For Tana Banker, classroom aesthetics is key, which is why she spent the first part of the month organizing her classroom for the first day of school.

"The most time I spend is getting the room ready — making it feel comfortable, getting things set up," she said. "We spend a lot of hours, not just me, but everybody, getting our rooms ready."

Banker, a second-grade teacher at Highland Acres Elementary School, woke up early Thursday to make sure she was set for her new students this year. In addition to prepping their classrooms, teachers undergo weeks of planning for the first day of classes, which is also an important time teachers use to set expectations for the school year.

Thursday marked the start of the 2017-18 year for Bismarck and Mandan public schools. The private schools in the area, including Light of Christ Catholic Schools, began classes as well.

Bismarck Public Schools has 12,861 students and Mandan Public Schools has 3,746 students this year. Shiloh Christian School of Bismarck has 475 students.

Banker's day began when the bell rang promptly at 8:30 a.m. at Highland Acres. She lined up her excitable second-graders, and they marched into the building and to her classroom. Her room is neatly organized; books codified by genre and desks organized for each student. Her room is colorful and Dr. Seuss-themed. A vase of fresh flowers sits on a table.

Banker's first order of business is going over how things work in her classroom — simple things, such as explaining cold and hot lunch options and proper etiquette for the morning flag-raising. At one point, she raised her hand and put a finger to her lips. She then asked the students if they knew what that gesture meant. 

"Stop," she said, and her classroom fell silent.

Banker said the first day is about setting the ground rules for the school year, but also making her students feel comfortable and playing games to get to know them. On the first day, she and her students discussed names for the classroom pet fish, what they did over break and read a book about how to maintain friendships.

After teaching for 28 years, Banker said methods of teaching have changed slightly.

"(Teaching is) a little more complicated, but kids are kids, and they’re excited, and they want to learn, and that’s our goal for them," she said.

The start of the new school year comes amid contract negotiations between Bismarck teachers and the school district over a safe workplace policy and wages. During a public hearing earlier this month on an impasse in contract talks, several teachers shared safety concerns in their classrooms and the need for a more robust policy in their negotiated agreements. A report from the North Dakota Education Fact-Finding Committee recommended the district form a committee to look into any incidents of violence against teachers.

Banker said she hasn't been in a situation like that before, but feels confident in the training she has received. She's also supportive of an effort by the district to identify and address teacher safety concerns.

"I don’t care if it’s teaching or what you do, I think everybody is entitled to go to work and feel safe," she said.

On the other side of town at Wachter Middle School, Alyssa Steiner welcomed returning students into her classroom. Steiner teaches an AVID class in grades 6-8. AVID, or Advancement Via Individual Determination, is an elective class designed for students who could benefit from extra support to succeed in their desired path after high school.

Similar to Banker, Steiner said the look of her classroom is important, and the first thing she does before the start of school in the fall.

"The physical of my room is very important to the way my class runs," said Steiner, who is a third-year teacher.

The walls of Steiner's classroom are filled with college pennants and posters. Her first day of classes consist of refreshing her students on what she expects of them. On Thursday afternoon, she went over the basics for her eighth-grade class: What is AVID? Where are various items located throughout the classroom?

"All of my eighth-grade students I’ve had almost all of them (before) ... They’re going to walk in here and it’s going to feel like we’re starting right where we left off last year," Steiner said.

Steiner teaches about 20 students per section. She, too, relies on teacher training to prepare for any situation in which a student might become violent or combative. Steiner also said agrees with creating a safe workplace policy or identifying safety precautions. 

"What it comes down to is what’s best for students and what’s best for staff," she said.

Also at Wachter, David Augustadt welcomed a new batch of sixth-graders into his band room Thursday afternoon. Students were greeted by a PowerPoint which read, "Welcome to 6th grade band!" The start of class began with attendance, then Augustadt went over with the students what to expect in his course, policies and procedure.

Augustadt, who has been teaching for 14 years, said the first couple days of school set the tone for the rest of the year and could help avoid potential problems between students and teachers.

“The more you do in the beginning of the school year, the more you’re able to get ahead of potential issues," he said. “Sixty-two sixth-graders in one classroom every single day, a lot can happen. But building those relationships right away, as well, is key."

(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)

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