Warmly welcoming every new student is a priority in our K-8 building. Many of our students come from military families, so there are a lot of arrivals and departures. I want each student to be as comfortable as possible, as quickly as possible, but we've found through trial and error that what works for the elementary students doesn't necessarily work for the older students.
Welcoming New Elementary Students
When my friend and third-grade teacher, Betsy Reynolds, hears about an addition to her classroom, she goes straight to the custodian's office. Betsy has an already-prepared information packet and programs in place to welcome each student and his or her parents to the district. She also has students she can count on to be good guides and companions to newcomers. But while these preparations are helpful, Betsy believes the most important tool for welcoming students is something very practical: a desk and chair.
"When a new kid has to sit at the computer table or share space with another student who may not want to share, it sure doesn't make her feel welcome," she says. "So I visit the custodians right away. When they see me coming, they start looking around the storeroom!"
Betsy makes sure the desk has the appropriate books and materials inside, as well as a couple of brand-new school pencils. She also tapes the name of the child to the desk, along with a number line so that it looks like all the other desks in the classroom. Her students even have a welcome song to sing to each newcomer.
Welcoming New Secondary Students
Needless to say, it's trickier with older kids. As an eighth-grade teacher, I'd have a hard time getting my students to sing a welcome song to a new student—not to mention how embarrassed the new student would likely feel if he or she had to stand there and listen. While I do make sure every new student has a desk, I've learned from experience that the last thing many twelve- or thirteen-year-olds want is to be the center of attention with all eyes on them. Not many new kids want the teacher to do anything more than introduce them, where they're from or similar details of their background. They're just looking to internalize their environment, feel welcomed, and come out of their shell when they're ready to.
Fortunately, our guidance office sponsors a program that really helps new students fit into the school by matching up each new girl or boy with a girl or boy who has the same schedule. These kids guide the newcomers around for a couple of days, introduce them in every class, explain the general protocols, and, maybe most importantly, eat lunch with them. A lot of us secondary teachers consider this program instrumental in helping new students find friends and figure out pretty quickly how things work in their new school. And because students themselves are involved from day one, the program also cuts down on anyone giving someone new a hard time.
The best way to integrate new students in my classroom is to treat them as though they've been with us all year. I call on new students with soft questions as soon as possible. A regular strategy I use is asking students to pair up with a partner right next to them or form a small group. Working with their classmates immediately makes a new student feel part of the learning community.
All of these efforts really do help new students feel welcome, but don't forget one other important step: checking a new student's records to see if he or she has any special learning needs. Knowing if a student has an IEP (Individualized Education Program) is essential to making their academic transition seamless. We want new kids to feel that we're glad they're with us, and we can demonstrate this by making sure both their social and academic needs are met.
Oh, and one more thing—make sure you know how to pronounce the student's name before he or she enters the classroom!