The Dos and Don’ts of the First Day of School

When Bill Walsh, the legendary football coach, first came to the San Francisco 49ers in 1979 he had no timetable for winning a Super Bowl, no magic number of games he wanted to win the next season, and no plan for making the playoffs.

As he details in his masterful book, The Score Takes Care of Itself: My Philosophy of Leadership (perhaps the best book I read all summer), his only concern was establishing his standard of performance.

“My Standard of Performance—the values and beliefs within it—guided everything I did in my work at San Francisco and are defined as follows: Exhibit a ferocious and intelligently applied work ethic directed at continual improvement; demonstrate respect for each person in the organization and the work he or she does; be deeply committed to learning and teaching, which means increasing my own expertise; be fair; demonstrate character; honor the direct connection between details and improvement, and relentlessly seek the latter; show self-control, especially where it counts most—under pressure;”

From the first day, he was not concerned about the playoffs, the Super Bowl, or even next season. He was concerned with the culture he was establishing. From the way the secretaries answered the phones to the manner in which his players dressed, Walsh had expectations of how people within the organization would carry themselves. This is how the 49ers went on to win three Super Bowls under Walsh.

It is what you do first that establishes the culture that will ensure.

The same is true of the classroom. There is no need to talk about “the test” or quiz students on last year’s material, but the first day is vitally important to establish a standard of performance for our students. Do that, and the scores will take care of themselves.

Don’t: Read Your Rules/Expectations/Syllabus

The first day is the first impression. What do you want your students to say after they leave your room? “Boy, she did such a great job reading that syllabus!” Hardly.

There are plenty of effective ways to communicate expectations, and simply reading a piece of paper to a room full of blank faces might be the worst. When we attend PD as teachers we would loathe it if someone stood in the auditorium and spent the first 20 minutes reading the expectations of us from a piece of paper that everyone in the room had in their hands? Let’s not do the same.

Do: Make Your Course Expectations Interactive

Students crave dynamic experiences on the first day to set the table for the entire year.

Laura Bradley recommends that if your students must get certain info from you, find a way for them to get it actively. She does a scavenger hunt — they have a list of questions, and all the answers can be found somewhere on the classroom walls. They get up and move around, work with friends, meet people, etc. Plus there’s a lot more on the walls than just the answers, so they learn a lot about the teacher and the class as they work.

Liz Matheny has a great lesson that she shared on Talks with Teachers for role playing the course expectations. It is one of the best first-day ideas I’ve seen.

Kate Amate sends the syllabus to the parents via the grading portal/email before the year starts and asks them to send a quick “yes” reply instead of making them sign it after the first day. Parents loved it; less paperwork for her, and she knew who had working emails in the system.

Don’t: Lecture on the First Day

All the excitement and all the energy of catching up with friends, sharing summer memories, and rocking that back-to-school outfit, is taken out of the room if we stand and deliver a lecture for 40+ minutes.

Kirsten Foti understands that on the first day, students are tired, and everything teachers say is not likely to even go in one ear. Remember that students are going to hear from seven or eight other teachers for the first time on the same day. We can do better than just say things to our students. We can do something memorable! Get them involved in something active.

Do: Inspire

In the novel The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho wrote “When we love, we always strive to become better than we are. When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too.”

We can make everything better by inspiring our students to greatness on the first day. My first day lesson, Think Like a Poet, teaches students about great poetry while encouraging them in the best way possible to have a fantastic senior year.

Don’t: Overdo it With Technology

We could pull out all the bells and whistles and have students create a Buncee of their summer vacation, have back channel chats on TodaysMeet, or create an infographic on Piktochart all on the first day, but an overuse of technology might send the wrong message.

Laura Bradley works in a 1:1 iPad school, and she has her students use tech a lot, she stays away from it the first couple weeks — she want to see their faces, hear their voices, get to know them, and she wants them to do the same with her and their classmates.

Do: Break the Ice

Many students will have spent the summer on devices, texting, tweeting and looking for Pokeman. They probably don’t need an overabundance of technology on the first day, they need human interaction.

Karla Hillard has her students do Frogs on a Log. For her it has been a successful activity in having students come to their own understanding of classroom values, rather than spelling it out for them in a slideshow. It’s effective in building community, and it also gives students a fun memory to look back on.

Education World has five ice breakers that you can use on the first day of class. Or, you can check out Jenifer Gonzalez’s three great ice breakers that rock.

Don’t: Begin with Index Cards with Names and Addresses

Most schools have online grade books with all this information already on it, to ask your students to put this information on a index card is a waste of time. Use it more valuably.

Do: Begin to Know Your Students on a Personal Level

The failure of those massive online open courses, where 95-97% of students do not complete the coursework, shows just how necessary personal connections are between the teacher and student. Nancy Eichelberger Smith learns their first names the first day and then greet them by name the second day. Another way to get to know your students is for them to write about themselves. The New York Times has 500 narrative writing prompts to suite any age level. Yet, we must model our expectations for our students. If we want them to share a bit about themselves, we must do the same. 

Nicole Lemme always makes a big deal about the idea that there are no right/wrong answers in her classroom…it’s about the evidence.  She says, “if you can prove it, you can claim it.” Then she shares an outrageous claim she made in college about Harry Potter and “The Consolation of Philosophy,” in a medieval literature class, and good conversation ensues.

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