Why a Teacher’s First Day of School Matters so Much
August 16, 2016
On my first day teaching at a continuation high school in San Francisco, I got it all wrong. It wasn’t my fault; I didn’t know better. I’d taught for only one year in a small, Washington State town where the baseball field shared space with a cow pasture. One look at my new, sophisticated city students should have told me I wasn’t in Washington anymore, and the chaos that ensued became fodder for the first chapter of my novel, available here.
However, it wasn’t just that I trotted out the (unpopular) rules on the first day, or that I handed out text books (more on pitfalls of those in future blogs). What I have come to learn is that, no matter if I’m teaching students who struggle or students who are supposed to excel academically, the number of days I have students in class is too precious to waste on rules the first day. I need to know, as soon as possible, who my students are and what they need first from me.
And that involves writing. I love writing on the first day for many reasons, one of them being that no going over of rules makes a class sit up as straight as a first day, hour-long writing assignment. But the reason for that assignment is the crux of my philosophy of teaching: 1) Students who struggle are going to hide their academic struggles for as long as they can, so I need to find out right away where they need help 2) All students are looking to connect (exactly like all humans look to connect) and the more I know about those students on day one, the better I can connect with them and help them connect with each other.
The writing assignments I give on the first day aren’t difficult. I ask students to write at least 3, 5 sentence paragraphs on three topics: 1) Tell a story that your body would tell about you. 2) Describe a meal you love. Who makes it? What makes it so good? 3) Describe the one activity you’ve done in school that you really loved.
While students are writing, I look for who doesn’t know where to put a period or who doesn’t know that the words on the left side margins need to line up. I look for who doesn’t indent and who had difficulty with the directions. I tell the class that I don’t want them to begin any sentence with a conjunction, then explain conjunctions and take note of who still has conjunctions beginning sentences. These are all of the students who are able to hide these skill gaps when answering short-response questions or multiple-choice questions. They are good at mimicking answers from other students’ papers, so learning the first day who has trouble with basic writing tasks (there are always at least 2 students in every high school class I’ve ever taught) informs which students will need a little more attention from me.
Students are then asked to share out one of the three writing prompts. I want them to not feel over-exposed, so I give them choice on which topic they share. Sharing out may take a class period in and of itself. That’s okay with me because sharing out serves a purpose: Writing prompt #1 connects students’ life experiences to those experiences shared by their classmates. Everyone can laugh because everyone is okay now. I also know who took care of that particular student if their story involves them getting hurt. That is the adult I’ll call first when I need to check in about that student. Writing prompt #2 connects students with each other when they hear that they share the same food preferences, or students get to hear about new cultural food preferences. This prompt also lets me know who is or who is not cooking meals for that student at home. Writing prompt #3 lets me know if there is a way I can connect interesting activities students have done in the past with activities I have planned for our class. Students do notice and I do point out when I’ve made that effort on their behalf.
My students know that not completing this writing assignment is not an option. I make it worth too many points to ignore and keep on them until every student has turned theirs in. Day 3 is a good day for rules. My students already know by then that what I value most in the classroom is hard work, community, shared experiences, and individual needs. A list of rules is just extra at that point.