Education Opinion

First Day of School: Talking Back to Harry Wong

By Nancy Flanagan — August 26, 2013 6 min read
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I can remember clearly the hour I stopped laying down the law--the rules, guidelines and procedures--on the first day of school. At our faculty meeting the previous day, my middle school principal said, “If I stop in your room tomorrow while I’m making the rounds, I want to see you reading the students your classroom rules. I want to see them posted on the wall and kids writing them down.” He suggested we give our pupils a quiz over our classroom routines, stressing the cost of non-compliance, making kids’ scores on that quiz their first grade of the year.

And for many years I did just that. The principal ran a tight ship--too tight for some parents’ liking, in fact--but it was a good place to teach. I am pretty sure that was not the result of our annual Day of Rules, but because it was a small community full of two-parent families who cared deeply about their kids’ education.

I hated spending Day One on procedures and systems. The first couple of classes weren’t bad, as kids’ curiosity and first-day good behavior kept them listening. But after lunch? I tried to think how I’d personally feel about spending six consecutive hours listening to rules, guidelines, procedures and the consequences that would rain down if I stepped over the line. Some teachers made their students practice procedures: putting their rules quiz in a special turn-in box, using a special format for labeling papers, sitting up without slouching in their assigned seat and making eye contact with the teacher.

None of which was connected to the exciting things we would be learning to do that year--the concerts, parades and assemblies, the awesome new music waiting on the table next to my desk. It struck me that for my students, this was purgatory, a day to be endured while waiting for real learning to begin. After lunch, I asked the fourth hour class if it would be OK to make some plans for the school year together, listen to recordings of our new music--could the rules wait for a couple of days? They broke into applause.

It’s not that well-run classrooms don’t have agreed-upon or even mandated behavioral conventions--they certainly do. Guidelines and procedures can make things run more smoothly, but only if the students following them are genuinely willing to comply, because they feel known and cared for, part of a team. Relationships come first, and take time. Getting to know someone before directing their behavior is how we treat colleagues; to do the opposite positions you as boss.

Recently, I recorded a radio broadcast for BAM Radio, on the topic of how to establish a well-managed classroom from Day One. The friendly, even-handed Rae Pica moderated, and Harry Wong was one of the guests. Wong, of course, is famous for The First Days of School, a cookbook full of techniques for becoming an “effective teacher.”

It’s a good book for novice teachers--a lovely parting gift for an intern or mentee--especially those who are desperately seeking advice on managing groups of boisterous students, no easy feat. It’s mostly common sense, and very definitely endorses a traditional, highly structured, teacher-directed environment. Which is not necessarily a bad thing for a teacher getting her sea legs. If your bag of tricks is empty, it’s a fruitful place to start.

Harry Wong and Nick Romagnolo, founder of an Aspire charter school in Palo Alto (and self-proclaimed acolyte of Wong’s), opened the broadcast with their checklist of must-dos for Day One: meet students at the door, give them an index card to list their personal information, have an agenda and schedule on the board, begin with a Do-Now list. Goal #1: Sit down in your assigned seat and get to work, kids. Wong claimed that without these structural pieces in places, students would feel confused. What students want most, he said, was consistency.

I’m not so sure. What students want most, in my experience, is to know that they belong somewhere, that they’ll be accepted and valued by their classmates. Consistency? The last refuge of the unimaginative, according to Oscar Wilde. Who craves consistency? Teachers. Consistency and routines make our work easier, for sure.

As a teacher, you can go a good distance on organization and planning. Compliance and order are not equivalent to learning, however, no matter how reassured your principal feels as she observes your quiet classroom. If the teacher is paying attention to authentic student responses, plans frequently must turn on a dime when kids’ needs and passions re-direct the learning goal. And maybe it’s OK for students to say, sometimes: I wonder what we’ll be doing in Mrs. Flanagan’s class today?

Or--what about Steven Levy, Massachusetts Teacher of the Year in 1993, who met his fourth graders on the first day of school in an empty classroom--no furniture--and asked them what they wanted to do that year? Every school year was a new adventure as students designed curriculum based on their own and local interests, supported by Levy’s expertise in knowing how to embed critical skills into the students’ own aspirations and interests. No familiar classroom management tricks: daily “bell work,” SLANTing, or seating obedient students between miscreants, a behavioral feng shui that never really works, long-term. His students had their own goals.

Romagnolo was especially proud of the fact that well-trained students in his school could run their own classes when the teacher was not present. I’m certainly in favor of students directing their own learning, but that’s a diametrically different concept than students who faithfully follow a set of procedural rules. We can’t complain about stuck-in-the-20th-century, factory-model schools and then endorse a particular behavior template as best practice for “efficacy” in students’ learning.

Maybe the best classroom management plans are the ones you design as you go along. Plans, procedures and rules come and go--but genuine learning must be primary.

I spent ten years trying to enforce one of my earliest classroom procedures--compelling percussionists to put the equipment back in the cabinet at the end of each class. I tried rotating-duty charts. I tried soliciting reliable volunteers (tip: girls reluctantly volunteer, boys don’t). I stood next to the bass drum at the end of every class and gave them the stink eye. I rewarded tidiness with compliments and the occasional Hershey’s kiss. And I still found mallets hanging between marimba bars and the odd triangle left on the traps table, after nearly every class.

One day, a boy asked why it was so important to put the equipment back every hour. It’s a hassle, he said. You keep us playing until the last minutes of rehearsal, and nobody wants to be the one who’s going to be late to their next class because they’re stuck shoving things into your carefully labeled drawers and cabinets. Why don’t we leave the stuff out during the week?

Honestly, I could think of no reason. Things wouldn’t get dusty overnight. Everyone had access to everything in the band room anyway-- the cabinets weren’t locked. The area could be quickly tidied by the group for weekend cleaning or a meeting in the band room, if need be. I had been trying to ride herd on an unnecessary procedure. For years.

I abandoned plenty of procedures and rules over 30 years of teaching music, including some cherished by band teachers everywhere (i.e., “all students must be silent and put their instruments in ready position when the conductor steps up on the podium,” a hangover from iconic, tyrannical symphony orchestra conductors of earlier eras). I stopped pretending my rules were the most important feature of getting along in the bandroom. I stopped assessing penalties for students who messed up procedures. It worked for me.

What about Day One? Is there a formula for requiring good behavior? Or should you meet the kids and make up the guidelines as you go along?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.