New shoes, fresh haircuts, stacks of pristine workbooks, nervous eyes… yep, it’s the first day of school!
We all love the snap in the air on the first day. A fresh start- so many awesome ideas swirling around in your ever-multitasking teacher brain- you have such a great year planned.
But sometimes the first day of class can be really intimidating. After all, you only get one chance to make a first impression. You want it to be a good one; but you want it to be the right one.
Here are some easy tips to help you have a successful first day of class in your middle or high school classroom.
Plan for their reaction. We all know we can’t control how our students react. But we can set ourselves up as much as possible to get a certain reaction, based on what we already know about teens and students. Think specifically about what impression you want to create on the first day of school.
Can we just get real for a second? Please don’t give in to the rose-colored movie-teacher aspiration of being your students’ buddy. Don’t go into class on day one trying to show them how much they are going to love you, or how much fun they’re going to have in your class. Let them learn to love and respect you slowly, over time. It will take time. Trying to get them to love you on day one will just set you up for some really unrealistic expectations from your students.
If the first day is all icebreaker games and get-to-know-you activities, it sets the fun bar a little too high. Your students might get the impression that you’re the fun teacher who is just going to play games and do activities all year, but in reality, you know that you have some challenging work for them ahead this year.
If you set them up to expect “Fun Hour with Cool Teacher Buddy” each day, they will be pretty resentful when you pull out the real classwork, and you’ll be met with a whole lotta resistance and a whole lotta attitude.
So what do you do instead? Purposefully choose your demeanor and activities on day one to set the tone for the year.
Set the tone. Think about what tone you want your class to have. What impression do you want students of have of your class? (Again, realistically, not like in the movies where an unlikely teacher comes in and wins over a bunch of students with rough lives and hardened exteriors and turns them all into productive citizens in just three months and with no experience.)
Do you want students to understand the level of effort that will be required for the course? Or, do you want students to come in the door each day hoping for yet another free period? What do you want students to say about your class in the hall: “We hardly ever do anything in that class!” or “That class is a lot of work, but Ms. Teacher makes it to where we can understand.”
The best way I’ve found to set the tone on the first day is to actually teach content and dive into a real lesson- not introductory fluff- on the very first day. (More about this in a moment.) But you’ll have to make room in your busy schedule for this by omitting some of the traditional first day of school formalities.
Skip most of the traditional stuff (for now). My students were usually shocked when they realized that we were actually doing real English work on the first day. They couldn’t believe we were really going to do an actual grammar exercise! “All the other teachers just spent the whole hour going over all their rules,” they told me. Well, welcome to my class, kiddos! We do things a little different in these here parts.
Here’s the thing: if you spend the class period going over your syllabus and all your procedures and rules, most of it will not stick. The best way to teach procedures and rules is as they come up. Don’t overwhelm students on the first day with all the minutiae of your absent work policy, paper formatting requirements, grade weighting system, and homework turn-in procedures. They will not remember.
Have a syllabus [grab mine for free here] or handout with all of the most important information and policies and review it briefly. Take a few questions (if you’re feeling brave), and then move on. If need be, you can ask students to bring their syllabus back to class tomorrow or the next day, and you can go over more of it then. That will also give them a chance to think of any questions that they might have. (In fact, to save class time, you could give a first day “homework” assignment of simply writing down one or two questions that they have for you about your course. Have them turn them in the next day, and give them your answers.)
Another thing to do to save time is to avoid the tempting “all about me” activities. Your warm and caring attitude toward your students can show them that you care about getting to know who they are more than any activity ever will. Don’t feel like you need to do an in-depth introduction of yourself either. They will get to know you as the year goes on. Besides, a little mystery never hurt anyone. Keep them guessing. 😉
After the first class with you, students just need to know two things: 1. You do care about them, but 2. Your class is no-nonsense. Don’t be afraid of that first-day awkwardness. I know a lot of the students don’t know each other, they don’t know you, and you don’t know them. But remember you’ll have 180 days together, and relationships take time.
Teach a real lesson. There’s no reason why you can’t start covering content on the very first day of school! You don’t have to dive into anything too nitty-gritty, but don’t be afraid to just start. Remember, this is a win-win: it helps you get one step ahead in covering all of those standards you want to master, and it sets the tone- it lets students know that there won’t be much time to play in your class. It’s an important class and there is a lot to do!
Part of your lesson could incorporate a brief introduction to your class and/ or what the purpose of the class is. It’s not a waste of time to point out the ways your course is relevant to them in real life, but then jump right into some content!
Contrary to how society (and sometimes our students or even their parents) treats you, you’re not an entertainer, social event coordinator, therapist, or friend. You’re the professional instructor, and they’ve been placed in your class to learn and grow under your leadership. Take the reins and go for it! You’ll be glad you did.
Use a seating chart. Even if you don’t plan on having a seating chart during the year, or if you’re using flexible seating, using a seating chart during the first week or two is an easy way to help you start to learn names, quickly take roll, and again, set that tone of organization and structure. You never want to do anything to give your students the impression that they can be in charge of your class. They are in charge of their learning- you are in charge of the class.
I like having a seating chart for as long as I feel is necessary, and depending on the class, later on letting them choose their seats as a privilege. There aren’t many rewards you have to leverage with, especially with high schoolers, so use free-choice seating as a privilege to be earned and not an automatic right. Teens are social creatures- they will often comply with your class guidelines if it means they get to sit with their friends and/ or not near that one annoying kid.
There are many ways to approach the first day of school, but the last way we want to approach it is with intimidation. I hope some of these thoughts have sparked in you greater confidence and fresh ideas to have the best year ever, whether it’s your first or forty-first!
Happy teaching, everyone!
How do you structure the first day of class? I’d love to hear your thoughts.