One of the most frustrating fights I ever had with my husband was about the first day of school. For at least a week before my group of kiddos walked into my classroom to begin year eight of teaching (at the time), I kept telling my (then) fiance, "I'm soooo nervous!" I couldn't sleep. I couldn't shut up about school. And he just didn't get it. He pointed out, very logically, that I had been going to the first day of school for two decades and that I was no newbie on the teaching scene - why on earth was I overreacting?
You get it, though, don't you? No matter how many years you've been teaching, there's this electric energy that pulses through your body every hour that gets closer to the first day. And there's a good reason for that. Those first days are really important.
There are too many things to do, always, but these are the three most important things that I keep in mind when planning and preparing for the first days of school:
I used to spend days (sometimes weeks!) in my classroom organizing, playing with seating charts, updating bulletin boards, and all kinds of things to make sure the physical space was perfect: inviting, warm, and communicated my love for reading and writing. Time has taught me, however, that the content of the lessons planned for each day and the intentional structure of that lesson are so much more important. My goal in those first few days is to set a tone that I care deeply about my students and that we are going to work hard in this class together.
If there is any routine that I want my students to do successfully in February, they need to learn it and practice it until it's annoying during that first week. I like to call this week "training week" because that's what I need to do: train my students in the behaviors and structures that need to be carried out flawlessly for the remainder of the school year. One of these routines is how we start class (if you're a new teacher and haven't thought about this, you need to). In my room the start of class is the same EVERY DAY and the same behaviors are expected during that time EVERY DAY. Here's what it looks like:
- Enter calmly
- Be seated when the bell rings
- Silently begin work on bell ringer
- If you have extra time, take out planner and start writing the agenda/targets, update vocab notebook, etc.
My job during the first week is to practice this routine with my students until it's perfect. And guess what? The first day that they come in the room CRAZY or are not SILENT during bell work, we stand up, go back out in the hall, and try it all over again. Yep. We do. They hate it. But, guess what? IT WORKS. Putting excessive energy into practicing this routine until we're exhausted saves me so much come October. By October, class has started without me. When I greet students at the door and stay out there past the bell to talk to an individual, I can come into a room full of students typing away on their Chromebooks without me having to tell them what they should be doing. Do this for all of the routines that you need to work well -- lots of practice will have a huge reward in the end.
THREE: BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS
I have a confession to make: in the first week of school, I spend an entire day sharing my story. For an entire period, I stand in front of my class and do what I won't do again for the rest of the year; I talk. I tell the story of how I came to be this stranger in front of them. I tell them about being born in New Jersey and moving to Chicago where I grew up. I tell them about my privileged and how grateful I am that I didn't have to struggle. I tell them about my passion for soccer and about the one time I tore three ligaments in my knee and my dad had to (temporarily) steal a golf cart to get me off the field. I tell them about my favorite teachers. I tell them why I wanted to become a teacher. I tell them that I love my job and that every day they see me standing in front of them that I am literally living my dream.
This is the best day of the school year.
And it's not because I'm vain or really love hearing myself talk. It's because I am at my most vulnerable; I am a person first, and a teacher second. Throughout this storytelling period, my goal is to share with my students a real person that really cares about them, and ultimately, when I ask them to work for me and to do things that are difficult, it's because I care.
And this lesson doesn't end with me talking - it ends with a request. I ask my students to write me a letter telling me their story. The students have a few days to craft their letter to me and I take the first month reading through the stories of their lives. This is the best way that I've found to build our classroom on the foundation of relationships. Through these letters, students tell me things that would have taken months to find out: the name of their baby, the tragic passing of a parent, their love for animae, or even their recent move to the district. It is these relationships that fuel the learning and motivation for learning all year long.