Teaching Secrets: First Days in the Elementary Classroom

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My first day of teaching—15 years ago in a bilingual 2nd grade classroom in Oakland, California—was terrifying, exhilarating, and utterly exhausting. Although I had never felt so unprepared for anything, somehow the first days were smooth. In retrospect, I was really lucky. Those days set the tone for the rest of the year, I later realized.

I have since refined my first-days routines, modifying them based on grade and content, but sticking to the same framework. In order to establish an effective learning environment, all my activities in those first days fall into one of three categories:

• Building community with students and their families.

• Establishing routines, procedures, and classroom management systems.

• Launching the learning.

But dear new teacher, before delving into the details, remember that as you transition into your new teaching life, 75 percent of the work needs to happen before you step into your classroom. And so, prior to the ringing of that first bell, make sure that you have familiarized yourself with school grounds and staff; your classroom is set up with freshly-papered bulletin boards just waiting to display student work; the physical layout of the room allows easy movement; you have a preliminary seating plan and desks are labeled with student names; supplies and student materials are organized and readily accessible; and the letters to send home to parents are ready. That's just for starters.

This really is the secret to teaching: Before the year begins and before each day starts, have the room ready, the work ready, and yourself ready. The rest will be easy. Well, almost.

Building Community

Your first task is to alleviate anxiety. Most kids are nervous on the first day and they each express it differently. The little ones may cry a lot—have tissues ready. Older students can be subdued or may act out. Kids are anxious about who their teacher will be (will she be nice?) and about what might happen. Their parents are wondering the same things. Be kind, welcoming, and smile a lot. This builds community right away.

In lower elementary, anticipate that parents might want to stay in the classroom on the first day. Plan for where you’d like them to sit (have extra adult chairs around), whether you’d like them to do something specific, and if you want to limit how long they stay (hours or days).

Once kids are settled, here are some ways to start building community:

1. Learn student names right away and make sure you’re pronouncing them correctly. Plaster large name tags on children and play games until everyone knows each other’s names.

2. Take photos of each kid on the first day and print them that night. When they arrive the following morning and see their faces on the walls they’ll feel welcomed and a sense of belonging. This really is worth the time it takes.

3. Do lots and lots of ice breakers.

4. Schedule five kids to “Show and Tell” each day. Ask them to bring in photos of family or special objects. Make sure that you show and tell as well. Share your family, your passions and interests, and why you are a teacher. They need to know about you and be able to connect with you.

5. Create a list of “Experts in the Room.” Every kid has some skill, interest, or ability. Discover it and post it big.

6. Send home a letter to parents that first day giving them your contact information and letting them know that you’ll be in touch soon.

7. Within the first week, meet with or phone every student’s parent or guardian. Keep it positive and ask about their child. (“What does he/she like to do at home? What are you proud of? What concerns do you have?”) Communicate that you care about their child, want to know him/her and intend to work together.

8. Within the first couple of weeks, plan a potluck with families. It’s a great way to get to know each other and build community.

This is not an exhaustive list of community building activities, but just a few ideas to get you started.

Establishing Routines

1. In the first week you’ll need to teach and practice dozens of routines and procedures: This is the key to a smooth classroom. Generate an exhaustive list. (When can we go to the bathroom? Get water? Sharpen a pencil? Where do we line up after recess? How do we go to the rug? Where do we put our homework? Backpacks? Lunch boxes? And on and on.) Then, prioritize them and plan for introducing them over several days.

2. But be careful not to overwhelm kids with routines and procedures—they’ll go into overload and forget. Some procedures arise authentically: The principal stops by the class; when she leaves, you teach expectations for what happens when a visitor comes in. Some are taught according to your schedule. Make sure to plan time to practice routines until kids get them down.

3. On Day One, establish how you will get their attention. Some teachers use clapping, raising a quiet hand, or a call-and-response chant. Develop a system and teach it within the first hour.

4. Co-create classroom agreements. Ask students what they need in order to do their best learning. You might supplement their list if they don’t mention something essential. State agreements in the positive (“We will use inside voices.”), write them large, and have students sign.

5. Explain your system of consequences in case an agreement is broken. Make sure there’s also a visual that depicts this system.

6. Ask students what they think makes a good teacher and what they need from you. Use these to create a list of your agreements to them (“I promise not to shout.”).

7. Determine a reward system with students. Make sure to point out that if everyone follows the agreements most of the time they’ll learn a lot, but what other rewards do they want? Preferred Activity Time? Stickers? Extra recess? You might create different rewards for the whole class, groups, and individuals.

Launch the Learning!

Starting on Day One, do reading, writing, art, and math projects that build community and communicate to students that school is about learning. Make sure that after the first day they can go home and respond to the question, “What did you learn in school today?”

1. A class graph or a birthday chart is a great math activity for any grade.

2. Read children’s literature that discusses building community. Judith Viorst’s poem, “The First Day of School,” is one such piece. After hearing it, students can write their own poems in response.

3. Begin a science or social studies unit. Give them a juicy taste of the learning they’ll engage in during the year. Make their brains bubble with curiosity.

4. Hold off on diagnostic assessments until Week Two, but start getting a sense of students’ attitudes about reading, books, and math. They can answer surveys or do people-hunt activities. These will build community, get them reading, writing and talking, and give you information.

5. Ask students: What do you want to learn about this year? And chart their answers on a huge piece of paper.

The key to success in the first days of the year is to integrate and balance these three objectives—bonding, structure, and learning—like a dance or a recipe. It’s all in the planning, and you can’t overplan. Plan for the possibility that you’ll suddenly have an extra 10 minutes to fill (have a pile of picture books that students can grab and read). Plan for simple, easy activities that kids can do independently when someone interrupts you and you have to ignore your class for five minutes. And remember that part of planning is getting feedback from experienced teachers and then revising your plans.

No matter how much you plan, there will always be surprises. Make sure that after the first day, and throughout that first week, you debrief with another teacher, mentor, or coach. It’s critical that you get support to iron out the little kinks as they appear.

Finally, have fun! Be on the lookout for the delightful moments that make this profession worth it. They will be there every day, but sometimes we miss them in the madness.

I will never forget my first day teaching when I asked students what they wanted to learn that year, and the 2nd grader, who had just said his favorite food was oysters, answered: “I want to learn about why I’m alive and what my purpose is.”

I don’t think I helped him find a completely satisfactory answer, but I sure enjoyed his witty, thoughtful presence all year long.

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