The Successful Teacher's Handbook

Creative Strategies for Engaging Your Students, Managing Your Classroom, and Thriving as an Educator


By Pat Hensley

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Discover the techniques, advice, and innovations for transforming your classroom into an engaging, creative and effective learning environment for students of every grade.

A lifelong teacher and professor of education, Pat Hensley, turns decades of in-class experience into easy-to-apply tips and strategies to transform the way you teach your students.

In this book, you’ll learn practical advice for:
  • Setting up your classroom
  • Using tech to enhance your teaching
  • Co-teaching and parent participation
  • Culturally responsive teaching techniques
  • Universal design for learning
  • Avoiding teacher burnout
This transformative handbook packs thirty years of in-class experience into the most valuable lessons any new or veteran teacher needs to succeed in today’s classroom.


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I always wanted to be a teacher, ever since I was a small child. I remember I loved to play “school” and begged my parents to buy me school workbooks in the summer, so I could use them in my “class.” I loved learning and I wanted everyone else to love it as I much as I did. I can’t remember ever wanting to do anything but teach!

I applied to a university out of state and paid for school myself. I kept my eye on my goal and didn’t let anything sidetrack me from it—and was so excited when I got my very first teaching position.

My very first day of teaching was terrifying but exciting at the same time. I remember one of my first students showing up on crutches. He’d had his leg amputated over the summer due to bone cancer, but he was wearing a prosthesis. I greeted him by telling him I was his new teacher. The next thing I knew, he’d whipped off his prosthesis and was chasing me around the room. It took me a few minutes before I realized that I was the teacher and I was in charge! I whipped around and faced him, put my hand out, and told him to stop! I put on my “teacher” hat and demanded that he have a seat in the desk I assigned for him. Amazingly, he did what I told him!

I realized then that my learning had not ended but was going to be a lifelong process. I don’t believe passionate teachers ever feel like they have learned everything possible to be most effective in the classroom. They are constantly looking for ways to better engage students and help them achieve their goals. While my university did a great job preparing me for my career in teaching, book learning is very different from actual experience. It is like learning to drive a car from a book and then actually being behind the wheel. Student teaching was a great experience, but you always have the actual teacher guiding you along. When you become the teacher, you are the one who is supposed to be the “expert.”

My first day on the job, I walked into my empty classroom thinking, “Where do I go from here? What do I do?” I didn’t have a handbook or an instruction manual to help guide me, but I wish I had! Other than from student teaching, everything I learned was through my own trial and error. I always hoped that someday I would be able to help others learn from my mistakes.

This is why I wanted to write The Successful Teacher’s Handbook. I wanted to share my experiences, good and bad, to help new or struggling teachers—or anyone looking to refresh their knowledge of teaching. I wanted others to learn from my mistakes without having to experience them on their own. Hopefully, this book will help other teachers enjoy teaching more and make them less likely to burn out.

There is no magic recipe for teaching. A lot depends on what works for you and how it works with your students. It will take time and experience for you to figure this balance out.

In this book, I want to talk about several topics that I believe are important to new teachers. In my opinion, classroom management is the biggest key to successful teaching. I will share different strategies that have been successful in my classrooms over the years and include sample activities that range from elementary school to high school levels. If an example of an activity seems too young or too old for your students, just give it a tweak to make it age appropriate.

Another important topic I discuss is using technology in the classroom. In today’s society, you need to meet students on the playing field they are comfortable with. For today’s kids, that means through technology. For kids who weren’t raised with computers, their ability to use one will impact their place in the working world. Today our classrooms are so diverse that we need to make sure we are sensitive to everyone’s unique qualities and circumstances. That’s why every teacher needs to have culturally responsive teaching methods in their tool kit. In addition to culturally diverse students, you may have students with disabilities in your classroom and will need to know some strategies that will make working with them easier. At the beginning of your career, you may find that you are working with a co-teacher. Many new teachers struggle to work in a co-teaching relationship, and I hope my suggestions can make this collaboration easier and more successful. Another part of teaching that I think is vital is parent involvement in the classroom. As teachers, our main goal is the students’ success in the classroom and in life—and we need to make sure that we are working as a team with students’ parents or caregivers.

I have been a special-education teacher for more than thirty years. Over those years, I’ve developed methods and strategies that will work in any classroom. These flexible, adaptable principles will help you be the best teacher you can be, regardless of your prior experience or the grade level of your students.

Best of luck, and happy teaching, Pat


Where Do I Begin?

On my first workday as a teacher, I attended all the required meetings where they go over the teacher handbook, school routines, and other administrative details. Then I showed up in my empty classroom and wondered—where do I start?

I was totally overwhelmed and didn’t know what to do next. I learned quickly that that is a common feeling at the beginning of every year and most teachers feel that way! After some time, I got into a routine, and when this clicked, I made a list of what I should do so that it can help me at the beginning of every year. I was able to revise this each year as needed, but it usually shook me out of my paralysis and got me moving.

Getting Started in Your Classroom

In this chapter, I’m going to share all my routines for getting a school year started on the right foot, including the first things you need to do to prepare for both your first day of work as a teacher and for your first day in the classroom with your students. These include obtaining your roster, setting up your classroom, decorating your classroom, developing a behavior plan, planning class routines, conducting emergency drills, and having a great first day with students.


First things first—you will get a student roster. It helps to know how many students you will have so you can set up your classroom properly. The roster will also let you know if there are any students who have special educational requirements. Some students may be categorized as students with special needs and have an individual education plan including accommodations or modifications for the classroom. Once you have your roster, you can ask yourself if certain students need to sit in special positions. This will help you determine the arrangement of the students’ desks. Once you arrange the desks, make a seating chart of where you want the students to sit. This will take care of any specific seating needs and will help you learn your students’ names faster.

Classroom Furniture

Next you need to get furniture for your classroom. You need a teacher’s desk, student desks, and a large table for group work. A bookcase is always nice too. Most classrooms will have these in the room when you arrive, but this is not always the case. You should put your teacher’s desk in the front corner away from the classroom door. This keeps it out of the flow of traffic and makes sure you are not blocking the board in the front of the room. I typically start the year out with the students’ desks in rows and assign the students to desks, usually alphabetically so I learn their names, with the exception of any students with specific needs. Doing this will allow you to see how the students behave and figure out which students work well together—and who you do not want seated near each other. Later, you can rearrange the seats and form the students into groups.

Classroom Decor

You want students to feel welcome and happy to be in your classroom, so your classroom decor can send an important message. First impressions are important. Everyone likes to come into a room that feels inviting and welcoming. Having a nicely decorated room that is also neat and organized helps students maintain a positive attitude, while a dull, undecorated classroom can make students feel that you don’t really care about your environment, or that the class will be boring. On the other hand, chaos, clutter, or an over-decorated classroom can make students feel nervous and uncertain.

There are a number of things you can do to make your classroom feel both inviting and well-ordered. To start, I like to decorate the door with my name and a welcoming decoration. It helps students know they are entering the correct classroom when they first arrive. I always put my name at the top of the door. Then I cut out book shapes from construction paper and write each student’s name on it to decorate the door. That way students see their name when they arrive.

In your classroom, there should be a clearly designated area for group work and another area for individual work. You might use a carpet to designate the group area. In younger grades, some teachers put small chairs in a circle. In older grades, there may be a large table with chairs around it.

When choosing decorations for the room, try to stick with color themes so there is harmony in the colors. If your colors are all over the place, that could feel chaotic and even be hard to look at. Colors on the cool side of the spectrum, such as blues, greens, and purples, can bring feelings of calm, while reds, oranges, and yellows can bring feelings of excitement and stimulation. You don’t want calm colors in an area where you want lots of movement and activity, and you don’t want stimulating colors in the area where you want quiet reading or soft music.

If you have bookshelves, keep books neatly organized on the shelves. Separate fiction and nonfiction books into different sections. If you have room for a reading corner, you might want to put a piece of carpet down or beanbag chairs for recreational reading time.

There should be an area for art supplies for project work. Have supplies neatly organized so that students can find them and then learn to put them back in the right places. Clear plastic tubs that are labeled help with organizing these things.

If you have bulletin boards set up on your walls, it is important to keep them decorated. If there are two bulletin boards in the room, it is great to have one as a motivational board and the other to display student work. Don’t allow the bulletin boards to be too cluttered. Again, make sure you use the appropriate colors for the message you want to display.

Often, teachers plan a monthly theme for their bulletin boards ahead of time. Then you could keep your eye out for decorations or ideas for each month throughout the year. Some suggested themes are:

September: back to school

October: favorite subjects or autumn

November: Thanksgiving

December: winter and snow

January: New Year

February: Valentine’s Day

March: St. Patrick’s Day

April: kites and spring

May: flowers

June: summertime

Other topics that are good throughout the year include: the ocean, the forest, birds, the desert, underwater animals, mammals, reptiles, weather, and healthy eating. You can search Pinterest for more bulletin board ideas.

Many school supply stores sell borders that can frame the bulletin board and make it look neat and seasonally appropriate. Then you just arrange and staple your decorations in the middle of the board. You can buy premade items for your bulletin boards or you can make your own using construction paper. You can even have your students help you make the items for the board. Some students are artistic and like the idea of making something for the board. Others may enjoy finding things from magazines to staple to the board.

Students also enjoy helping you take down the old bulletin board if they have earned free time. By allowing students to help you, you are helping their self-concept. (A self-concept is what a person believes about himself, feels about his own value, and how he perceives himself. Helping a student develop a healthy self-concept will help them during times when they face obstacles. This will give them the strength to face challenges and believe that they can succeed in whatever they strive to do.) They will feel that you trust them to help. Many younger students work hard to earn the reward of being a “helper.”

Behavior Plan

The next most important thing to do is to develop a behavior plan. A behavior plan is basically your classroom rules of appropriate behavior, along with rewards and consequences. Your rewards and consequences will help your students learn the appropriate behaviors that you expect in your classroom. This prevents chaos and confusion as your year progresses. If all your rules are followed, your class will go smoothly with few bumps in the road.

It doesn’t matter what grade level or subject you teach; your behavior plan is vital to the success of your classroom. Once expectations and consequences are understood, students know their boundaries and teaching becomes easier. For more information on how to set up your behavior plan, see chapter three.

Planning Your Subjects

After you set up your behavior plan, you need to know what subjects you are teaching and what materials or textbooks you will need. You also need to see if there are curriculum expectations or timeline requirements. This will help you with planning lessons and give you the big picture of what students should achieve for the whole year. If you are in special education, this will involve reviewing an individual education plan (IEP). In general education, you will also need to know which of your students have an IEP and what accommodations or modifications are required for this student. Remember, this is not optional and is required by federal law. For detailed tips on lesson planning, see chapter five.


If you’re in a new school, you can really hit the ground running with help from a mentor teacher. (If you don’t have a mentor teacher, the best person to go to will be your department head.) When working with a mentor teacher, know that you may need to begin the relationship by asking them questions, as sometimes the mentor doesn’t want to seem overbearing or intrusive and may wait until you ask for help. They may have specific information to give you or may assume you already know some things. If you have a question or don’t understand something, don’t be afraid to ask. Questions about school policies and school procedures are great to ask your mentor. As the school year progresses, you may have a specific problem that you need to address, and asking your mentor for advice is helpful. Remember, you don’t need to follow the advice if you don’t agree or don’t feel comfortable with it, but it is always good to get another perspective if you are struggling with an issue.

Class Routines

Your class routine is made up of the things you repeat every day in class even though the actual assignments change. Setting up these routines in the beginning of the year will help students understand what is expected of them each class period. You should post this routine on a wall before your students arrive on their first day, so they know about it from the beginning and can reference it whenever needed. Here is an example of a class routine that I find works really well:

1. When students arrive, have a short opening assignment (a warm-up assignment lasting about five minutes) for them to do, which gives you time to take attendance or do any general “housekeeping” chores.

2. Collect any homework assignments or papers that you need.

3. Begin the day’s lesson.

4. Give assignments—these may be either group or individual assignments.

5. Then give the closing or summary of the lesson.

6. Last, always try to leave the five minutes at the end of class for cleanup and new homework assignments or any other last-minute things that pop up.

Although the lessons and assignments may change, the routine stays the same. This helps all students, especially those with special needs, know what to expect every day.


During your start-of-year preparations, things will inevitably pop up that you will need to do before the students arrive. You may suddenly realize that you don’t have forms that need to be handed out on the first day, or you may not know the schedule for the first day, which is different from a normal schedule. To stay on top of all the details, keep a spiral notepad close by and make a list as these things come to mind, or as administrators ask for things. Beside them, write the due date or time. At the end of the day, you can prioritize this list and it won’t be so overwhelming. Then, when you tackle the list, do one thing at a time in order. If you need to, you can add new things to the bottom of the list and review it again at the end of the day. Keep all of these lists in one notebook in case you need to refer to earlier lists later.

Once the year starts, being organized and prepared is key to being successful in the classroom. At the beginning of each day, do the same prioritization routine that you did at the beginning of the year: Make a list of what you need to do for that day. Then prioritize the list items. This helps you see the big picture for the day and ensures that you have all the materials you need available and organized. Even though maintaining this list is another thing you need to do, you can get more things done this way—and cut down on your stress!

Before leaving at the end of the day, get organized for the next day so there is no need to get to school early. I recommend staying at least three days ahead with gathering the materials you need. You never know when the copier may break down or an emergency will pop up. You might have trouble finding the materials you need, and starting early gives you time to hunt for them. If you already have the materials you need for that day, you know you are prepared.

Know Your Colleagues

Get to know your colleagues. Make sure you know the people in your department because they can be very helpful. Be alert and recognize those who have positive personalities and try to get to know them better. Their positivity will rub off and help you during your tough times. In the same vein, look for those you feel veer toward the negative and avoid them while you are still trying to get used to your new teaching career or a new school. Sometimes people are negative for different reasons and can’t help themselves, but negativity can also be contagious, and you don’t want to feel this way as you get started. Stick together with others who are still excited about teaching and enthusiastic about learning new strategies. Sometimes you can get great ideas from these people and then just adjust their methods to fit your students’ needs. I was able to get great ideas from people not just in my own department but from other departments as well. Sometimes I would even ask them how I could fit their great lesson into my own class and many were able to think of ways that I hadn’t thought of.

Your First Day with Your Students

On my very first day of teaching, when the students were expected to arrive, my stomach was filled with butterflies. I wanted to do a good job and make a difference. I wanted the students to like me. I wanted my colleagues to like me. I wanted to be able to handle everything that might happen. I wanted the administration to not fire me for any stupid mistakes I might make. This was the moment I seemed to have waited my whole life for and here it was. What a great feeling! I was filled with dread and excitement at the same time.

On the first day of every year, I still felt the same way. Even with all my years of experience, I still got butterflies on the first day the students arrive. Part of it was natural and all about the fear of the unknown. I had no idea what the students would be like or how the year was going to go, but that was part of the thrill of being a teacher. Every year is going to be different and every student is going to be different. I believe when this feeling goes away, it is time to retire or find another job.

Remember, butterflies are a good thing!


When you get butterflies, take a few deep breaths. Try to think about the absolute worst thing that could happen. Usually, when you start to think about this, it helps to calm you down, because you realize it’s really not that bad. Remember that you can do this job, and you were trained to do this job. No matter what happens, if you make a mistake, apologize and move on. Don’t beat yourself up over the minor mistakes. Usually, your students are as nervous about meeting you as you are to meet them!

Don’t forget to enjoy your first day. This is an exciting day for you and your students—make it count.

At the end of the day, reflect on how your day went. Make a list of the changes you need to make for tomorrow. Make a list of the questions you have to find the answers to.


On Sale
Jul 16, 2019
Page Count
240 pages
Little, Brown Lab

Pat Hensley

About the Author

Pat Hensley is a lifelong special education teacher, professor of education at Furman University, and the editor of the website Pat lives with her husband in Greenville, South Carolina.

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