Surviving the First Day of School: A Checklist for Terrified New Teachers

Surviving the First Day of School: A Checklist for Terrified New Teachers
Monica Fuglei August 14, 2013

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Tips and Tricks for the Terrified New Teacher

Nothing quite prepares new teachers for the first day of school, even years of higher education and months of student teaching. First-time teachers are likely to feel anxious about making mistakes, lesson plans going awry or being disliked by their students.

However, if a new teacher dedicates the first day of school to connecting with students, building a positive classroom culture and getting the class eager to return on the second day, they have already taken the first steps to a great year.

First day in the classroom: a fail-safe checklist for new teachers

New teachers have a lot on their minds the first time they step in front of their own classroom. This checklist includes all the necessities for a successful first day — and little touches that have a big positive impact.

Take a breath!

If the first day of school brings stress or anxiety, taking a minute to take a deep breath, in through the nose and out through the mouth, can really help. Circular breathing reduces stress levels and is a good silent means of dealing with anxiety. Arriving early on the first day ensures time to be sure everything is in its place there are a few minutes to relax before students arrive.

Prepare more activities than you think you’ll need

Most teachers agree: preparation is essential on the first day of school. Education World advises that mastering the first day is about overplanning, overpreparing and overfilling first-day lesson plans. Everything in the lesson can be adjusted later, but for the first day what seems like too much might be just enough.

Greet students and introduce yourself

The simple act of standing by the door and greeting each student as he or she enters the classroom helps students feel recognized and builds trust. In fact, in a study published in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, students who were greeted at the door by their teacher showed a 27 percent improvement staying on task in the first 10 minutes of class.

While back-to-school activities often allow teachers to meet students before school starts, it is still important for students to get to know their teacher on that first day of class. Taking time to share some history or personality on the first day can pay off in terms of creating a relationship with students.

Set (and model) classroom rules and expectations

Future teacher Ashton P. worries that her students won’t take her seriously due to her laid back personality and low-key classroom, but if she can establish her class expectations on the first day, she’ll have good luck maintaining them throughout the school year. A high-quality introduction includes information not only on who you are, but also how your classroom works.

Establishing classroom patterns also lets students know what to expect right away. For example, if students will journal daily or weekly, a brief writing assignment on the first day sets the expectation that writing will be a regular part of their classroom routine. A finished take-home item or project is nice as well; it gives students a sense of accomplishment on their first day, particularly if they can return home with a tangible item to show to their parents.

It is also important that students are familiar with the classroom environment. Once they’ve met their teacher and fellow students, allow them some time to explore. Consider a brief scavenger hunt for younger students to learn the classroom and all it has to offer.  Older students might not need such an introduction, but it is still important to point out the major areas of interest in the room.

Learn about your students and help them learn about each other

Because students learn best when they are comfortable, a next best step is an ice-breaker to allow students time to learn classmates’ names and identities.  In the NEA’s Works 4 Me section, teacher Erin Kelly suggests reading “The Giving Tree” to students, asking them to write or draw what they intend to give back to the class, then displaying their work on Back to School night. This can really help establish camaraderie among students as everyone prepares to tackle the school year together.

Teachers also benefit when students introduce themselves. Learning students’ names as soon as possible is a crucial component of student engagement.

Leave students looking forward to the next class

Elementary educator Kristin Ketteringham notes that the first day of class should introduce students to their curriculum. Teachers can engage younger students with fun facts about the subject(s) they’ll study, or lead older students in a discussion of how the course relates to everyday life or a current event. Show students their textbooks and give a summary of what they’ll study over the year. If there are particularly fun field trips or projects on the schedule, give students a teaser to pique their interest. Finish the day at a high point; let students leave feeling excited to come back tomorrow.

Take notes on challenges and successes

Consider consulting with a teacher-mentor or teaching team at the end of the day to discuss first-day challenges and successes.  Taking good notes about the highs and lows of the first day will help you tackle future first days with more confidence. Finally, teachers can relax a bit, knowing everyone is ready for a great school year.

Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current adjunct faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

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