Published Online: August 27, 2013

A Kinder, Slower, More Receptive Approach to the Start of School

No teacher begins a teaching career with ill intentions. Yet most of us make our biggest mistake on our very first day. I was no different, five years ago. I chose to do everything the way I had been taught in college—the way the popular new-teacher advice books said I should.

Sure, I laughed with the students and made noises about our "class community." But as the all-important first week of school progressed, I went about dictating rules, establishing who was in control, and setting tight boundaries for the year.

As a result, I lost the opportunity to create the kind of relationship with my students that leads not only to motivation and engagement but to real ownership of learning and ultimately greater achievement. At the time I didn't recognize the loss—it took several years, in fact. If you're a new teacher about to begin your journey, maybe my lessons learned can help you avoid the pitfalls of a pretend partnership with your students.

Rule-Maker in Chief

On my first actual day of teaching (the one after orientation), I stood smiling at my door, shaking the hand of each 4th grader entering my room. I was eager to start our very first conversation: “How We Enter the Classroom.” As the students took their pre-assigned seats, I asked them for their attention and then proceeded to model for them exactly how I wanted them to come into the room. I told them what they needed to bring and what the consequences would be for entering unprepared.

Then we moved on to the next important conversation: My rules and the consequences for breaking them. Here I relied on a novice-teacher staple, The First Six Weeks of School by Paula Denton and Roxann Kriete. The authors pose the enticing idea of making it appear that your students themselves are coming up with the classroom rules and procedures, thus facilitating buy-in as you steer them to the inevitable conclusion. In fact, I already had the rules typed up: “Respect each other, take care of yourself, and take care of our property.”

My intentions were noble. I wanted my students to feel like they were part of the management of the classroom. But I was creating a false notion. I had no intention of letting them set the rules. I knew from all my training and reading that my number one job was to be the leader of this learning space. And leaders make the rules.

Missed Opportunities

The rest of that first week of school was an actual blur. Most teachers (veteran and new) are dazed by the end of the first week, caught up in the anxiousness to get started with curriculum, but also busy figuring out who their students are and how they will manage them throughout the year.

I was in awe of the kindness my kids had shown to me, but also very tightly gripping the reins of control for all of our learning. Now was not the time to appear too weak or too friendly. I'd staged numerous ice-breaking activities, and I thought we had gotten to know each other well. In fact, I knew very little about each student, definitely not anything that could guide me in my teaching. I figured those things would come later (and sometimes they did), but in reality I had completely missed the biggest opportunity I would have to truly get to know my students.

In essence, I was fearful that if I did not firmly assert my authority from the very first day of school, the rest of the year would be out of control. So assert I did—that year and for several years after. We did OK. I taught. My students learned. But I could sense so much wasted potential beneath my iron grip.

Giving Back the Classroom

Since I had been taught how to set up the first week of school to assert my authority and control, dismissing those notions was hard. It's a journey I write about in a book that will be published later this year, The Passionate Learner: Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students Starting Today.

Let me just say here that I know now that what we do in the first week of school to listen, communicate, and share our genuine interests with one another sets the tone for the rest of the year more deliberately than any list of rules or expectations ever will.

Were you to come into my classroom now on the very first day of school, you'd see a much different approach—one that is kinder, slower, and more in tune with what I now understand my students really need: respect and a place to call their own.

Now, at the beginning of each school year, I remind myself to hold back—to not give in to the pressure of pacing guides and classroom-procedure gurus. I now know from experience that if I take my time with my students, that investment will pay off all year long.

On the first day, every year, I remind myself of the following:

• We are all brand new to each other.

• We are cementing our routines.

• We are discovering our rules.

• The curriculum will mean nothing if we do not get excited about it.

• We relish our freedom.

• We have to build trust.

Out With the Old

So what does it look like in practice when a teacher tries to honor these intuitive precepts? Well, first let me tell you what it doesn’t look like. Here are some common start-of-school practices that I now advise against:

Don't pre-post your rules. Nothing says "This is my classroom" like a beautifully laminated poster of your rules that have been hanging there for years.

Don't spend days writing a class constitution. As a social studies lesson, I think this might make be a marvelous project. But it's not a way to build classroom community. Think of it through the eyes of a child—days spent discussing the rules for the rest of the year and then pledging to uphold all 20 or so of them. What a dull way to start a year together.

Don't "set clear boundaries" and label them. I was a label master, making sure students knew exactly when they had crossed into my territory, whether it be my desk, my cabinets, or my pencils. With labels come restrictions, and classrooms have enough restrictions put on them already; we do not need to add more.

Don't invest much time in icebreakers. I have never made a connection through an ice-breaking activity, sorry. Instead, invest in something meaningful as a community, such as a connection map, or a student-designed tour of the classroom, or anything that the students can work on as a team challenge. If they can focus on a task rather than the act of connecting, the community building will naturally start to evolve.

Don't announce that "we will now build community." I love setting goals, and we set many throughout the year, but this goal is better left unsaid. It's like telling people that you are trying to become their friend; the hyper-focus tends to make things weird and uncomfortable. Instead, tell the students you are happy to be their teacher and then do something together that you know actually builds community.

Don't have a million things planned. Sometimes the best beginnings of a community come from just spending low-key time together. When you plan too much or have too much to do, there isn’t time for just getting to know each other, so be choosy what you invest your time in.

A New Start

So, if you’re not doing those things, what should you do the first week of school? Here’s might advice on fostering a creative and engaged classroom community:

Be yourself. Students can see through any phoniness and an act is hard to keep up for more than a few days. So if you happen to have the personality of a comedian or a perfectionist or a massive dork, like I do, let it shine through.

Share your life. I often start my year with a video or two of my children or a funny story about one of them. Nothing planned or long, just a quick story. The students get to know me and my family, and they share their own stories as well.

Laugh a lot. I love to laugh, and I think kids are hilarious. Give them a chance to speak in humorous ways.

Start decorating the classroom. I stress over and over that this is “OUR classroom,” so the students get to make decorating choices as well as furniture setup decisions.

Start learning. I know I said to go easy on curriculum the first week, but do get started with something right away. The students are ready to learn because they cannot wait to see what it will be like in this new grade.

Decide on expectations together. Spend some time having the students discuss what they expect out of the year and then have them discuss what that means for their learning environment.

Give it time. Great community does not spring up on the first day of school, but you do need to plant the first seeds that day. So tend to it and nurture it, and give it the time it deserves to grow tall and strong.

In the end, that first week, that first day, that first moment of school carries more weight than we realize. We know first impressions tend to stick. They are not impossible to rectify, but why not start out right? Signal to the kids that this is their room, that this year is about them, and the learning path they want to take. Let them know that they matter, that their voice matters, and that this year will matter.

They'll figure out that this year, in your class, things may be a little different than they're used to. And maybe lots better.

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