This module examines how to plan for the first day of school. Read about best practices and how to prepare for the future.
“Experienced teachers know that what you do and what you say in the first few seconds of the first day of school can make or break you.”—Harry Wong
The first day of school sets the stage for the entire year. Students and parents form opinions about you from their first impressions. Although these ideas may change over time, the stakes are high during this initial meeting and “getting-to-know-you” phase. It is false to believe that nothing is accomplished in the first week of school. These encounters lay the groundwork for everything a class will achieve in the upcoming school year, so teachers must be adequately prepared to face this challenge.
When students enter your classroom for the first time, they will immediately notice how it looks, feels, sounds, and even smells. Effective teachers carefully consider these sensory responses as they design their classroom environments.
The first step in planning the arrangement of your classroom is prioritizing the items you must have, the items you want to have, and the items you would have if you had an unlimited budget. For example, one teacher listed:
I must have:
I would like to have:
With an unlimited budget, I would have:
Non-negotiable items fall in the first category. These tend to be the basics that come in a classroom, but some, such as a rocking chair, may need to be supplied by the teacher.
Items that can be acquired with a bit of outside help fall in the second category. These are often supplied at a teacher’s expense.
Items in the last category may require the teacher to research grants or look for private donations. Effective teachers keep their options open and are continually on the hunt for materials, furniture, and tools to improve their classrooms.
The emotional environment of a classroom is just as important as the physical environment. On the first day, students are apprehensive and wonder what they are supposed to do. By carefully planning for these students and anticipating questions they might have, effective teachers address these issues and provide a supportive setting for their students.
Procedures and routines are the organizational heart of your classroom, without which you and your students cannot function properly. Students must have a concise understanding of the expectations for every action during the day. You will teach some procedures and routines the first day, some within the first week, and others as they come up throughout the school year.
Immediate procedures and routines are those that absolutely must be in place for students to feel comfortable. Usually, these procedures address physical needs. For example, students will have concerns about the procedure for buying and eating lunch and when and how they may request a restroom break. Immediate procedures and routines are taught and practiced on the first day of school.
Within the First Week
Procedures and routines dealing with the operation of the classroom and specific content areas are addressed throughout the first week, such as appropriate headings for assignments, where to get needed supplies or turn in work, or how to line up for a fire drill. This category is just as important as the immediate category, but without the physical needs attached to the actions.
Throughout the year, you will introduce activities that require new procedures and routines, such as how to work in a learning center, visit the nurse, or request a particular book from the library. Unexpected situations also arise from day to day, so teachers must be flexible and able to come up with ”emergency” procedures at a moment’s notice.
Now that you know how to identify applicable procedures and routines and when to teach them, it’s time to plan HOW to teach them.
Use masking tape or carpet tape on the floor to show students where to line up. Decide whether you will have a daily line leader, if the students will line up in a particular order, and what they should do with their hands while in line. Also decide whether they are allowed to speak or whisper while in the halls, and who will hold doors open for the rest of the class. Have students practice the procedure several times before ”officially” leaving the classroom for the first time.
Students need to know when they can leave to go to the restroom or get a drink. Must they ask permission? Do you have a sign-out and sign-in sheet? Do they need a pass? Are they allowed to keep filled water bottles at their desks or tables? Have students role-play a request for a restroom break and drink, and then discuss any further questions or concerns.
Decide exactly how you want the headings on students’ papers to appear. Post the heading in a prominent spot in the classroom, and take time during the first few assignments to model it for your students. Finally, be consistent about this requirement. If students forget, take them through a brief ”re-training” session and have them correct their improper headings.
Appropriate Voice Level
Many times during the day, students need to monitor and adjust their voice levels. Rather than chastising them after they have become too loud, let them know ahead of time what voice level to use before a particular activity. Take time during the first few days of school to model times when it is appropriate to whisper, use an ”inside” voice, or use a regular speaking voice, and to say which voice levels are never allowed.
Decide prior to the first day of school the attention-getting signal you will use, such as a patterned clap, a train whistle, a chime, or a particular phrase. Model the signal for your students and explain how they are expected to respond. Be explicit and define the exact desired behaviors, and then provide opportunities for practice throughout the day. Stop and redirect students if they forget or ignore the procedure.
The majority of students will bring supplies with them on the first day of school. Effective teachers are prepared for the rush of tissue boxes, pencils, markers, scissors, spirals, and folders, and have an organizational plan in place. For example,
Most districts or schools publish grade-level supply lists a month or two before school starts. Since a team of teachers from the previous school year agreed upon the items on the list, you’ll have to trust their judgment. If you think of new or different items you wish students could bring, keep careful notes so you can contribute ideas for future lists. If you are missing items critical to your current instructional needs, share this information with your colleagues who may have the necessary resources.
During the first days of school, effective teachers work to establish a sense of community in their classrooms. Class-building activities allow students to work as individuals, partners, and teams creating products that help them learn valuable information about one another.
The Important Book
After reading Margaret Wise Brown’s The Important Book and discussing its repetitive pattern, model how you would write your own book with the same title. For example, the first page might say, “The important thing about teaching is helping children learn. I like to welcome my students at the door. I enjoy seeing students pick up new ideas. But the important thing about teaching is working with children.” Students can use this same model to write their own books about things that are important to them and then share their favorite pages with the class.
True or False
On the first day of school, most students are curious about their teachers. One way to satisfy their inquisitive natures is to write a ten-question True/False quiz about yourself, your family, your hobbies, your goals, and so on. Give students the quiz at the beginning of the day and ask them to make their best guesses, but explain that they can change their answers as they learn more about you throughout the day. Make it a point to provide the answers to the questions in your conversations with the class, and allow time to review the complete quiz at the end of the day. Finally, invite students to take their quizzes home and share what they learned about you with their parents.
Prior to the first day of school, draw enough puzzle pieces for each of your students and yourself on a piece of poster board. Cut them out in left-to-right order, numbering them on the back. When the students arrive, ask each one to decorate a piece of the puzzle to represent his or her own personality or interests, showing them your own designed piece as a model. When all of the students have finished, put the pieces back together by calling out the numbers in order and inviting students to tell about their designs before adding them to the puzzle. Tape the pieces together and ask students to collaborate on a title for the puzzle, such as We All Work Together or Everyone Fits In. Post the puzzle in a prominent place in the classroom and use it as a reminder of the importance of every member of the class. If you choose, you can make a class quilt rather than a puzzle by using square pieces of sturdy paper and taping or lacing them together.
Give each student an index card on which to write his or her name and a small white paper plate to design as a self-portrait. Provide other materials, such as construction paper, yarn, fabric scraps, and buttons for students to use as well. At the end of the first day, display the self-portraits and name cards on a bulletin board with a clear “sheet protector” under each one. Throughout the school year, students may place their favorite writing pieces, graded assignments, or tests on display, changing at will. Besides showcasing their work, the bulletin board will aid students in spelling one another’s names.
Create a grid with questions students can ask one another, such as “What is your favorite food?” or “How many people are in your family?” On the first day of school, invite them to circulate the room and find a different person to answer each question, recording the classmate’s answer in the appropriate box. The official winner is the person who fills in the most boxes, but the real winners are all the classmates who get to know each other.
Have students write their names vertically on a piece of paper and use each letter to begin a line in a poem about themselves, such as:
Silly and fun
Likes to play soccer
Yes, I’m excited to be in 5th grade!