George Lucas Educational Foundation
Classroom Management

Handling the Crucial First Minutes of the First Day of Middle School

Students may be anxious about the first day of middle school, but there are things teachers can do to make it go more smoothly.

August 1, 2023
FG Trade / iStock

The first day of middle school can be chaotic. Lost students, lost teachers, crying students, crying teachers. It can also be an amazing day for both groups. Students and teachers alike pick out our best outfits, maybe bring a brand-new lunch box, and walk through the school doors rejuvenated and full of hope. But all of that can come crashing down if something goes wrong.

Imagine this scenario:

It’s the first day of school, and you’re a seventh grader. You finally find your classroom. Your heart rate is up, and your armpits are sweaty from the August heat, combined with anxiety and lots of walking. You sit down at a desk while a teacher, whom you do not know, starts calling out names from the roster. She comes to the end of the roster, and your name was not called.

The teacher seems annoyed. She asks to see your schedule and tells you in front of everyone that you’re supposed to be in room 216B, not 216A. Some of the other students quietly chuckle as you pack up your bags to leave. Now, your embarrassment and anxiety are exponentially worse. You will walk into another classroom very late and even sweatier.

All of this anguish can be avoided by a few small teacher moves at the beginning of each class period.

3 Ways to Make the First Day of Middle School Better

1. Conduct a roster check at the door. Greet every student as they enter the classroom. Introduce yourself with a smile, and ask their name. Repeat it back to ensure that you have pronounced it correctly. It may help to jot down a quick note on the roster as they say their name: “Mee-ah” for Mia, “Jamie” for James, “Chee-bwee-kay” for Chibuike.

Double-check that this student is on your roster, and if not, check their schedule, and redirect the student to a new room as needed. This will take a few minutes and will cause a backup in an already crowded hallway, but it’s worth it! Students can find their assigned seat and start on the bellringer activity independently.

The author of Tools for Teaching, Fred Jones, PhD, shares this suggestion in Education World: “You also might consider handing out 3-by-5 cards as you greet students at the door. On the blank side of the card is a seat number. All the desks have numbers taped to them. Greet the student and say: ‘This is your seat number. Find your seat, and then turn the card over and fill it out according to the instructions on the chalkboard.’”

Taking a few minutes to greet each student before they enter the room can save a student from a mortifying experience as described above.

2. Assign seats. Yes, student choice and voice is what educators want to foster in our classrooms, but not when it comes to choosing a seat on the first day. The fewer choices you can give students on the first day, the more secure they will feel.

This seems counterintuitive, but consider the point of view of the student in a free-seating situation. “What if I sit by a student who isn’t cool? What if a cool kid is saving a seat? What if I do get lucky and sit by a cool kid, and they make fun of me later for being so presumptuous as to sit by them?”

Wow, that’s a lot for a kid to juggle in just a few seconds of “simply” finding a seat. Make it less stressful by randomly assigning seats the first day and throughout the year, if that’s your preference. Explain to the students that seating assignments will be randomized often to give the students the opportunity to work with a variety of classmates. It isn’t punitive, but rather an opportunity.

3. Have bellringers ready to go. Once your students find their seats, they are fairly unattended and independent while you are at the door greeting other students. Clearly display the directions for a bellringer on the board. Provide the supplies they need for the activity at each desk. This will avoid students interrupting you to ask for a pencil while you greet incoming students at the door.

Yes, some teachers might question this: “Bringing supplies is their responsibility. Isn’t this enabling them?” The goal here is a seamless first day of class. Giving students the essential necessary supplies of paper and pencil for the first day will do wonders for a student who didn’t come with these supplies.

In my middle school class, I give them an “About Me” survey consisting of questions like these:

  • What is your favorite song/movie/TV show?
  • What do you want me to know about you?
  • What do you hope to learn in this class this year?
  • What questions do you have for me?

This type of activity requires no prior content knowledge and few supplies, which makes it accessible and independent for students in general. (I keep these surveys all year and hand them back on the last day of school. The students love reminiscing about their old answers.) Additionally, the teacher-created blog ELA Core Plans offers free downloadable first-day bellringer activities.

These small teacher moves during the first few minutes of class can help even the cool big kids ease into the first day of school with more stability and predictability. A friendly welcome with clear expectations will set the year off on the right path for both the teacher and the students.

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