George Lucas Educational Foundation

Set the Tone in Those First Thirty Seconds of Class

Set the Tone in Those First Thirty Seconds of Class

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Teachers, you have thirty seconds to seize the attention of your students. Ok, I’m making up that number, but statistics show that first impressions are essential.

Students are just like us, really, when we meet someone for the first time. We’re defensive. We may feel awkward. We may not even want to be there, but that positive first impression can be the difference between a positive school year for the students, or a negative one.

Last year, after reading the book, Teach Like a Pirate, I acted the part of the pirate for my junior-level English classes, complete with loud pirate music from Youtube,  a Jolly Roger flag, a hearty, but laughable pirate accent, and an eye patch. I also faked a bum leg. Students had to stand in the center of the room while I dressed them as new recruits. Anyone who laughed, I addressed promptly with the “eye.” I informed them how challenging the class would be, an essay was due the next day. I also told them how essential it was to do well in English. “Every major, every field, will require you to read and to write and to persuade people,” I said, or, well, snarled. “In this class, you will write until your fingers bleed bright red!”

At the end of the year, numerous students told me they almost dropped the class. “Something about maggots coming out of my eyes” may have done it, Mr. Bowne.” But the opening helped establish the tone of the class: challenging, interactive, and fun. It was something they remembered and talked about at home at dinner.

Other years I pretended to be nervous with opening-day jitters. I pretended to throw up in a trash can, and then played a film I made at home over the summer. (You can see these videos on my youtube channel). I’m comfortable using my family as actors and props, and in a way, it humanizes the teacher, We’re not some robot who only lives in the room to hand out work and punishments. It had worked for me for years, and when my wife took up teaching as her second career, she also made an introductory video that the kids loved. It takes some kids a while to get over the fact that they’re watching a funny video of a teacher who is standing in the corner, but again, it’s the hook.         

In one study, 33% of bosses knew within the first 90 seconds whether they would hire someone or not. You students will cannot “hire” or “fire” you, but then can mentally. In persuasion, there are three resolutions: conflict (which means the student openly acting against you or the class or policy), compliance (students do the work but only because they have to), and commitment (this is where the students see the rhyme and reason of the work, and they work hard).

A strong opening day can get more kids on the commitment bus.    

We just need to know our audience; it’s crucial in public speaking, writing, and in teaching. For instance, if you’re teaching a lower level math course, consider the audience. They may have had long struggles with math. They may hate math. If I was required to play baseball every day for an hour, and I never once hit the ball or field a ball correctly, guess how I would feel about baseball. They may don’t trust you with another long slog of math. So you’ll need to address the issues, whether you want to or not. It can only help to find yourself in their seat, looking at you. How do you look to them? Why should they trust you? How will you be different? How may this year be their best year in math?

Writers know about the hook, or in journalism, the lead. We would rather do anything than read, because reading is tough and takes time and concentration, so the job of the writer is to entice the reader. It’s the delicious, wriggling worm at the end of the line. Various methods are advisable: anecdotes, humor, facts, statistics, startling claims, and the good old standby, the rhetorical question.

You do not need to be a film major or an actor. Have a song play when the kids come in, and then discuss why the song is meaningful. Make the opening narrative-based. We are storytelling creatures. Share a story about why you decided to teach. Make sure the students know that the course is essential. After all, why else spend the time? And if you can’t consider reasons why you love what you do, and why the subject is so crucial, perhaps, maybe, it’s time for someone to persuade you to do something else. The stakes are that high. The profession is just too important. We need to hook these kids, and hook them early. Just make your class the most exciting class to be.

Because no one wants to it in a seat and hear: “My name is Mr. Bland. I expect everyone to be on time, or you will have a detention. I am passing out the course syllabus. Please follow along as I read the policy to you.”

Make those early seconds count.

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