I’m no Harry Wong, but after teaching for nine years, I have some very important suggestions for the first day(s) of school for both new teachers and the veterans among us.
I’ve been accused of being a reductionist in my views of education; I make complex issues too simple for some. I don’t think my reductionist view is nearly as bad as some of my critics point out, but I thought I should start with admitting their view. I take such a simple view toward education because I think most educators overthink education, making complex issues even more difficult to resolve. We, after all, are simply helping youth along a path of discovery. It’s pretty simple.
Let us begin with two scenarios.
Scenario #1- The First Faculty Meeting
One of your first teacher days back in the coming weeks will be for your first faculty meeting. I’ve taken part in these meetings for nine years, with many different principals and variations. Here’s what happens often. The administrator introduces new staff (usually with an ice-breaker of sorts), shares what is new, reviews the important rules for the school, and reviews expectations for teachers and students. I have experienced these meetings take upwards of three hours. I’m a pretty good listener, but in that time, there is information I will forget and have to revisit. My colleagues and I, knowing these meetings are long, are not excited for them. Yes, we understand the meetings are important, but they are long and difficult to get through.
Scenario #2- A Two-Hour Business Dinner
Teachers do not get to many business dinners, but let’s follow this thought example through. If you are invited to dinner with a new boss, you likely arrive at that meeting a bit apprehensive with many questions in your mind. What can I expect from this boss? Will my past practices be good enough or will I need to change? Will the boss like me? Will we get along? With these questions, and likely many others, what would happen if your new boss spent three-quarters of the time, 1.5 hours of your dinner, lecturing you on his expectations for you? What is your impression of your boss then?
Returning to reality, your first day of school with students is right around the corner. If the first day of school is like scenario #1, what good is it for students? Students who are required to mostly sit through seven hours of ice-breakers, new changes, rules, and expectations will likely forget most of them. This follows the same logic of why teachers should not lecture all day. If you don’t like full-day of lecture-based professional development, DO NOT DO THIS TO YOUR STUDENTS! Especially on the first day of school.
In scenario #2, the boss loses a great opportunity to make an awesome first impression. If you get talked to in this scenario, you are likely to think of your boss as autocratic. You might feel like your opinion is worthless. You might even feel like your boss expects you to act unprofessionally; otherwise why would he lecture you on his expectations and rules? You don’t break rules. This isn’t necessary.
You only have one chance to make a first impression on your students. Please think carefully about the impression you want to make.
I do not profess that these suggestions work for everyone, but below are some suggestions I have found very successful. I encourage you to think critically about them and whether they will work for you.
1. Get personal- Your students want to meet you. You want to get to know them. Make a strong first impression on the first day of school, the first moment you get to meet the students. Stand in the hallway all day. I like greeting students at the door, handshakes, hellos, simple conversations. I like to welcome students into our classroom. I’m not a fan of ice-breaker activities, but whatever it takes for you to develop a personal relationship with students, please do it. I put together a “Who is Dr. Staub” video slideshow for students [this year’s isn’t done yet...]. It establishes immediately that I am a person, not just a teacher. I encourage them to share their personal stories with me over the coming days.
2. Limit the rules- I teach high school (11th grade to be specific), so I know this applies differently to me. The more rules you have, the more it sets the tone that you expect the students to break the rules. Think about which rules are critical. I go over NO RULES the first day. In fact, I don’t list rules in a syllabus, hang them on my wall, or expect parents and students to sign. In fact, I have very few rules beyond: RESPECT EACH OTHER. I used to have laundry-lists to go over with students and get signed, and I found I would rather simply expect students to do good. When students break my expectation of respect, I simply talk to them. If the behavior continues, then I increase my behavior modification plans. It’s not about rules; it’s a personal approach to understanding students. Isn’t that what we want?
3. Don’t assign seats- Why do you need to? Here are the main arguments: (a) It helps me get to know the students. If you focus on a personal approach the first few weeks, greeting students at the door every day, you’ll learn names much quicker. (b) It helps control the classroom. Again, this presumes students will act up. If you let them pick their own seats and they act up, change their seats. Don’t presume they will act poorly. (c) It is required for my sub plans. I haven’t had seating charts for two years. Students are creatures of habit- we all are. Within two weeks, students will sit in the same seats anyway. Make a seating chart from their habits. You will likely not be absent by then anyway. If you are, think about what a substitute does. They READ aloud all names for role anyway. How helpful is a seating chart? If your students understand the responsibility of choosing their own seats, the students will act better for the substitute then they will for you. (d) If I make a seating chart, then I can move their seats. I need to mix the class from time to time. Don’t forget, you are the teacher. If you don’t have a seating chart, you can still require students to sit in specific areas. This is actually easier to do when students have a choice most of the time. While I am talking about seats, AVOID SITTING STUDENTS IN ROWS. We live in a connected world. Why isolate students from the genius around them?
4. Teach something- get the students involved- Give the students a positive reason for coming to school. Get into something worthwhile. Heck, make your first day your A+, best lesson of the year. Remember, this is about first impressions. Go BIG. Set the bar high for yourself. Demand the same expectations from your students in everything they do. Wow them!
5. Connect- Let students know how and when you are available, at school and electronically. Invite them to connect with you how you are comfortable. I have a school-specific Twitter and Gmail account. I allow students to chat and tweet me, professionally, at any time. Students who know you are available will come to you more often, even if this is just the hours you are available at school. Send an email home to parents sharing the same information. The more connected your classroom is, the better year you will have.
6. Refine your message- You will say something the first day of school. Practice it, and make sure it aligns with your vision and big goals for your classroom this year. This is why I do not go over rules. I feel rules set the bar too low. Rules tell students what NOT to do. Rather, here are some of the messages I want to work into my message to the class in the first week of school.
“I don’t care about your grade- NOT AT ALL. I care about how much you learn.”
“I expect to fail a lot this year, attempting new practices I am not comfortable with. I expect you to fail too. You cannot push yourself to new horizons by remaining with what is comfortable. If you fail, keep trying. You are only a failure when you give up trying to get better.”
“Effort creates intelligence. If you don’t give 100%, do not expect to get 100% return. It doesn’t work that way.”
“Your learning is personal, but you need others to help you reach your success. We learn best when we learn together.”
So, there it is. Please think carefully about what you do in the first days of school. Do not set the standards and bar too low. Do not talk at your students. Be engaging. Be personal. Smile. Laugh. Challenge their perceptions on what is known. Set the bar high. Repeat this model every day, and you will have the best year of your career.