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Back to School: Preparing for Day One

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
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I've had first days in the classroom that were pure poetry and others that were pure... well, you know. There are things out of our control that can make that first day a tough one for sure. But there are also things we can do beforehand to set the stage for success.

As I reflect, those great first days were usually after a summer where I spent extra time setting up, designing bordering for student work displays, dusting each individual book in the classroom library, fine-tuning and perfecting those beginning lessons: the handouts, the pacing, and the mini-lessons.

And then there have been a few times where I really, I mean really, dove headfirst into enjoying my summer, returning from an island or road trip just days before the start of the new school year.

And you know what? Both scenarios are great.

Although we're probably a lot less nervous that first day the more prepared we are. I also know students will have a better initial impression of me with that first scenario.

If we are rested, relaxed, and ready it will show, and it helps keep the kids calm and focused. (And let's face it, as anxious as we teachers are that first day, the students are much more nervous than we could ever imagine.)

And oh, those first impressions -- they stick like gum on hot asphalt. So here are some tips for giving the best impression, Day One:

#1 Be Organized, Tidy, and Ready

This will immediately stand out to students. Wow, supplies are all organized and labeled, books are on shelves, and look at her desk! Everything has its place and all is in order.

Be sure to also have ready your procedures and hard rules (no gum chewing or cell phones) so you can share them at the very start of the day. This will avoid that preventable and awkward moment with a new student.

#2 Have Too Much and Too Many of Everything

Make extra copies, just in case. There is really nothing worse than being one or two copies short. Panic! Need name tags or construction paper? Get the extra large pack (you can use the leftovers for another project). Have a surplus of pens or pencils handy for those kids who have already misplaced or lost theirs.

#3 Overplan the Lesson

Timing is everything. And the last thing you want is for there to be six minutes left before the lunch bell and have little to nothing for students to do. You don't want them to see you scrambling for a sponge activity not connected to the prior teaching so overplan the day. And the best part about this? You'll have most of the next lesson already done.

#4 Rehearse

If your "welcome to this class" speech includes new material (a new procedure or content -- something you've never introduced before), practice. If you are a new teacher, this is imperative. By rehearsing, this gives you an idea on pacing, one of the greatest challenges for most beginning teachers.

If you are using technology, arrive early to make sure all is in place and working.

#5 Be Ready for Anything and Everything

Don't think you will need the dean's or assistant principal's phone extension that first day, or that replenished first-aid kit, or have to directly address name-calling with a student five minutes after the bell? We wish, but unfortunately, it happens. I had the experience one first day of breaking up a fight between two students -- such a bummer, but sometimes a sad fact. Students will be impressed if something goes awry and you handle it quickly, and with wisdom and grace.

#6 Start Learning Names Immediately

The sooner you dive in on this task the better! I am a visual learner so making a seating chart right away and using their names as much as possible helps. Here's some further suggestions and techniques that you might find helpful. Many teachers will tell you that getting names down as soon as possible helps with discipline and, sure, this is true. However, I believe that rather than assisting in an authoritative way, it more importantly sends the message loudly and clearly that you are interested and that you care.

First Impressions of Students

That first day, a student sometimes enters the room too loudly, says something slightly abrasive, or ignores an instruction. Then comes Tuesday morning, and it's my job to wipe the slate clean. Modeling forgiveness and kindness and giving a kid a second (third, fourth...) chance is part of the job of a teacher.

Over the years, I've also heard a good number of teachers talk about how they don't like to get any information from former teachers about incoming students. I was one of those teachers as well. Every child deserves a chance to make a new first impression.

Please share with us your strategies and best practices for that first day of school in the comments section below.

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Comments (24)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

Great advice all around. I'd like to add that I try to teach one "real" solid lesson on the first/second day of school. In between rule making and collecting all the paperwork that went home in the summer mailing, teach. I think kids will understand who you really are when you go into that teaching mode. It' what they're going to see all year, so why wait. Teach on the first day, I say.


Jack Drury's picture
Jack Drury
Professional Development Consultant - Leading EDGE

Some good tips but in my PBL environment I'm much more likely to negotiate the class rules (even the hard ones) than dictate them to the students.

Russ Ewell's picture
Russ Ewell
Parent of 3 and Android + iOS Educational App Developer

Simple. Practical. Foundational. This is something every teacher I know can use to refresh their approach or develop their first ever class plan. Keep sharing these insights.

Dan Callahan's picture
Dan Callahan
Professional Learning Specialist, Edcamper, Graduate Professor

As a former special educator, I personally caution against this piece of the blog:
"Over the years, I've also heard a good number of teachers talk about how they don't like to get any information from former teachers about incoming students. I was one of those teachers as well. Every child deserves a chance to make a new first impression."

While you may not want, and probably should not want to have your impression of a child's character to be informed by others, many of your students WILL have certain learning needs that you would be best equipped to handle by finding out from their previous teachers what they used and what they didn't. The previous year's teacher spent an entire year with the student honing and refining techniques to best reach them. It would be a disservice to the student for you to go in without any of that prior knowledge and have to spend time reinventing the wheel.

Jpleasant's picture

At the end of August, I will entering my second year of teaching. I wish I would have found this blog post last year. As a first-year teacher, last August brought on a lot of stresses. There seemed to be a thousand things I needed to do or know how to do without much guidance. The tips for starting out the school year are extremely helpful and will help assure I enter this school year feeling a lot less stressed.

Dan Callahan's picture
Dan Callahan
Professional Learning Specialist, Edcamper, Graduate Professor

Hi Jpleasant,
Congratulations on surviving year one! What are you planning on doing differently this year to make it a better year? Anything that's not on this list?

Jpleasant's picture

Thank you for the reply!
Honestly, just taking my time and enjoying the process of getting ready. Everything was such as rush last year. Within 5 days of being hired, I was in my room. I had no time to plan how I wanted everything to be. This year I've started early and really put a lot of effort into making my room a true reflection of who I am as a person.

Dan Callahan's picture
Dan Callahan
Professional Learning Specialist, Edcamper, Graduate Professor

Awesome! Just keep the focus on the students and becoming the teacher you want to be. My first year was terrible, but I also went through a lot of reflection and refocusing over the summer going in to my second year, and it was a million times better. Check in with us on the Discussion boards during the year to keep us up to date on your progress or let us know if we can help with any challenges!

Rosemary's picture

Thank you for these helpful tips. The first day of school is the most important day of the year because it sets the tone for the 179 days that follow. You will not get another chance to make a first impression, so it is important to make the most of this opportunity by being professional. After ten years of teaching I still get butterflies in my stomach the night before. To prepare for the first day I make a "to do" checklist so I do not forget anything. This alleviates the stress of being unprepared. Part of my back to school tradition is to reread Harry Wong's (2005) The First Days of School. I brush up on pointers and it serves as a good motivator. Despite a summer's worth of planning and organizing, the first day of school can be chaotic and full of unknowns. Teachers should expect the unexpected and need to be flexible. Many of these tips can be applied not only to the first day, but every day of school. It is the teacher's job to teach organizational skills, therefore the classroom should be neat and organized. We need to model expected behaviors. It is always better to over plan. Students who are engaged in the lesson have no down time to go off task or get into trouble. This is especially true on the first day when some students may want to "test" the new teacher.

Dan Callahan's picture
Dan Callahan
Professional Learning Specialist, Edcamper, Graduate Professor

Hi Rosemary,
Would you be willing to share your checklist here? It would probably be really helpful to some of our newer teachers.

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