Those Critical First Days of School

Fall semester starts tomorrow and with it my official foray into college teaching. I loved my work as an education administrator and professional developer, but I haven’t been this excited for the start of the school year since I last taught secondary school science classes. As with most educators, I love to teach. And, I love to create lessons. I am no fan of scripted curricula, and my own course syllabi were reworked yearly to keep them current and fresh. The lens I used to create and evaluate my lessons are the three Rs: Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships, and so it will be for my three classes this semester. Of all the lessons that I taught, the first lesson of the year mattered most.

Good teaching takes time, as effective teachers know too well. However, the time for lesson preparation, teaching, and feedback moves quickly because the work done is so darn meaningful to the teacher and to the students (usually). Such is the nature of the teaching profession. As Chris Rock says in his hilarious Time at Work clip (profanity alert), “If you’ve got a career, there ain’t enough time in a day…..When you got a job, there’s too much time.” Isn’t that the truth! It took a great deal of time organizing my course syllabi (Thank you Dr. Grant for easing the burden) and prioritizing concepts and content. However, the past few days I’ve worked hard on that critically important first day of school using Harry and Rosemary Wong’s First Days of School-a classic must-read book for all educators, new and seasoned veterans alike.

I saw Harry Wong at a National Science Teachers Association annual conference years ago, and he was simply amazing. His presentation was one of the finest I ever saw, and I ended up buying his book and getting his autograph after his speech. There are many, many important pointers and suggestions that define good teaching, but my favorite chapter is Section A: Basic Understandings which describes the critically important first few days of school. The Wongs correctly emphasize that the routines and first impressions a teacher sets at the start of the year will define the tone for the entire year. It’s sort of that old cliché, “First impressions are lasting impressions.”

Two important rules I immediately made part of my routine were to 1) greet students at the door when they enter the classroom EVERY DAY throughout the year, and 2) have a task for students to complete EVERY DAY when they get to their seats (whether the bell has rung or not). Those two simple changes in my routine paid immediate and long-term dividends, particularly rule 2. Rule 1 was something I followed periodically because I genuinely liked welcoming my students each day. However, there were days I was scrambling to set up a lab or organize papers and didn’t have time to welcome them at the door. I wonder what the students thought consciously or sub-consciously when I was too busy to greet them personally. Rule 2 was the game changer for me. By having a daily task on the board for students when they arrived, there was no loss of time. In fact, I gained extra time since they began working the minute they sat down at their desk. Wow! No more, “Settle down. Settle down” when the bell rang. Instead, “You have two more minutes to enter your response in your journal.”

So tomorrow I will teach my first Practitioner Research in Education 1: Planning Research. Tuesday is School Culture, Settings, and Systems in the 21st Century, and Wednesday is Adolescent Development for Education Professionals. In all three classes, I will be mindful of making the first session a memorable one. There will be a task at each student’s desk, and I will be greeting every student at the door. My goal as a professional developer has always been to walk the talk, and so it will be in my college classes. I hope to impress upon these future teachers some best practice strategies they can use in their classrooms someday. Tomorrow’s strategy: First Days of School. I can’t wait!

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4 responses to “Those Critical First Days of School

  1. Best wishes to you on your first day! Always looking for new firsts. I too am incredibly excited to have my first day back to teaching first grade after a dozen years! (I’m teaching next to Sarah, a 24 year old, special education teacher, who I taught in first grade!) Here’s to staying young by always learning and changing what we do! You’ll be a professor they will always remember.

  2. Walking the talk is important for increased transparency and trust, and those of course make learning better and more effective. I have always thought it increases the meaningfulness of learning when students have something to work on their own all the time – just because some students are faster to finish than others. I really dislike others wasting my time, and thus I don’t want to do it to my students either. Your practices sound like well thought ones. Happy beginnings! 🙂

  3. Hope your venture back into the classroom is an ad-venture! Good luck, Steve.

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