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What to Do the First Day of School (and Why)

—Image courtesy of Justin Minkel
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There is no more anxiety-provoking day of the year than the first day of school. Kids know they’re about to meet a stranger who will spend more time with them during the week than their own parents. That stranger tends to be about twice their height, too—imagine yourself walking into a new job with a boss the size of LeBron James or Andre the Giant.

The first day can be pretty terrifying for teachers, too. I have been a teacher for 15 years, but I’ve never had a first day of school that wasn’t preceded by at least a tingle of dread. We don’t know the 25 or 150 human beings who will shape our days for the next ten months, and we don’t know their parents. It’s like a yearlong arranged marriage, but with 25 sets of in-laws instead of one.

Added to that uncertainty, we have gulp-inducing statements like the following from The First Days of School by Harry Wong: “You will be expected to be perfect the first day of school.” Mr. Wong continues with the self-evident yet vaguely menacing advice, “Don’t be ineffective—you and your students will pay for it.” Thanks for that, Harry.

Here are the three best pieces of advice I have for any teacher, new or experienced, as you prepare for that first thrilling day of suspense, euphoria, and dread. I’d love to hear your own.

1. Focus on the kids.

That sounds obvious, but it’s hard to do. That photo up there is me when I started teaching 4th grade at P.S. 192 in West Harlem, back in 2000.

Believe it or not, my biggest problem that year was not my appalling fashion sense. It wasn’t the gruesome tie, baggy olive slacks, or uncoordinated dress shoes.

My fatal flaw was that I thought teaching was all about me. The passion I would bring. The brilliant, inspiring things I would say. (In my defense, there’s a long line of Hollywood movies that spreads this myth. Also, I was 22.)

It took me a few months to flip that perspective and think about each day in my classroom from the point of view of the kids. What brilliant things did they say? How much time did they get to spend talking, rather than listening to me talk? How much did they get to move around, instead of sitting still at the confines of a desk? What did they get the chance to build, think, write, read, and create?

When you plan your first day, think through each hour and transition from the perspective of a child in your class. Make sure the kids are going to get enough time to talk, draw, make choices, and move around.

Make sure, too, that you’ve built enough “down time” into the day—some extended blocks when the students are working on an art project, exploring the math manipulatives, or browsing the books in the classroom library. This workshop time will free you up to talk one-on-one with the students so you can get to know them as individuals.

What do they like to do after school? How many brothers or sisters do they have? What kinds of books do they like to read, what kinds of pictures do they like to draw? What is their favorite animal?

These things matter. Each child you talk to will go home remembering that you took an interest in her as a human being. Continuing to build that trust and rapport will do more than any behavior chart or treasure box to ensure mutual respect and order in your classroom throughout the year.

2. Don't talk too much.

Every year on the first day of school, I talk more than I meant to. I just have so much to tell them—how excited I am to be their teacher, what my class rules are, how they check out books from the class library, how to have a “Peace Talk” when they have a conflict with another student ... it’s a long list.

It’s easy to have your first day end up as one long, grueling filibuster. Brutal on you, even worse for the kids. We need to remember that we can spread out the routines over the course of the week—we don’t need to tell them everything that first day.

I still remember how devastated my parents were when my little sister came home from her first day of kindergarten. They eagerly asked her how her day went, and their shoulders slumped when she answered in a sad little voice, “All we did is learn about the rules.”

On the first day of school, I only have two priorities. First off, I want the kids to feel excited about school. Secondly, I want to set the right tone for the year. I want the students to know their teacher is kind but firm. I want them to know that they will have a lot of fun and freedom in our class, but they will also be kind to one another and respectful toward adults.

As long as those two messages are clearly conveyed, we’re off to the right start. If they don’t learn the pencil sharpening policy or class library procedures until Thursday, it’s not a big deal. We have time.

3. Have the kids make something you can put up on the wall right away.

When I was in 2nd grade, I thought someone in some factory office somewhere must need all these worksheets completed. I didn’t get that the worksheets were supposed to help us learn things, and I never got the sense that our work was interesting or original enough for adults to care about.

We need to send the message that kids’ work matters. When they take the time to write a story, solve a math problem, or paint a picture, they need to know that we’re going to take the time to look it over and respond. We’re going to honor their work.

Every year on the first day of 2nd grade, I read the kids Where the Wild Things Are. When they’re done rolling their terrible eyes and gnashing their terrible teeth, they each make their own Wild Thing by cutting, tearing, and gluing construction paper to make a monster. When they walk into class the next morning, they see their Wild Things up on the wall, each one completely different from the others.

There’s no wrong way to make a Wild Thing. If it looks a little cross-eyed or sloppy, well, it’s a monster. Their work is up, a part of our physical classroom, and they get the message that what they create matters.

One last piece of advice: Make sure you have a Day 2 planned. I’ve had some euphoric first days, lavishly planned and brilliantly executed, that were followed by pure panic when I got home and realized I hadn’t prepared a thing for tomorrow.

I still get nervous every year before the first day of school. I lay out my dress shirt the night before, arrive at school an hour before the kids do, and pace my classroom while I wait for them to arrive. But that nervousness quickly turns to euphoria when I realize just how much I like these twenty-five little human beings who will shape each day of my year. An hour into the morning, I remember, “Oh, yeah. I know how to do this.” I remember, too, how much I love it.

Teaching is exhausting work, but it’s also renewing. We are the profession that makes every other profession possible. It all starts that first day of school, when a nervous new 2nd grader meets her nervous new teacher and the messy, imperfect magic begins.

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