in a clear spot in the room so students can grab one if they need one without stopping you to ask you for one. Make sure you build in time at the end of the hour for returning materials and have a process for that or you will find those materials laying around after the bell rings.

Turning in completed work

Where do they turn in work? Is there a particular spot for their hour? A basket? A bin? A time of the hour to turn in work? How do they turn in work online? Being specific about the “where” and then “when” will cut down on interruptions and will help keep you organized. In my own classroom, students turned in hard copies of their work into a designated classroom basket at the beginning of the hour and at the end.

Getting missing work

This is another time-suck--students asking, “What did I miss?” when they come in after an absence. Make it a routine for them to have to “Ask Three Before Me”--in other words, have them ask other students for missing work. Have a designated spot in the classroom for the week’s handouts or a clear spot on your website for accessing missing work. Figure out when they can talk to you about the missing work and teach then about that appropriate time. (Spoiler alert--it should not be in between classes because you should be at your door greeting students and transitioning them into your room).

Using technology

Laptops. iPads. Kindles-- you may use them in your room. What does it look like for students to get those materials out and get to work? Where are they kept when they aren’t in use? If there is a cart, what is the system for getting them from the cart? For putting them back? For making sure they get plugged in? (I used to have a student in charge of checking iPads out and in, which means they stood at the cart and students would come up and tell that student their assigned number and the student would hand them their iPad. This cut down on the number of hands reaching into the iPad cart and created an opportunity for me to give a rotating leadership role to students). And of course, of course, of course--cell phones. What’s your policy? (What is your school’s policy?) And is that policy clear, equitable, consistent and posted?

Get these routines in order right away. Then as routines arise, you can add those. And don’t be afraid to tweak your routines. If they aren’t working, figure out why and make adjustments. Get student input/feedback. Have them help with common procedures. Once you get those routines in place and your classroom is humming along like my favorite restaurant, you will find you have so much more time to focus on other things-like engaging your students in your amazing lesson plans! Happy routine teaching! In the meantime, if you need me, I’ll be over here standing in the food line with my beer.

Routine Poster images; courtesy of Kara Cisco, Social Studies Teacher- St. Louis Park Highschool


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