As teachers across America collectively inhale and prepare to bid farewell to the pleasures of sleeping in and weekends free of grading, we’re proactively thinking about how we can make our next school year the best one yet. While some teachers will focus on the learnings from their summer professional development or exciting new lesson plans, I’d like to suggest that the most valuable way to set the stage for a successful new year is to focus on a story. The first story.
The relationship between positive classroom climate and student learning is well established. Recent research strongly suggests that a supportive school environment can even mitigate the deleterious effects of a range of traditional academic risk factors, including low socioeconomic status. Similarly, there is also a robust research base establishing the connection between engagement and motivation and student learning.
And while there are many factors that influence classroom climate, student engagement, and student motivation, one common thread is the importance of the social and emotional connection a student feels with his or her teacher.
It’s an often-repeated truism in education: Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Being personable, taking an interest in students’ home lives, and using positive reinforcement are among the more common tactics for teachers to employ as they build their classroom culture. Though establishing this climate is an ongoing and yearlong process, it can be jump-started in the first class. One strategy I have successfully used with a range of students and in a diverse group of learning settings begins with the story I tell on day one.
Connecting With Students
From my own experience attending hundreds of lectures and presentations, academic and otherwise, I learned that the sooner I felt a connection with the speaker and understood his or her passion for the subject, the more interested, attentive, and invested I became. Thus, the first story I share with my students is set to a slideshow of pictures explaining who I am, how I got into education, and why I continue to work to scale effective teaching and learning.
My first slide is a picture of my mom and dad holding me as a baby at my dad’s graduation from Queens College in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I talk about how my parents always valued education and how my mom—my first teacher—started her career as a secondary school teacher and went on to raise four kids (second slide picture, usually accompanied by general laughter around how I looked as a 10-year-old) while also going to night school to earn her PhD in math education.
Next, I show my students a picture of my first teaching cohort and explain that I put a career in finance on hold to join the Alliance for Catholic Education Teaching Fellows Program, a fledgling teacher preparation and placement program that offered recent college graduates the chance to change the future by becoming educators. I share how I caught the teaching bug and how I loved working in education so much that I went back for a doctorate in education leadership (picture of my education school classmates).
I close this first stage with a picture of me lying in a hammock with my two kids. I share why I have stayed in education and how important it is to me that all students—regardless of ZIP code, gender, or socioeconomic status—have the same opportunities my kids will have to succeed in school.
Like any good lesson, the first story doesn’t begin and end with me. After sharing my story, I ask my students to each take a minute to quietly look through their phones and choose one picture that represents something important to them—their families, friends, hobbies, or dreams. I then ask the students to share their pictures with one another in small groups, explaining why they chose that picture and what it means to them. The often-muted first day of class noise level rapidly and invariably shifts into loud chattering, laughter, and beaming students.
For the third and final stage of the first story exercise, I ask one student in each group to share (with permission) the photo and story of another student in their group. By the close of the activity, the students are interacting much more, the classroom actually feels friendlier, student postures are more open, and attention levels are noticeably higher.
Valuing Students’ Backgrounds
The first story exercise serves as an ice-breaker and accomplishes the important objective of getting every student to talk on the first day. But it’s also much more. It helps the students get to know and trust me and, equally as important, it helps them get to know and build relationships with one another.
Students in my high school classes have shared photos ranging from their favorite vacation sunset to the warmth of a family pet, from their athletic team’s championship pose to them posing with a celebrity or love interest, from a family member that inspires them to a family member whose memory carries them forward, and everything in between. Conversations about common interests or follow-up questions about the pictures shared in small groups often carry over into the hallway after this first class. Students also ask me questions about my background or journey into teaching.
After this activity, every student has had the chance to choose and share around a topic or person that matters to them. The groundwork has been laid for valuing their voices and recognizing their agency. In letting students choose a picture to share within school, and on their phones (!), students have brought some of their outside life into school and learned that their backgrounds and where they come from matters.
The first story exercise helps create community within the classroom and a sense of belonging for every student—fundamental prerequisites for the positive classroom climate, engagement, and motivation that will help them all succeed.