At the end of the week, I will have my 27th first day of school as a teacher. If you throw in all of the times I have taught summer school and night school, that number creeps closer to 40. Even so, there is a certain amount of excitement bordering on anxiety on the part of the teacher. Most of us have those “teacher nightmares” about a week before school starts back up again. Mine usually involve a lot of screaming at students (which I RARELY do) and holding a 250 pound football player up by the neck, feet dangling, in the middle of the hall for not following directions (which my 5′ 5″ self has NEVER done).
My “teacher daymares” are different. Where will my beloved classroom furniture be after the massive summer cleaning has taken place? Will I have to hunt around in the neighboring classrooms for that decades-old wheely chair? What about the copiers? Will they already be on the fritz? How long will it take me to learn the names of the new teachers (forget about my 100+ students — I know that takes three weeks)? When is Open House? Did I turn my keys in at the end of the academic year or not?
But neither the nightmares nor the daymares matter. Only two things really matter and the first of these two is doing math. When students enter my classroom on day one, there is a warm up on the board and they start working on it before I take attendance. I walk around and give feedback on their work before I get them in their assigned seats. We play a game called “What’s My Rule?” that I learned from Richard G. Brown at my first NCTM conference in 1989. This game can be adapted to any level of math (I do it with piecewise functions in precalculus and really catch the students off-guard) and it helps me begin to learn their names and gets the students comfortable with speaking up in class. If time permits, I get the students started on some technology-free review material (a favorite circuit or puzzle page), just to start clearing the months of cobwebs from their heads.
The other thing that matters is the nascent establishing of classroom routines and procedures. How do I want my students to enter class? Where do I want them to look first? What do I expect them to take out of their backpacks without prompting? Harry Wong’s 2001 classic text, The First Days of School, gives both the experienced teacher and the newbie great ideas on classroom management, student achievement, and teacher effectiveness. We need to teach our students how to do all of these things through modeling, practice, and praise.
What I will never do on the first day of school is read a list of rules or give the students a contract to sign. You do that, and you have lost half of them. The rest won’t be far behind. Why spend 5 minutes explicating what happens when a student is tardy, e.g.? Students won’t be tardy in the first few days of school anyway (unless they just got their schedule changed and are confused about the new room assignment). Handle those situations as they arise. I have had an entire year go by in some classes where we never had to establish the tardy consequence, whereas in other classes I had to hold students during break or lunch or write office referrals because they could not get their acts together.
Another thing I will never do on the first day of school is have the students fill out a questionnaire. They will have spent every class period writing their name and what they did all summer. Not in my classroom. I want them doing math. Save the questionnaire for the fourth or fifth day in when schedules have stopped changing.
Ultimately, you want your students excited to come to your classroom, doing math before the period starts, and still working when the bell rings. When I get overwhelmed at how much I need to teach them, I slow down and say to myself, “Relax! You have 180 days. They don’t have to do it all on the first day.”