The year starts early for teachers preparing classrooms

Kelsea Gurski

Kindergarten can be a jungle. But that’s a good thing in Martha Havey’s classroom.

The kindergarten teacher at Owen Marsh Elementary in Springfield, Ill., has spent the past month preparing her room. When her 24 students arrive this morning for their first day of school, a colorful, fun learning environment will greet them.

Jungle vines made of crinkled brown and green tissue paper create a tropical atmosphere against turquoise paper that covers the wall and doors outside Havey’s classroom. Letters form a welcome: “Kindergarten — a great place to hang.”

Inside awaits a room of colorful alphabet posters, books galore, a multicolored area rug, a “monkey tree” that’s home to some stuffed monkeys and used to measure good behavior, and much more.

Of the dozen or so classrooms at Owen Marsh, Havey’s was by far the most complete in mid-August, less than two weeks before the beginning of the school year. She estimated she was 90 percent done.

“I don’t know of an elementary school teacher that can get a classroom ready on the day they report,” Havey said. “Aug. 1 hits and I’m back in school mode … school starts three weeks earlier for me than everyone else.”

Forget about the misconception that teachers spend their summers basking by the pool while avoiding anything school-related.

Plenty of work still exists for educators after the final school bell rings each spring. Teachers say they often find themselves preparing for the new school year from home, sneaking into classrooms as early as July, and keeping a constant eye out for bargains to add to their room’s learning environment.

This is Havey’s 11th year teaching in Springfield School District 186 — her third at Owen Marsh — and she still finds ways each year to enhance her room. This year, she’s nestled a cozy writing center between her well-stocked bookshelves and computer station, and provided a few stuffed animals at arm’s reach to “pick a pal” to read with.

It’s important to her that the room be accessible to her students, and well-organized so she can stay on task, she said. Getting to that point can take more than 40 hours. Because the custodial staff clears out all classrooms to thoroughly clean them at the end of each school year, teachers usually have some rearranging to do before they can break out their posters, books and other teaching tools.

Havey had extra help moving her furniture this year because she is recovering from neck surgery. Still, she said, “it’s a massive amount of work to get it back together. You are starting with a blank slate.”

Also helping her was 9-year-old Annie Urbance, a Cathedral Elementary School fourth-grader whose nanny is Havey’s college-age daughter, Rachel. Havey said she recruits as much help as she can to prepare her “kid-friendly” room.

Like other elementary school teachers, however, Havey purposefully leaves some blank spots on her walls so she can hang up items that her students use in the classroom, giving them a sense of ownership in the room — it’s all part of the district’s “purposeful learning environment” initiative.

“I want the kids to know this is our room,” she said. “This is where we learn and have fun.”

Hammering echoes down an empty hallway Aug. 12 at Springfield's Porta Central School as third-grade teacher Janis Dempsey puts together a bookcase she bought at a recent back-to-school sale.

In her ninth year as a teacher, Dempsey has acquired the basics for her room, but the hunt for good deals never ends, she said.

“I’m always on the lookout for things,” she said. “You’re always doing it, because you’re always looking for free things and things you can get cheap.”

Most schools or districts help teachers purchase supplies they need for their classrooms, though it’s rarely much more than $100 per school year. At Porta Central, the district allows $125 per teacher, and the parent-teacher association often supplements that. In District 186, each school’s parent-teacher organization helps provide teachers with a supply allowance, so the amount varies by school.

The second full week of August marked the beginning of Dempsey’s efforts to get her room in order for her students, who report today. Desks sat clumped together in the middle of the room, and walls stood bare awaiting posters. By the time students arrive, the room will have a math area, writing area, puzzle area and a reading area with books, a rug and pillows.

Dempsey tries to do as much prep work as she can at home before heading into the classroom. For her, preparation for the following school year begins as the previous one whittles down. Often, she begins making copies of worksheets she knows she’ll use in August before school ends the previous May.

“When you have spare time at the end of the year, you get those things out of the way,” she said. “I would say most teachers, once kids walk out that last day, they’re doing something that day to prepare for the next school year.”

That’s just what Franklin Middle School teacher Rachel Jachino did last June. After ushering out her last class for the year, she headed back into the classroom to rearrange things she knew she wanted moved.

“Immediately you start thinking about, ‘OK, what do I need to change? What do I want to do differently for next year?’ ” she said.

Though Jachino, a sixth-grade math teacher who has taught at Franklin for 13 years, had to clear her bulletin boards, walls and bookshelves for the custodial staff, the custodians had a map of her arranged room and moved things back to where she’d put them. By July, Jachino was back in her room putting things in place.

As of Aug. 13, all she had to do was draw her weekly assignment calendar on the room’s back chalkboard. The math teacher in her shined through as she grabbed a yardstick and referred to a hand-drawn diagram on paper that was planned out to the centimeter.

Jachino said she never stops thinking about her classroom. This summer, she spent June redoing her ISAT math posters and updated her Web site. She spent a “couple hours here and there” in her room each week in July, and she stopped by nearly every day throughout August.

“I’m just one of those people that, when I come in on that first day — that first contractual day — I don’t want to be hanging posters,” she said. “I don’t want to be moving furniture … I want all the logistics out of the way.

“I don’t want to be stressed out those first couple of days. I want time for my brain to get ready for the kids to be here.”

Both Jachino and Dempsey said their main goal on the first day of school is to put their students at ease and make them feel welcome — whether that be putting a third-grader’s nametag on the door to welcome him to the room or ensuring a worried sixth-grader that her locker will, in fact, open.

“I always want the kids to feel comfortable in here,” Dempsey said. “It’s our home for the week. If they don’t enjoy being here, they aren’t going to learn a thing.”

Kelsea Gurski can be reached at 788-1526