Secrets for Secondary School Teachers: How to Succeed in Your First Year (2004)

Chapter 5. Beginning and Ending Your Class on the First Day

Your room is ready. You are sporting your single best outfit, the one that positively glows with confidence that you really know what you are doing (even though you are terrified). You’ve practiced your welcoming smile over and over, although if truth be told, you wonder how much of your apprehension and uncertainty shows.

You’ve written your name, room number, and bell schedule on the board (to avoid embarrassment for the student who has mistakenly entered the wrong room at the wrong time). You stand at the front of an empty room. The bell rings or chimes or buzzes or belches. You move to the doorway. In they come: students who check you out as they walk by, sizing you up and making their predictions about whether you are boring or fun, mean or nice, an easy mark or streetwise to their favorite games.

FIRST CONTACT

No, this isn’t first contact with aliens, but it might feel that way initially. This is the point where you begin, showing confidence and poise, pretending like you know what you’re doing.

“Welcome, everyone!” You smile warmly. “I’m glad to be here, my first day in your school . . .”

The specifics of what you say are less important than the main objective of revealing yourself to the students as someone who does know what you’re doing (most of the time), who is warm and caring, but also unwilling to tolerate disrespect. If you have a sense of humor, show it. But whatever you do, set the tone for what will follow throughout the year.

Make sure you have their attention when you speak. Project your voice so everyone can hear you. Remind students to check their schedules to make sure they are in the right place at the right time. State your name clearly so students will be able to pronounce it.

Give them some background on who you are, but rather than reciting your credentials, tell them a brief story about how you ended up where you are. If you have the technological support, use a PowerPoint presentation to capture students’ attention. Let them know you chose to work at their school. You are promoting yourself in order to reduce your own anxiety level as much as those of the students, who are also wondering about what miseries you will subject them to.

Describe your vision of the class—what the content will be, how the time in class will be spent, what the students will accomplish. Be enthusiastic! Let them know you remember what it was like to be a student, that you know it’s important that things be fun and exciting. You intend to accommodate them as best you can. Stress what they will be able to do at the end of the class that they can’t do now! Let your optimism shine! Your interest and enthusiasm will be contagious.

Move to specifics. Tell them about the various activities they will engage in. If you have samples of the types of projects they might do, you could show them at this time. Let them see an example of the textbook, primary documents, and other resources they will use. Explain your role as a teacher, and your expectations of them as students.

Spend a minute or two on what supplies, if any, they will need—pen or pencil, paper, folder or binder, or any other subject-related equipment. Discuss any lab fees that might have to be paid and how to pay them (for example, go to the school banker). Realize the students may need a couple of days before they can get to the store to purchase what you have asked for or to get the money for the fees. Not all teachers give the school supplies list on the first day. Not all parents are able to take their children to the store the first night. Be patient. Be prepared in the meantime for students to come to class empty-handed for the first few days.

Also be prepared to be tested by someone early in your introduction, some student who is looking for attention, who likes to challenge authority, or perhaps someone who is just playful. Don’t overreact. Just remain calm, poised, and firm. As we said before, show that you have a sense of humor, but don’t tolerate disrespect.

MOVEMENT

You have by now probably reached the limits of how long students can sit quietly without doing something. One of the functions, actually, of the student who acts out is to serve as an alarm clock to let you know that it is time to change the movement, flow, and energy of the class.

Remember, this is the first day of school after vacation. Students have gotten used to their freedom. Most of them resent being back, stuck inside when the weather is still so nice, and there are so many things they would rather be doing. They’ve also got a lot on their minds that have little to do with your agenda: which boys or girls they might like, pressures at home, work and other responsibilities, parties coming up. Also, they are just plain tired, not used to getting up so early.

There are a variety of things you can do at this point. You can ask them to fill out information cards, as mentioned in a previous chapter. You could also get them involved in some type of introductory activity with partners or in small groups. You can have them interview each other, with or without guided questions that you have prepared.

Students can be given a list of questions such as the following to ask a partner:

•   Where were you born?

•   What is your favorite activity outside of school?

•   What is your favorite school subject?

•   What is your favorite food?

•   What kind of music do you like?

•   What is your favorite television program?

•   What did you do over summer vacation?

•   If you could meet anyone in history, who would you choose?

•   What do you think is the most difficult job?

•   Do you have a nickname you prefer to be called?

•   What would you like other people to know about you?

•   If you could live anywhere, where would you go?

Another option is to have students participate in a group consensus activity, such as the following:

In groups of four to six people, find examples of the following items that every person in the group likes:

•   An item of food

•   Television program

•   Song or musical artist

•   Movie

•   Personal characteristic in a friend

Still another variation is to organize a scavenger-hunt type of questionnaire that requires students to interact with others in their search for answers. Or you can simply put them in a circle to get them talking. Whatever you do, however, turn the focus on them in such a way that each person gets the chance to speak.

Of the countless techniques teachers have used to encourage students to get to know each other, there is only one that sticks out in my mind. I had a teacher that made up sheets that had about 20 categories. Each category was something like “Find someone in the room that has the same favorite sports team as you” or “Find someone who was born in the same city as you.” So each student fills in the worksheet by adding a different student to each category. You can never use the same student twice. There can be rewards for the person that finishes first. This instantly makes the students start talking to one another, and as a result, each person learns something about a fellow classmate.

SETTING THE RULES

Toward the end of the period, draw the students’ attention to the topic of class rules. To achieve the goals for the class, some accommodations will have to be made to ensure that the class runs smoothly. Now is the time to review the school rules if you are in a situation where rules for the entire school have been predetermined. If not, you can present the rules you feel are most important. Or, if you choose to be democratic, you can begin discussion with the class and have them give their input on rules. Identify three to five important rules for classroom behavior to simplify your classroom management. Presenting or creating a few specific rules will give you a manageable reference list that can easily be posted for all to see.

One creative variation that is somewhat time-consuming (so you may need to set aside time for it during the second meeting of the class) is to ask the students to work cooperatively in small groups to invent their own rules. Although initially their suggestions may be silly and inappropriate (“We don’t need any rules!”), you will be amazed at how wisely they will create exactly the guidelines that are needed. Your job in this exercise is to draw out of them their own commitment to follow rules they develop for themselves. This allows you, at a later time, to be able to say to them, “Look, you are the ones who decided that nobody should be disrespected in this room. I’m just following through on what you came up with.”

However rules are explained, you must let students know what behavior is expected and what will happen if they don’t follow the guidelines. Be specific and give examples. For instance, if you are bothered by students getting up during the period to sharpen pencils, then tell them, “Pencils should be sharpened before the bell rings. Otherwise, you’ll be writing with dull points.” Explain the purpose of rules—to meet the needs of students for respect and safety and to promote an academic environment in which learning can occur.

SOME SAMPLE RULES

Think of the rule setting as constructive discipline. You are setting up a behavior code that will avoid conflict in the future and provide the students with an environment in which they will be ready to learn. The following examples illustrate the kinds of rules that you might consider implementing. (Again, check your school policies to make sure you are being consistent with them.)

Students should be in their seats when the tardy bell rings. If the tardiness is to be excused or not counted, the student must have a pass. Otherwise, the student must report to the dean’s or principal’s office.

Homework is due at the beginning of the period. The alternative, of course, is that the students will do it during class and turn it in at the middle or at the end of the period. Some teachers prefer to have the homework turned in or placed in a basket before the tardy bell rings, so that students will concentrate on the lesson and not on finishing their homework.

Covered textbooks are to be brought to class every day. This rule must be stressed, especially for students who come from other countries where procedures may be different. Some schools provide copies for students to keep at home and have a class set available for school use. So, this rule will not be appropriate for all.

Books that are covered remain in better shape and last longer. Also, covers give students an acceptable place to doodle, and the desktops will stay cleaner (we hope). The students can change the book covers to fit their moods. Here’s a teaching tip: You can encourage students to put helpful information on the book cover, such as creating time lines for history, or mnemonic devices related to your subject.

Raise your hand and wait to be recognized before speaking. By the secondary level, most students understand the reason for this and are used to the practice of this necessary rule. However, after a break from school, students need to be reminded.

Be courteous and considerate to all students and faculty. Review manners and etiquette. Let students know that swearing will not be tolerated and name-calling is not acceptable. An atmosphere of respect must prevail.

THEORIES AND MODELS OF CLASSROOM DISCIPLINE

There are almost two dozen different models of classroom discipline, each with its own perspective. Although a discussion of classroom management theories is beyond the scope of this book, we feel it is imperative that you give serious thought to your philosophical beliefs on this subject and how you want to manage your classroom. You have already thought about this a lot and discussed it in your education classes. Now is the time to talk to other teachers in your school to find out what has worked best with this particular student population in this specific setting.

Based on your research, develop a policy and practices that are consistent with your beliefs and comfortable for you to implement. The secret is to be proactive rather than to wait for trouble to start. In order to be effective with students, you must be clear and firm. Students will benefit if you provide a supportive structure that is implemented fairly and consistently. When (not if) you experience difficulties, make sure you have given ample time for your selected approach to be implemented before you try another one.

CLASS SYLLABUS

If your class syllabus is available, a logical next step would be to distribute it to your students. If not, at least present the main ideas. First, identify the specific course objectives. Explain the requirements for the class and the evaluation system. The grading scale should be clearly stated. The attendance and makeup procedures should also be carefully explained so as to prevent problems in the future. Set a firm policy on the completion of makeup work and tests. Inform students of your policy on work turned in late. Will it be corrected? Will it be graded? The syllabus sets the framework for the class proceedings. It is worthwhile to commit time and effort to its construction, as it will be read and used by students, parents, and the administration.

GET TO WORK

If there is any time left, start a lesson. Believe it or not, most experienced teachers can get through all the steps mentioned previously and still save some time to address the course content. We are not saying that that is a reasonable expectation for a beginner, but at the very least, be prepared to get into a lesson. By doing so, you will feel reassured that there will be no dead or wasted time.

In your first lesson, be creative and clever. Remember how important first impressions can be. Teach something new that presumes the students have little prior knowledge of the subject (this makes sure everyone is on equal footing). Or, pose a stimulating question related to your subject. Let students leave with something they didn’t have when they walked in the door—a new idea, a skill, an interest, a piece of information, an “itch that needs scratching.”

ENDING THE PERIOD

Don’t let the bell end your class; you end it by timing your final words to be spoken before the bell rings. Advise students to leave in an orderly way. Remind them if there is any homework due. Say goodbye with a smile. Show them you are looking forward to seeing them the next day. Make eye contact and say a few words to as many students as you can when they file out of the room. Remember, this is your home during the school day and you want them to feel that way as well.

TIME CONSIDERATIONS

If you are on an abbreviated schedule on the first day of school and your first meeting with the students is a short one, then two adaptations to this plan are suggested. First, wait to review the syllabus until the second day. You may have additional students enrolling after the first day, and they might not appear until the second day anyhow. Second, instead of explaining all the details of class procedures during this brief class period, use a short, get-acquainted activity in which the students work in pairs or in small groups. Your main goal is simply that they will leave their first contact with you saying to themselves (and one another), “Hey, that teacher’s pretty cool. That class could be interesting.”

A CHEAT SHEET

I (Jeffrey) was so terrified before I taught my first class that I actually wrote out a “cheat sheet” of notes for myself, because I thought for sure I would forget one of the 2,000 different things I wanted to remember. But the idea of bringing notes or an outline with you is a good idea.

The following is a suggested agenda for “Day One:”

Greeting

Say “Good morning” or “Good afternoon.”

State your name.

Identify the room and subject.

Introduction of Yourself

Say who you are and where you came from.

Tell about how you came to be a teacher.

Mention your interests related to the subject and outside of school.

Introduction of the Subject

Describe the topics of study.

Mention typical class activities.

Show a sample of projects or products.

Show the textbook.

Introducing the Students to Each Other Through an Activity

Have students introduce themselves and/or share collected information with the class and/or collect written responses.

Class Rules

Discuss the importance of rules.

Present a list or have students develop their own rules.

Distribution of the Syllabus

Go through the syllabus and answer questions students might have regarding grades and assignments.

A Quick Lesson

Briefly engage the students in an activity related to your subject.

Dismissal

Remind students of what they need to be doing before next class. If possible, end on a dramatic note. At the very least, say goodbye in a warm manner.