Starting the School Year Strong

It’s the time of year when leaves are tinging brown and young teachers come to talk.

“Last year was a disaster,” a second-year teacher said last week. “What will happen this year?”

“I’ve never taught before,” another said. “How do I start?”

I remember that stomach-clenching end to summer—the dreams about teaching in a nightgown or with toilet paper trailing from my shoe. And worse, trying to get attention as spit wads fly and fistfights brew.

So, I tell these beginning teachers what I wish I had known in my first years of teaching.

“Your most important work in these weeks before school starts,” I tell them, “is to orchestrate the first minutes of the first class of the first day.”

It’s in those first minutes, after all, that students decide if they like a teacher, respect a teacher, and want to learn from a teacher.

“How do I do this?” these young teachers ask.

To that first class, I tell them, bring four things:

  • Ambiance—If a classroom looks and feel like every other classroom, there’s less reason to enter. So offer a classroom with a distinctive sense of place. I played classical music, dimmed lights, and showed videos of crackling fire or gentle rain on the classroom screen.
  • Wonder—In those first minutes of class, forget the rules. Rather, get dramatic with the hellish tattooing of the heart in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story. Or dip a banana in liquid nitrogen and smash it to pieces, like glass, on the floor. Or recite pi to the hundredth decimal while students check your accuracy. Or tell the story of the last soldier who died in World War I, and why his death was futile.
  • Empathy—Show yourself as on their sides. “When I was a student,” you might say. “I hated history. I saw no use in memorizing dates and capitals. So, guess what! That’s not how I teach history.”
  • Order—Make it hard to be bad. Not by reciting rules with an evil eye, but by creating structures for a smooth start. I taped cards with student names to desks—hoping to separate students who might have drawn each other away from learning. And on those desks I placed the first, ten-minute assignment—a writing exercise, one easy to understand and one that would feed into the middle-school proclivity to find how they fit into the world, something like Write about a time you were mad, really mad. Or What do you think is unfair in this world? Write about it. This gave me time to check roll—not aloud since you never know what students might say in answer to their names—but with the seating chart I had already created.

In the first minute of class, students are already asking, Who will make things happen in this classroom?

And you want to be the answer to that question.

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