On the first day of school, perhaps even the first week of school should be devoted to two things: expectations and procedures. However, before we tackle that subject it might be wise to address the elephant in the room; your primary objective in the classroom. It may surprise you to learn that many teachers get this wrong, but your primary responsibility is to teach, not to be your students’ friend or to build their self-esteem, those two things tend to happen of their own accord if you are doing the first thing properly.
This notion that kids need to do things to boost their self-esteem is rooted in erroneous pop psychology. Your kids will develop great self-esteem as they learn. Conversely, if they aren’t learning any amount of self-esteem exercises will help. The current trends have left us with students who are supremely self-confident, even though they know less and are less prepared than their predecessors.
With this in mind, we need to set the bar high at the beginning of the year. From the very first day, your students should know that you will be expecting academic rigor in your classroom. The best way to do this is to give them something to work on as soon as they enter your class. A five-minute exercise to review something they should have learned the year before should work just fine.
Once that is done, you need to review the class rules. This should be broad enough to encompass most of the behavioral issues that might arise, and number no more than five. Lots of research has shown that teachers with five rules or less tend to have better-run classrooms. Here are a few suggestions, though your list will likely be different:
1) Be prepared to learn
2) Be respectful of others
3) Be quiet unless called on
4) Raise your hand if you have a question
5) Put all electronic devices away
If your rules are broad enough you can fill in the details as needed. You can explain that “Be respectful of others” includes more than just hitting and name-calling. Interrupting when someone else is talking is also covered by that rule.
In his book, Teach Like a Champion, Doug Lemov tells of a teacher who spends almost an entire hour on the first day of school practicing how to hand papers out and turn them back in. He may waste an hour at the beginning of school with this exercise, but over the course of a year that investment of time can save him more than eight hours of classroom time. Not a bad trade.
What are the procedures your students need to master on the first day of school? If they are in elementary school, you may have to work with them going to and from the lunchroom, doing it again and again until they can do it perfectly, then giving occasional refreshers until they do it naturally without thinking about it.
Lest you think your students will resist this kind of practice, research has shown that the opposite is true. Kids desperately want to fit in and by teaching them how things are to be done, you not only give them a sense of belonging, you also make better future citizens.
Lastly, and your school most likely already has something in place for this, you need to get the parents involved in the process as early in the school year as possible. You don’t want your first meeting with them to be at the parent-teacher conference. You want them to know what your motives and expectations are and you want to enlist their support in the process. It is wise to get email addresses and phone numbers so you can pass on good and bad news. I strongly suggest you send some good news home as soon after the school year begins as possible. If they know you are noticing the good things their child is doing, they are far more likely to accept your news that things are not going so well.
Whatever you do, don’t waste the first day of school talking about “what you did over summer vacation.” That may make you popular for the first week or two, but you will be wasting the best opportunity you get all year to set your class up for success.