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Back to School: Preparing for Day One

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting 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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CNorman's picture

I also agree that connecting classroom rules and expectations to various texts is engaging and fun! First day jitters and Officer Burke are wonderful mentor texts that speak of the first day of school and what is to be expected by each student. I would also love to see your checklist! Thanks for sharing!

Heather's picture

After having had over ten years teaching experience, I found that I am always too overly prepared for the first day of school, that at the end of the day, I still had a number of things left undone. This blog caught my attention for that reason, in that it has helped me to minimize my to do first day list. I found it to be useful, even though I think establishing rules and procedures should have been included. Students need to know what is acceptable form what is unacceptable from day one. What do you think?

Silvia P's picture

Thank you for sharing this useful information! I am going on my fourth year teaching, but I am always nervous about the first day as well. The steps you shared are very helpful and must keep them in mind.
Well done!

Kathi001's picture

I have had several first days of school, but I always find it enjoyable to read someone else's ideas. My first day of school is next week. I have been working in my classroom to make it organized and inviting. Thank you for your ideas and encouragement. Looking forward to another great year!

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Hi Heather!
I agree that it's important to establish our rules and procedures that first day, but I don't want to read them aloud and have the kids just listening (probably checking the clock to see when I'll be done). Over the years I've developed a Scavenger Hunt for my rules, procedures and "words of wisdom." All of the answers to the Scavenger Hunt questions can be found on posters on the walls of my classroom. I let the students work with friends if they want, and they spend a good chunk of time walking around the room, looking for the answers and writing them down. This gives me a chance to watch how they interact, chat with them during the hunt, learn some names and get to know them. It also gets them out of their seats and talking, which I think they really enjoy that first week, when they are so nervous. When they're done we take some time to review the procedures together. Here's my Scavenger Hunt doc, if you're interested:

Now you've reminded me: it's time to get those posters back on my wall and get ready for this year's Scavenger Hunt!


Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

GREAT list, Rebecca! Something else I do on the first day is make sure I get around to every student to confirm their first names: do they prefer Tommy to Thomas? Do they go by their middle name? Or initials? And especially, do I know how to pronounce their names correctly? I schedule a quiet, solo assignment on the first day (usually a student profile kind of task, where they know all the answers and can write them down without needing help), and while they work I walk around with my seating chart and check in with each one, face to face. I mark up my seating chart so that when I see them again (after meeting my other 159 students), I will remember their names. It's my first step in that annual challenge of learning 160 new names! Not easy, but so important.


Kathi.Winter5's picture

Thank you for sharing your first day ideas. I will be using this to get me started on my first year of 3rd grade. Last year I was kindergarten and the year before that I taught 4th grade. I wish I had known to have a check list back then, but I am pleased to read your article. It is very useful. Kathi

Juliana's picture

Thanks for sharing these ideas! Even a veteran teacher can be reminded of the things that make a great first day! The best advice that I know that you have already said is be ready for anything! I also over-plan and know that I can do those things during the next week with everything run-off and ready to go! I also plan for Back to School Night when your students and parents come in to meet you before school starts. I have a Scavenger Hunt for them to search for things in the room that they need to know where things are and where to put things when they come in the first day. The last thing they are to do is come and find me and tell me one thing about themselves and one thing they want to learn this year. I will also take a picture of the family altogether to put up for the students to see for the first month of school for Getting to Know You activities.

BW's picture

Some good ideas here. Here's a thought: don't start with a list of rules. Especially in MS and HS, students may hear what is essentially the same list multiple times. They come to us on the first day excited about school; don't mute their joy--and waste this great energy--on rules. Start off with an exciting learning opportunity. By MS and HS--and really, by 2nd grade--they know the rules of school. Fire them up by giving them a taste of what they'll learn in your class.

Joe McKeown's picture

Some good advice here. I agree with two of the comments as well. Even if you never look at them, those student profiles give students an opportunity to reflect and tell you about themselves, they give the impression that you care to know about each student, and they give you a resource when a student makes you wonder "what's the deal with this kid?" Ask for contact information, as my school seems never to have correct info for the student parents I need to contact. BW is right about too many rules on that first day. Another reason for holding off with rules and other essential information is that class rosters tend to be in flux for a day or two and tomorrow's class may have new faces.

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