George Lucas Educational Foundation
School Culture

First Day Tips for New Elementary School Teachers

Making sure the first day of school goes smoothly for yourself and your students is all in the prep.

July 26, 2022
Elementary teacher greets students in the morning outside of the the classroom
ferrantraite / iStock

At the start of the school year, sometimes parents would forward me their kids’ first-day-of-school photos, and some of them were pretty creative. One year a mom sent me a shot of her son holding a small whiteboard with the words: “Help me! I have ten more years of these pictures!” Another year a dad shared a photo of his backpacked kids standing beside their pool and pretending to cry while he floated on a raft, cocktail in hand. My favorite first-day photo wasn’t a kid’s. It was a colleague’s. In it, he held a handwritten sign with the date and the number of years he’d been teaching. The sign said: “I can’t believe I let my wife take this.”

Without a doubt, the first day is the most important day of the school year. It’s the day teachers begin to introduce rules, establish routines, practice procedures, and learn which kids need to be moved to a different seat. Of course, it’s the day you meet your new students. I liken the start of school to an arranged marriage. You don’t know whom you’re going to meet. The difference is that in an arranged marriage, you get only one new set of parents. At school, you get dozens.

The Art of Teaching Children book cover
Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

The first day of each new school year, my morning routine was always the same. I’d wake up before the alarm clock went off because I was excited. I’d put on the freshly ironed dress shirt and slacks that I hadn’t seen in two and a half months. I’d slip on dress shoes that I hadn’t set eyes on since June. And every year I would have to knot my tie a couple of times till I got it right because I was out of practice.

I like first days of school. I like their freshness: the new clothes and school supplies, the new backpacks and haircuts. But most of all, I like the first-day buzz. All schools have different kinds of excitement: field trip excitement, Friday-before-break excitement, snow day excitement, school play excitement. My favorite is day-one excitement. Every start of school has a palpable wish-I-could-bottle-it excitement in the air. In most jobs, there’s only one first day. In teaching, you get one every year.

As much as I enjoy the first day of school, it’s always a shock to the system. One day it’s summer, and the next, it’s Bam! Pow! Wham! You feel like you’ve been thrown into a Marvel comic. In twenty-four hours, your brain goes from summer mode to overdrive. There’s no transition, no easing into it. It’s like relaxing on a peaceful beach one minute, then getting slammed by a tsunami. One of the reasons the first day is such a shock for teachers is because we’re not in teacher shape yet. When the new school year begins, it will have been months since we ran to a copier, speed-walked to a bathroom, blew a whistle, raced to the blacktop because we forgot we had yard duty, or ran across campus because we were late for a staff meeting. Even our teacher look is rusty.

Over my career, I had several student teachers, and during our time together, they always asked about the first day of school. They were unsure about what to do on this most important day. I guess Teacher Schools don’t devote a lot of time to day one. And so I will share with you some of the first-day tips that I shared with them. Most of the suggestions are for the elementary grades, but many can be modified for middle and high school.

Before I begin, I’d like to say one thing to the veteran teachers who are reading this chapter. Whenever I speak to large groups of teachers, I often begin my presentation by asking how long they have been teaching. “Please stand if you’ve been teaching for ten to fifteen years,” I will say. Many teachers rise. “Now stand up if you’ve taught between sixteen and twenty years.” The first group sits and a different one gets up. This goes on until I ask who has taught for more than thirty-five years. When these teachers stand, the rest of the audience always gives them a round of applause. Some of the teachers who are seated will shake their heads with wide-eyed expressions because they can’t fathom making it that long. Before the last group sits back down, I smile at them and say, “To all of you who are standing right now, there is nothing I am about to say that you don’t already know. You may go to the back of the room and get a cup of coffee.” Well, the same applies here. If you’re a veteran teacher, you have many first days under your belt and will already know what I am about to explain. You wouldn’t have made it this long if you didn’t. So you have permission to skip the next few pages. Or, you may just want to keep reading so you can nod in agreement and say to yourself, “Yep, that’s how you do it.”

Guidelines and Goals: To start, I’d like to say that there is no one right way to run the first day of school. There are, however, things you can do to get off to the right start. Generally, on the first day, it’s best to be organized, clear, confident, and, if possible—a little funny. Kids like funny. It sets them at ease. It’s also important that you do what works for you. Don’t do what someone else does because you think you’re supposed to. On the first day, a teacher should have two goals. The first is to make your new students feel relaxed and comfortable. The second is this: When the children leave school, and their parents ask them if they like their new teacher, you want them to say yes.

Planning Your Start: Before the first day of school, plan the whole day thoroughly. So much will happen that you don’t want to be worrying about your plans. Leading up to the first day, it’s a good idea to keep a checklist, so that you don’t leave anything out. (A friend of mine has a T-shirt with the following back-to-school checklist: “Pens. Check. Paper. Check. Sanity—No Check.”) And it’s always better to overplan than to not have enough. What you don’t use on day one, you can use the next. Also, have all your materials ready to go. You don’t want to be scrambling during your breaks. You’ll need those to sit in the staff room and eat the donuts that the principal (hopefully) brought in. Before day one, try to have all your plans and materials ready for the second day of school as well. The last thing you’ll want to do at the end of the first day is have to make plans for the next one. When day one’s over, you’ll want to go home as soon as you can and crash.

Your First Meeting

If you teach grade school, chances are you will pick up your new students in line. Unless you’re teaching kindergarten, I do not recommend leaving your classroom open before school on the first day. You need your time, and some parents will want to corner you. After the first bell rings and the kids have lined up, stand at the front of the line with a big smile and say, “Good morning!” to your new class. If you teach the little ones, lots of parents will be standing around. Smile at them too. They will also be nervous.

At the Door: After you’ve walked your students to the classroom, stand at the door and tell them to look for their desks with their name tags. Don’t make children choose their desks. This makes kids anxious. Have their names already on them. As the children walk past you and into their new classroom, greet each child individually with a welcoming smile. After the last student is in the room and you start to close the door, turn to the parents who are still lingering and say, “I’ll take good care of them.”

Your Kids’ First Task: As the children find their seats, have something on their desks for them to do. It can be as simple as coloring a name tag, completing a word search, or drawing a picture—nothing fancy. Leave the directions written on the board or placed on their desks. This gives you a little uninterrupted time to take attendance, find out who is buying lunch, and collect all the boxes of Kleenex that the kids will pull out of their backpacks because tissues were on the back-to-school supply list. Of course, your new students won’t begin the activity that you set out for them until they have checked out their new desks, pulled out all their new school supplies from their backpacks, and figured out how far away their friends are seated.

Introductions: Once the children are settled, it is time to introduce yourself. Tell them your name and write it on the board. I’d say, “My name is Mr. Done. It rhymes with phone. It is not Mr. Dunn. And”—with a half smile and half don’t-you-dare-call-me-this expression—“it is not Mr. Donut.” It would get a laugh. Then tell the kids a little about yourself. There are many ways to make an introduction, of course. One intriguing way is to pull items that represent you out of a bag and talk about them: a souvenir from a recent trip, a book you’re reading, a photo of your dog doing something funny. An autobiography in a bag. It’s also a nice way for your new students to acquaint themselves with one another later in the week. Another creative way to make your introduction is to write single words related to your life on the board and let your class guess what they mean. For example, if I wrote “three,” “red,” and “8:00,” the kids would have to guess that I have three siblings, red is the color of my car, and eight o’clock is the time I would likely be in bed that night.

When your students are introducing themselves, instead of the standard “Share your favorite _____” kind of introduction, try having them tell the class two true things and one that is not. The children have to guess which is false. Or ask kids to share one “boring” fact about themselves. This takes the pressure off of trying to think of an interesting one. My boring facts: I sleep on my side. I keep the water running while brushing my teeth. When eating fried eggs, I save the yolks till the end. Later in the week, if you want your students to write about themselves, instead of the typical autobiography, ask them to write what they didn’t do over the summer. Kids get a kick out of this. Examples: I didn’t ride a unicorn. I did not win the lottery. I did not make a video with Taylor Swift.

Excerpted from The Art of Teaching Children by Phillip Done. Copyright © by Phillip Done. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster.

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