This is a first day of school grab bag of the most important things you may experience, and some critical activities and expectations to begin setting.
The first thing to be ready for is a perennial first day activity: the last-minute rush!
Handling the last-minute rush with the right attitude
An elementary teacher should always assume there will be last-minute changes to her class list. It is very important that we are ready to quickly produce another name tag, or another label for a mailbox slot, or obtain another desk.
Because we absolutely do not want the last-minute child to be impacted in a negative way. It's not her fault that she was registered late, so she should never be labeled or branded as a problem of any kind.
Think how you would feel if you walked into a conference room and had to…
- Stand in a corner because there was no chair available
- Pile things on the floor because there was nowhere to put your stuff
- Take notes on your hand-held pad of paper because you had no desk or table
That's a horrifying situation for a child to experience! Humans like to run with the pack, not stand out from the pack.
Even if last-minute changes make for stressful first day of school activities, it's worth it to make your classroom a perfectly welcoming environment for every single child.
So just expect a bunch of last-minute curve balls, put a smile on your face and do what's best for the kids.
And what's best for kids is establishing some classroom rules and expectations right from the start. For that, we have a perfect opportunity: fire drill practice!
Fire drills and expectations
I discuss setting expectations a lot on this site. My best advice for the first day of school is “start immediately.” Which brings me to fire drills.
Sometimes we forget to prepare our students for the unusual situations, and fire drills fall into that category. But practicing for a fire drill is so much more than an emergency procedure… it covers all kinds of important activities!
It's a perfect opportunity to practice:
- How to get up and push in chairs quietly (happens multiple times a day)
- How to line up and stand in line (another frequent occurrence)
- Walking in the hallway (an extremely important skill that must be reinforced repeatedly)
- How to quietly return to the classroom and take their seats
It's quite a list, and fire drill prep is a perfect excuse to practice all of them.
This practice session may also trigger one of the most-important expectation-setting tools you have available. It's simply called…
“Try it again”
If children don't meet your expectations for pushing in chairs and lining up… reset and “try it again.”
If they can't keep their hands to themselves and be quiet in the hall… back to the room, reset and “try it again.”
This process of redoing things until they get them right reinforces to the students that they are part of a classroom with rules and procedures. And the sooner they learn your procedures, the more smoothly their days will go.
The third time they have to come all the way back to the classroom, sit down, stand up, push in their chairs and repeat the whole process they'll get the point – often because your compulsive rule followers will be reminding others how to do it properly.
Aside from the expectation-setting value of fire drill practice, there are a couple of real considerations:
1. Determine whether you have children who react to the fire drill siren with panic or confusion (or even seizures!). Loud noises can cause a lot of first day of school anxiety for children on the Autism spectrum who have overly-sensitive hearing. Your office staff will know of prior-year issues.
Your fire drill discussion may be a time to let these kids know they will be advised of upcoming fire drills, or that you will help them. For example, I had two boys in my room one year who knew to clap their hands over their ears, then put on headphones from my laptop table to cut the noise as they walked out.
2. It's also a good time to identify a dependable child (you'll know who after a few hours in class) to be the person who manages the fire drill clipboard, turns out the light, and closes the door on the way out while you are managing the front of the line.
All in all, fire drill practice is a great first day of school activity. And when a real fire drill occurs, your class will be more than ready!
Your teacher personality can captivate children
Each year your new class full of eager children is special. And if you show them they belong to a special classroom, you'll have your classroom community and classroom management plan halfway complete by lunch recess!
It all starts before the first bell
I start showing my kids that they're going to be in a special classroom before the first bell even rings. For years, I've used my “magic purple box” to grab their attention right away.
When I walk out to meet my new kids on the first day in school, I carry a sparkly purple box. Every child reaches in and pulls out a slip of paper that includes a day of the week. This day of the week corresponds to the name of a table group at which they'll be sitting for the first day.
Believe me, these table groups don't last. I move children – sometimes daily – all year long. They get used to it, and as personalities and conflicts develop over time these changes have to be made so all children can learn.
However, they have to sit somewhere on their first day, and reaching into a magic box and pulling out their table group makes them feel like they're getting a surprise, and perhaps even finding out who their first-day friends will be.
More to the point, it's something that no other classroom is experiencing – and they can see that. Right from the start on the first day in school, they feel like Mrs. Weigle's room is going to be a little bit different, a little bit more fun…
… and they are going to be special because they get to be part of that.
Your full personality range
I call the personality that I show my children on the first day in school (and every day after that) “sparkly.” It means I'm…
…somewhat different from any teacher they've ever had
…a little bit larger than life
…and certainly different from what they're used to experiencing with their parents.
Everything I do is a tiny bit exaggerated, as if I'm an actor making a point on the stage.
It's an emotional balance
Children need to see some sparkle, but they also need to see hints of your other emotions on the first day in school.
One thing I do to show my personality during the first day is take what I call “bird walks.” If you picture the tracks a bird makes in the sand as it wanders about you get the picture. A few little wandering stories (kept short) that have humorous notes let the kids get to know me a little better.
At some point during the day, my new students will always see a little bit of the stern side of me. There will come a time when a child blurts out and I'll use that teachable moment to show that fun is what we have in my classroom – but we do it according to my rules.
On the first day, we shouldn't get much more than a little stern. I do have a personality that I call “Mean Mrs. Weigle” that they will definitely see a few times during the year. But she never makes her appearance until there has been misbehavior on a classroom-wide scale and they really need to focus on the impact of their behavior as a group.
(Their first day of exhibiting “sub behavior” will often bring this out!)
Again, children need to experience the range of teacher emotions in order to properly monitor and modify their own behavior based on your cues.
All the classroom's a stage and the teachers merely players
~ William Shakespeare (sort of!)
If you are not naturally a person who has a wide range of emotions, then it's something you have to work on or you will never have the classroom impact you hope for. This is especially true on the first day of school.
Being able to project emotion and intent without speaking is powerful. Picture that actor on the stage, expressing exasperation with a simple raised eyebrow or conveying a question with a tilt of his head.
These small movements can be much more powerful than constantly talking, talking, talking at children until all they hear is a droning noise.
Everybody can exhibit this range differently. Even if you start by “acting,” eventually, it will become natural to project a higher, more lighthearted tone of voice most of the time, and a more somber, lower tone at other times. Start with those basics and work from there.
Silence is golden
Don't discount the impact of silence. For example, my kids are instructed from the very beginning that they are never, under any circumstances, allowed to interrupt me. If it happens, I simply stop talking no matter what I'm saying – mid-sentence or in the middle of a lesson – and look at the child.
They know from experience that they owe me a quick apology and the entire class waits until they provide it. That sudden, thundering silence in the middle of a sentence communicates more than any amount of words ever could.
These first day of school ideas should help you add a little sparkle to your act… and win over your kids from the first moment they see you walk out the door.
Tips for handling parents
My first day of school is often interrupted with last-minute interactions involving the parents of my students. Believe me, this can really throw a wrench into your morning.
As you know from other pages on this site, I highly value my relationships with Mom and Dad. They are so crucial to the success of their child in school.
There is no time at all to be wasted the morning of the first day and parents, frankly, tend to be a little bit selfish regarding their purpose. They have taken time off of work for one reason only: To ensure their own child is…
- treated well
- …and just generally going to be OK
It's natural parental instinct. But they also want you to focus on their child as well. That's why Mom showed up early in your classroom, child in tow, to introduce herself. What Mom is really saying is:
Please make Susie feel better about me leaving her alone all day.
I get it. But 15 minutes before the first bell rings I'm still:
- Cutting out name tags and trying to find desks for the additional kids I was just assigned.
- Sorting the stacks of paper the school office gave me that must go home today.
- Trying to pull myself together to greet my kids outside with a smile and a little surprise.
My first day of school is about all of the kids and does not include free time for chatting. But chat we must, at least briefly.
Video tips: handling parents on the first day
Starting the parent-teacher relationship
You must be ready for this to occur, because it will happen every single year. And we absolutely do not want to do anything that will damage the parent-teacher relationship on the first day (or ever, really).
So have your line ready:
Oh, my gosh, it's so nice to meet you and I'm glad you came by to talk to me. This morning I'm really working hard to get all my new students started off right – you can see how much I have going on.”
And push for them to attend the real relationship builder, your open house:
I really hope you're going to come to the open house in a couple of weeks where we can talk in greater depth.”
Then add your nice hint:
I'll see you out on the blacktop in a few minutes, Angela. I'm excited!”
If a parent asks if Angela can just wait in the room, the nice answer is:
It's best for Angela to learn our morning procedure along with the other students. I'll meet you out there in just a few minutes. Go look for my sign!”
Handled properly, your first day of school can be the first day of a long and productive teacher-parent relationship.