Do you get nervous about the first day of school? Do you feel like an actor about to go on stage–a bit self-conscious and afraid you’ll fall flat on your face?
You Are Not Alone! Most teachers feel that way, even if on the outside they exude confidence. However, any teacher can be successful on that first day.
The First Days of School
This is a review of the book The First Days of School, How To Be an Effective Teacher by Harry K. Wong and his wife, Rosemary B. Wong. To quote Dr. Wong, “What you do the first days of school will determine your success or failure for the rest of the school year.”
I know from experience that this is correct. I have personally read Dr. Wong’s book at least 15 times. Yes, I taught for 15 years, and I read this book every summer and planned accordingly. Sometimes I read the book cover to cover. Other times, I just skimmed the first few chapters.
This always reminded me what I needed to do to prepare for the first week of school.
The Most Important Thing
Preparing for school is more than simply organizing and decorating your room. It’s more than shopping for school supplies. While these things are important (and fun!), the most important thing you can do to prepare for school is to plan your first week in detail.
Help Students Get Ready to Learn
Dr. Wong reminds us that effective teachers establish control of the class during the first three weeks of school. All teachers know that having a good relationship with your students is essential to effective teaching. However, teachers sometimes make the mistake of thinking this means being best friends with the students. Students want to know that their teacher is in control in a positive and fun way. (Read about teaching with humor here.) This helps them feel safe, secure, and ready to learn.
Control doesn’t mean threats or intimidation. It means that you know what you are doing as a teacher. You have communicated procedures and expectations to your students in a positive way. You have taken control of your professional responsibilities. You are confident in your role. Students love this!
Gain Your Confidence
To gain this confidence, Dr. Wong recommends writing a script for the first day. He points out that a football coach scripts his first 15 to 20 football games. Wedding planners plan each event for a wedding down to the tiniest detail. In the same way, a teacher should plan down to the smallest detail her first days of the school year.
Even experienced teachers benefit from writing a script for the first day. The process of writing the script helps you think about all the details of each activity. After writing the script, if you are a first year teacher, practice your script in front of a mirror.
On the first day, the words will flow naturally. You will fluently transition from one activity to another. Your students will be reassured that you know what you are doing. They will feel safe.
Each and every day of the year, but especially the first day, it is important to greet each student at the door. Your classroom is all ready. Each student’s name plate is on the desk. The first work assignment is on each desk. You can grab some great first day assignments here. The assignment is easy–one that all students will feel successful doing. A sharpened pencil is on the desk. Greet each student at the door. Extend your hand in for a warm handshake. Look the student in the eye with a warm smile. Tell the student your name. Example: “Hello, I’m Mrs. Kasper. Welcome to your fourth grade classroom! Your name is on your desk. Please find your desk and begin your work quietly.” Right away, you have set the tone. You are friendly, and students know the expectation.
The Importance of Rules
Dr. Wong advocates writing your classroom rules before school begins. That way, you can introduce them on the first day of school. Your rules should be posted in your room. You can grab a free set here.
Before you introduce the rules, make sure you have:
- Welcomed your class
- Introduced yourself
- Taken care of administrative duties
Many teachers want to involve students in writing the rules. This will work for some rules, but district and campus rules cannot be changed. So these will have to be taught anyway. If you want to involve students, consider having a class discussion about:
- Why rules are needed
- Why a particular rule will help students succeed
- Students give examples of rules, such as “What does it mean to ‘respect others’?”
Introducing Procedures and Routines
Dr. Wong reminds us that proper routines and procedures can greatly reduce classroom discipline issues. Not only that, they help maximize instructional time.
It takes around three weeks to teach all procedures. This does not mean you are not teaching curriculum. It means that you are embedding teaching procedures within your lesson. For example, the first time you pass out a paper in your class, that procedure should be specifically taught. It should be taught with specificity about what you expect. It should be practiced–more than once, so students know that this is an important procedure.
Students want to know exactly what to do when they arrive in the mornings. For example, if your students begin the day with a spiral review, tell them exactly where to find to find it, how long they have to complete it, and what to do if they finish early. Students want to please the teacher. They want to feel confident that they are doing it correctly. This will give your students confidence.
Some procedures may take three weeks to teach, such as learning stations. You can learn more about teaching learning stations routines here. Many classes have centers or learning stations where they independently practice skills they have learned. You will need to teach down to the smallest detail how students transition from center to center, how they obtain and put away materials, and the voice expectations. The time invested at the beginning of the year will pay off tremendously for the rest of the year because you will not be constantly correctly and trying to reteach. It is so much easier to teach procedures correctly at the beginning of the year, rather than trying to undo bad habits acquired because students didn’t know the expectations.
Dr. Wong recommends the Give Me Five method, where the teacher raises their hand silently, and students do the same. Everyone becomes silent and looks at the teacher. This is a good thing to teach students so you can get their attention in a large auditorium or in the hallway when lots of people are around.
Although not in Dr. Wong’s book, your students will know you are a fun teacher (yes, teachers in control are fun teachers!) when you teach them call-backs. (Read about teaching with humor here.) For example, the teacher says, “Hocus Pocus” and the students say in unison “Everybody Focus.” Teach your students that these are fun attention getters. The call-back must be said in unison, and then students immediately fix their attention on the teacher.
If you don’t own a copy of Dr. Wong’s The First Days of School, How to Be an Effective Teacher, go to Amazon.com and pick up a used copy. You will become an effective teacher, and your students will feel safe and ready to learn.