August may be a wonderful month. I’ve heard that in many European countries it means relaxing in a lake cabin with friends. But as a teacher, August has always meant one thing: freaking out about the start of school. Freaking out that you haven’t finished all of the summer to-do’s, freaking out that you haven’t thought through all of the connections in the curriculum, and freaking out about the first day itself. Let’s talk about how not to freak out on the first day.
Let’s start by acknowledging that there is too much to do. Way too much to do. No matter how hard you worked over the summer (and I think rest and relaxation and pursuing outside interests are hugely important, too), there was always more to do. And there will always be way more than you can do with the kids on the first day itself. So the biggest hurdle is focus. Acknowledge that not everything will get done and focus on the most important things.
So what do you focus on? Going over policies? Fun ice-breakers? Starting content? My answer would be: focus on setting a tone. Specifically, setting a tone of respectful and engaged learning. To me, that’s the easiest way of getting clarity around what’s most important to do on the first day. And then accept that you’ll have plenty of next times. The first time you have a fishbowl discussion, you’ll set up the expectations for fishbowls, etc. The students will have more of a felt need then and there’s no way you could get it all done on the first day. On the first day, focus on setting a tone.
Setting a respectful tone
Part of respectful means there has to be enough order in the classroom to get something done, so I’ll address discipline issues if they’re really glaring. But I don’t go over the syllabus and policies because I think most kids are too overwhelmed to remember that in first period they turn their homework into their folders and in fourth period they submit it online. I do reassure the rule-followers (and sometimes we forget that there are kids–even teenagers–who really like rules) that I’ll go over all of that on day 2 or 3. And for those kids who want to do their supply shopping, I reassure them that they don’t need anything unusual.
Part of respectful also means starting to learn their names, so I usually put emphasis on that. This post has good ideas for getting to know your kids. I also like to have them working with others at some point on the first day to get to know each other.
A lot of people talk about making the first day fun, but I prefer the word “engaged.” “Engaged” implies engaged in something. When we talk about making lessons fun, it sounds more like adding on or making up for. Like memorizing SAT words is boring, so I’ll make a fun game out of it. That may be better than boring them to tears. But I prefer to figure out what’s inherently interesting and exciting about the topic and try to engage them in that. Why is it cool to learn about other cultures? What’s fun and interesting about wordplay? (It is called play, after all.) So rather than freaking out over starting content and having fun activities, focus on setting a tone by having an engaging activity with a purpose.
Putting it all together
For the last few years, I’ve done this ZOOM activity on the first day and felt good about it. It gets kids up and talking to other kids and each kid’s picture is equally important to the story line so everyone is included. It lets me observe how they interact and start to learn their personalities and strengths and weaknesses. And since my curriculum is largely focused on seeing things from other perspectives, it engages them in that content. In other words, it sets the tone I’m looking for.
I think the other key to a successful first day is to be gentle with yourself and use positive self-talk. You did your best to set a tone of respectful and engaged learning. If things didn’t go as planned, that’s part of inquiry, life, and learning. They’ll be plenty more next times.