Opinion
Teaching Profession Opinion

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

By Justin Minkel — August 07, 2015 5 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Events

Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum Making Technology Work Better in Schools
Join experts for a look at the steps schools are taking (or should take) to improve the use of technology in schools.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
The ABCs of ESSER: How to Make the Most of Relief Funds Before They Expire
Join a diverse group of K-12 experts to learn how to leverage federal funds before they expire and improve student learning environments.
Content provided by Johnson Controls
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Modernizing Principal Support: The Road to More Connected and Effective Leaders
When principals are better equipped to lead, support, and maintain high levels of teaching and learning, outcomes for students are improved.
Content provided by BetterLesson

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession Teachers Often Don't Get Lunch or Bathroom Breaks. That's Why Some States Guarantee Them
As concerns about keeping teachers mount, could laws assuring duty-free breaks help?
2 min read
Image of thirty minutes on a clock.
Illustration by Laura Baker/Education Week and iStock/Getty
Teaching Profession The Teaching Profession Is 'Crumbling': What Can School Leaders Do to Help?
Longstanding problems are more urgent as schools struggle to meet students' emotional and academic needs.
4 min read
Conceptual Image of a teacher feeling low
Delmaine Donson/E+
Teaching Profession Q&A 'Brown v. Board' Decimated the Black Educator Pipeline. A Scholar Explains How
A new book digs into a lesser-known and negative consequence of one of the nation's most significant civil rights milestones.
9 min read
As her pupils bend themselves to their books, teacher Marie Donnelly guides them along in their studies at P.S. 77 in the Glendale section of Queens, New York, Sept. 28, 1959. In her 40 years of teaching, never has Donnelly had so many African-American students in a class. The youngsters were bused to the school from Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, a predominantly black neighborhood where schools are overcrowded. P.S. 77, which had an enrollment of 368 all-white students, can handle 1000 children comfortably. Parents in the Queens neighborhoods objected to influx, but the children themselves adjusted to one another without incident.
A white teacher teaches a newly integrated class at P.S. 77 in the Glendale section of Queens, N.Y., in September 1959.
AP
Teaching Profession Opinion Short On Substitute Teachers? Here's Something States Can Do
Student teachers can make good substitutes, but the rules often don't allow them to step in, write two researchers.
Dan Goldhaber & Sydney Payne
4 min read
Conceptual illustration of a new employee fitting into the workplace puzzle
Sergey Tarasov/iStock/Getty