Course Description – Tips For A Great Year

Course Description - What, Why, How

Ready for a new year and a new batch of students? We sat down with our resident expert, Susan Phillips (30+ teaching years and counting!), and got her tips on using a course description to get your class started on the right foot.

Have you ever wondered what to do with expectations for your class that don’t quite fit on any of the standard documents? Those items that aren’t quite safety rules and they’re not curriculum related enough to go on the syllabus, so where do they go? The course description! It’s the perfect place to communicate your ideas and standards for student behavior and sets the tone for rest of the year. Susan uses it as an agreement between herself, her students and their parents to make a clear framework for conduct in her class.

A common question regarding the course description is how is it different from a syllabus? The difference lies in the goal of the document. The course description is more effective at setting the tone for a class because it’s focused on expectations for behavior and nothing else. If you lump those expectations onto a syllabus, they’re going to get lost as soon as your students start looking at the requirements to get the grade they’re after. Don’t let your classroom standards get buried! Keep them in focus by giving them their own document.

How To Make An Effective Course Description

In a word – simplify! It’s more effective to have a few simple guidelines that work as an umbrella for your class than to go into lots of detail with dozens of bullet points. That’s a list of rules, not a course description. When you’re making your course description (or using this one <--.docx or --> pdf version) you should keep the items at a high level so you can add content on-the-fly during the year. Building in some wiggle room gives you flexibility and keeps your kids from finding those sneaky little technical loopholes that are bound to pop up if you try to get detailed.

For example: One class I had just wouldn’t stop talking. It was a non-stop battle all year long to get them to quiet down and listen. During one lab it was particularly bad so I raised my voice and told everyone to quiet down, get to work and focus already! Well, naturally, one little fellow starts whispering a couple minutes later and when I confronted him (kindly, but firmly) he informed me, in that charming teenage way, that I had said “Quiet down” not “No talking” …

If you get into too much detail on your course description it leaves you open to tricky responses and cleverness like Susan dealt with.

Three Simple Guidelines

When she first made a course description as a new teacher Susan had a lot of very specific instructions on it; no tearing pages out of a notebook because it leaves the edge too ragged, for example. After a couple years she realized that there simply too many things for the students to remember and the really important points were getting lost in the noise of all the other rules.

Now her course description has three simple things:

  • Be Polite
  • Be Prepared
  • Be Punctual

In our ideal classroom model (read that – imagination land) your students would know what those three things mean and would follow them nicely all year long. Of course, we all know that’s not going to happen! In fact, some of them really won’t know what you mean by polite, prepared & punctual so you’re going to have to explain. Here are some simple ideas to share with them that will get the point across:

  • Be Polite – set the tone for behavior towards others
    • If you wouldn’t say it to someone in person then don’t say it at all
    • Treat people the way you like to be treated
    • If it can’t be fixed immediately, don’t point it out: for example, if you don’t like someone’s clothes or hair, keep it to yourself
    • Susan takes a very firm stance against bullying of any kind, make it abundantly clear that it will not be tolerated at all
  • Be Prepared – inform them of what they’ll need for class and the year
    • Cover the supplies your students will need for the year – binders, pens, notebooks, etc.
    • Keep your classwork – bell ringers and exit surveys are good for quick review sessions, student notes should be used for studying
    • You’ll be doing some in-class drawings, consider getting colored pencils if you’d like to have more selection than what’s in the common can
    • Come to class with everything you need, if you forgot it in your locker you’ll just have to make due
  • Be Punctual – teach them to respect others time
    • If you walk into class a minute after start time, you’re late
    • If it happens again exercise whatever rule your school has to enforce punctuality

Get Support - Record and Inform

One of the best ways to ensure a smooth year and a set of guidelines that your students will adhere to is to have the support of parent and administrators. Be up-front about what you expect and maintain detailed records through the year. The course description Susan uses has been vetted multiple times over the years by her administrators and has been through the hands of hundreds of parents.

Have your students and parents read and sign the course description and make it clear that they’re agreeing to follow it through the year. If a student starts to cause problems refer back to the course description; get it out and show it to them, remind them that they agreed to follow your guidelines.

Communicate with the parents from the first issue so they know what’s happening. There’s no need to be harsh towards the parents or overly critical of their child. Just a professional, polite note relating what happened and how you addressed the issue. Get them on board so you have the outside support you need to bring the student back to good behavior.

Busy Teacher Summary

This is our summary for busy teachers who want the gist of our post.

Use a course description as a mini-agreement with your students.

Spell out your expectations for class behavior and refer back to this document through the year, as needed.

Having parents and administrators back you up will be important so be open with them about the standards you hold your students to.

Keep good records of issues and communicate immediately with parents and/or administrators.

Download Susan's course description – (pdf version) it’s been used with great success for many years

Happy Teaching!

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