5 “Must-dos” for the First Day of Class

Middle schoolers are often a bundle of nerves on the first day of school. Most likely, they’re more concerned with what they’re wearing, seeing their friends, or the lunch menu than any class they attend.

Figuring out WHAT to do with students on that first day can be so complicated and overwhelming for new teachers. We all want to have the “perfect” first day, and there’s a lot of pressure on teachers to craft the perfect learning environment from the get-go. Nowadays, it’s complicated by that fact that there are SO MANY different activities floating around the internet. Each of these activities seems to come with a new dictum.

Build community!

Make it student-centered!

NEVER discuss the syllabus!

Don’t forget the ice-breaker!

All of these pronouncements can cause a teacher to second guess what they do. I know that I’ve often felt a crisis of confidence when a new dictum becomes the trend. Is what I’m doing wrong? Should I completely change up what I’ve learned from my years of teaching? Am I the BORING teacher?

One year I let this crisis of confidence overwhelm me. I threw out everything I had done previously, and created stations for students to complete the first day. I mean, I love stations, I have kids complete stations multiple time throughout the school year – why not the first day of school?

It was a DISASTER. The kids did something (?) at the stations, but because they were seated at stations they didn’t really have listen to me, and consequently they didn’t develop any respect for me, or (most importantly) really have any idea who I was after that first day of class. I found myself having to reset the class on day two – before we had even really started!

An Epiphany

I realized that that that disaster of a first day had been lacking in a crucial component – ME. That first day of class is about setting the tone for the year. Kids need to understand how I work, how I’ll treat them, and how they’ be expected to behave as humans while in my presence. The first day is about laying that foundation. In other words, the first day of class should be “teacher-centered.”

I know, current pedagogical lingo causes one to shudder at the idea of “teacher-centered.” However, more recent research has supported the idea that a teacher’s actual tone of voice can really set the stage for learning in the classroom. As a recent article from Edutopia notes:

Using your voice to manage a classroom is one of the most powerful tools at your disposal. Teachers vocalize to impart information through direct instruction, gauge student understanding by asking questions, facilitate transitions between activities—and also manage behavior by redirecting wayward learners and issuing directives when necessary. It’s a deceptively complex, multifaceted tool, requiring constant modulation to fit changing classroom circumstances—and it can take teachers years to hone.

Youki Terada, Edutopia

I would argue that the first day of class is about the more obvious form of tone setting – literally speaking directly to a full class of students and showing them how I work. As a teacher, I always try my best establish a vibe of respect and positivity. I honestly REALLY LIKE teaching history. I enjoy talking with students, and I enjoy their jokes. I’ll admit that have a bit of a flair for the dramatic and that it comes across fairly quickly when I’m speaking to a classroom of students.

The first day is about giving students a taste of who I am and the way they will learn in my class.

Is it a perfect process? Oh my goodness – NO! Students come in with so much. My funny, jokey personality might not vibe with some students on the first day, it might annoy them. (I know for a fact that sometimes it does.) Establishing a sense of trust and authenticity among my students is about much more than the first day of class. Still, ever since I’ve gone back to my more authentic and “teacher-centered” approach, I’ve found that I’ve set up the class for a much more effective school year.

5 “Must-dos” for the First Day of Class

My current clear-headed approach to establishing my classroom tone involves 5 tasks that I and my students complete during the first day. Some are literally logistical, and others are more about tone-setting, however, they are all really simple. Remember, I only have 40 minutes. As we work through these tasks, students get an authentic first glimpse of my teaching style and I start laying the “classroom tone” foundation.

I’ve outlined my 5 “Must-dos” below. Each of them are simple tasks and none of them require any magical cooperative learning on day 1. I know that I get to that point with my students, but setting the classroom tone is the first step in that process.

1. Have each student say their name to you

I create seating charts for the first few weeks (they often change after day 1). I have students tell me their name as they arrive, and I place them in the correct location. If possible, I project the seating chart on the smart board so they can see where they sit by themselves. Once seated, I take a moment to go around the room, and have them repeat their names again. I listen to the pronunciation and repeat it back to them.

If your name can be difficult to pronounce, have them do the same with you. Saying someone’s name properly is a sign of respect. Learning to pronounce your students’ names properly is a little way of showing them that you respect them and teaching them you name is a way of having them build respect for you.

2. Introduce your classroom

I like to physically travel around my classroom, and point out where I keep assignments, discuss my policy for book sign-outs, and where students might sign out of class if needed. There are ONLY hand held sharpeners for my classroom, so I also explain that process. I also like to note to my students that my desk area is off-limits. This is a topic of some debate among teachers, however, I like to have a space in my classroom where I can keep my own personal belongings and confidential student information, without a concern that students will be rifling through them.

3. Take care of supplies

This might not be possible for many teachers, however, our supply list is passed out over the summer. That means that students come to class with their supplies already purchased. As my students keep their binders in the classroom, I have them label their dividers on the very first day of class, put their name on the spine, and add the binders to the back shelf. They are sorted by class period and they will stay there for the school year.

4. Calm their nerves

My students are new to the building in grade 7. Even though they’re probably been in the building before, and they may have attended an open house the previous week, they are NERVOUS for the first day of class. By the end of class, I like to check with them to make sure that they know where their next class is located. I might also ask them to express what they’re nervous about! This generally leads to some funny comments and little conversations that will carry us into the next day. Now that I teach grade 8, I’m found that my students are a little less nervous, but they still need some reassurance on the first day. They like to think that they know what they’re doing, but I’ve often found that they don’t!

5. Have students complete a mini-survey about themselves

When I taught grade 7, I would hand out this survey for homework and get back detailed answers. Students entering the school were eager to please on that first day. Now that I teacher grade 8, I’ve found that that my new students are a bit more jaded. Therefore, I hand out the survey in class and I work through each of the questions with students. I discuss MY answers to the questions and then prompt them to write down theirs. I’ve found that this leads to more thoughtful consideration of the questions and more of a willingness to answer the questions honestly.

You can find a copy of the survey here – DAY 1 – CLASSROOM SURVEY

Each of these activities is guided by a quick classroom slideshow (essentially, I edit my syllabus slideshow. You can find that here.

In the End…

As a disclaimer, I do want to note that there is a reason I titled this article “MY” must dos for the first day of class. What works for one teacher really won’t work for all. Therefore, take the ideas you like from this post and leave the rest!

Let me know in the comments what “must-do” you connected with the most. How do you go about establishing your classroom tone?


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