When I was in middle and high school, I remember being so excited to start a new school year. But I also recall feeling anxious, nervous, and sometimes even downright terrified to head back to school. Transitions to new schools were especially frightening. Would I be able to find my classes? Would the teacher be mean to me if I was late? Would I know anyone? And, oh my God, the cafeteria! What if none of my friends had the same lunch as me?! High school, in particular, petrified me. It didn’t help that my older sister and her friends would look at me and shake their heads, saying, “You’re never going to make it.”
Now, I’m a high school teacher. Suspecting that students today might feel the same first-day-of-school anxiety as I once did, I set out to talk to freshmen and upperclassmen as they arrived for the first day of school. Below are some of the major concerns students shared with me last year, along with some tips on how teachers can help alleviate those fears:
1. “I’m afraid I’ll get lost.” This was the No. 1 fear students articulated to me. My school is fairly small, but I know some school campuses encompass several buildings. To help students acclimate to a new environment, advisory and homeroom teachers can take students on tours around the building. Student-mentors from the senior class can also pitch in to help freshmen get acquainted with their new school. Don’t forget how much reassuring words can help, whether they’re from teachers or fellow students. I usually tell incoming freshmen, “Look, no one knows where they are going on the first few days. Just ask someone to point you in the right direction. You’ll have it down in no time at all.”
2. “I’m scared my teachers will be hard/mean/tough.” The second biggest concern, especially from freshmen, can easily be allayed. I encourage my students to visit their teachers before or after school to say hello, to establish relationships, and to ask clarifying questions about the course and assignments.
During class, teachers should let students know when they are available after or before school. Even so, some students may be too shy or tentative to visit on their own, and teachers may need to reach out to them first. Sometimes I’ll ask students to “stop by” after school because I have a “quick question” for them. Phrasing it that way is much less intimidating than saying, “See me after school.”
3. “I’m scared I won’t be able to use the technology.” It’s critical to provide students with a friendly environment where they feel safe enough to take risks and ask questions about unfamiliar technology. I teach in a low-income, urban school, and many of my students do not have access to technology at home. I can sympathize with students who have never used Google Drive before, because not so long ago I was in their shoes.
Throughout the school year, groups of students at my school meet with an assigned teacher for academic and social support during “advisory” time. Recently, when my school transitioned from a 1:1 iPad program to a 1:1 Chromebook program, we held a three-hour advisory period to help students learn to use their new Chromebooks. Students helped one another during this time, with more advanced Chromebook users assisting the novices. It was exciting to see my students embracing the role of teacher, learning from each other, and sharing tips and strategies, so they could all master the use of their Chromebooks.
4. “I’m afraid I won’t make friends.” The social aspects of school can be frightening. I learned about the “Buddy Bench” from a nightly newscast and immediately thought the idea was ingenious: Students who are looking for a friend (whether on the playground, in the cafeteria, or in another location) can sit on the buddy bench, and students who are not sitting on the bench can ask that student to join them and make a new friend. This idea originated in Germany, and a Pennsylvania elementary school student is credited with bringing it to the United States.
In the upper grades, advisories can help. Since advisory classes or groups usually stay together for four years, students really get to know one another. Icebreakers like “gatherings"—an activity that was introduced in my school last year, in which students answer a common question and then share their thoughts with the group—enable students to feel safer and more comfortable.
Joining sports, clubs, and other extracurricular activities can also help students build relationships. These provide opportunities for students to make friends who share their interests and to make great memories. Teachers and social workers can keep their eyes out for students who might benefit from clubs and activities, and then encourage those students to join. For example, I often recruit students from my classes to join the culture club I sponsor; after a few activities together, it is heartwarming to see new friendships grow and flourish.
5. “I’m terrified of my Advanced Placement or honors class.” Students who challenge themselves with a rigorous curriculum frequently worry about keeping up. I often emphasize to my students that time-management and strong organizational skills are half the battle—staying on top of work, not waiting until the last minute, and keeping a calendar are extremely important for success. I also encourage students to meet with their teachers for extra help. Honors and AP teachers, like all teachers, want to see students succeed, and they are willing to stay late, provide extra practice, and answer questions. The student just needs to show up!
On my first day of high school back in 1972, I didn’t disappoint my sister and her friends: I fell down a flight of stairs in my brand-new platform shoes and landed in front of the boys’ locker room. But after a few weeks, I connected with my teachers, joined some clubs, and carried around an assignment book that helped me stay on top of my work. Similarly, if educators at a school all work together to recognize and assuage students’ back-to-school jitters, we can ensure that school is a fun and safe place that offers students endless opportunities.
So, here’s to starting a fun and exciting new school year! Just remember to leave the platform shoes at home.