This article was written by Adam Hatch - UC Berkeley graduate, son of a teacher, brother of a teacher, and a teacher himself. Adam started a unique English school in Taipei, Taiwan, where kids learn to research and write articles in English. The articles are published on the first ever English newspaper written by kids in Taiwan, called the Taipei Teen Tribune.
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The first day of class is the hardest day. You are back to square one with a group of students who might not know you and who could be less than ecstatic with having to come back to school five days a week. Earning the respect of your students is certainly an uphill climb, but if you follow these steps, you’ll have their attention long before the three o’clock bell rings.
1. Pick their seats.
Some teachers think giving students the freedom to pick their seats is a way of signaling you respect their decisions and want to give them some degree of freedom. And for some classes, especially older ones, this might have some merit. However, you should still have a seating chart for day one, and optimally for at least the first few weeks of class.
This accomplishes a few things. First, it takes all the calculation and stress that goes with it away from the students. Second, it’s the first thing they’ll notice in your class – you’ve made the decision about how things are going to operate. Finally, it largely randomizes where students are seated, so you are more likely to avoid friends sitting next to each other and chatting it up on day one. You can adjust the next day or week if needed, but have a prepped seating chart ready to go to set the tone.
2. Tell them about the class and your expectations.
The first day of class should be about getting to know each other and getting to understand the material, as well as hopefully doing some work, but it’s imperative you take the time to explain the basic boundaries of your class. Before you explain anything else, before any ice breaker games, establish the kind of behavior you expect and what your specific class rules are.
It’s not enough to just tell students what your expectations are, however. They can shrug off an explanation. Instead, engage students. Ask them why they think you set the rules like you did. Ask them if they can agree to abide by the boundaries you’ve set. Get them to talk about what they would want to change and why. This activity is especially effective with students from about the third grade onward.
3. Move around the room.
I’ve never understood teachers who just want to sit at their desks or stand up at the front. Classrooms are a teacher’s territory, and students need to see that you can teach from any corner and are observant of every nook and cranny. While you talk, walk around. Look at students, up close and far away
Walking around the room has a few benefits. First, students shouldn’t be allowed to get up and walk around at a whim, so it marks a degree of authority, at least subconsciously. It also indirectly lets students know they can’t hide in a corner or in the back. You’re going to be all over the place, and they are thus responsible for engaging you and the material. Finally, it’s decent exercise. Sure, it doesn’t feel like much, but add up the few thousand steps you take around your classroom per day over a year, and we’re talking pounds off the waist region.
4. Warm – strict, 100%.
There is a teaching technique called “warm-strict” developed by Uncommon Schools. This technique can be difficult to master, but once you do, it is the perfect attitude to carry most of the time in your class. It means being empathetic and caring and understanding, but also firm in your expectations and authority. So, when a student breaks a rule, you must enforce the consequences, but do so without relish. Your response should be, “I’m sorry you chose to do that” rather than “this is what you deserve.”
Related to this idea is another technique called “100%”. This technique insists that students live up to your expectations and directions completely and totally. If you ask everyone to put their pencils at the top of their desks, you shouldn’t begin speaking only after all pencils are on desks – you need to wait until all pencils are at the top of all desks. This might sound pedantic and overbearing, but it communicates to your class that you mean literally what you say and your expectations are clear and consistent. When you don’t make sure directions are followed 100 percent, you teach your class that not everything you say needs to be listened to.
5. Avoid getting “buddy buddy”.
This is a common mistake new teachers make, and one that I made my first year. You aren’t there to be friends with your students, you are there to be their teacher. Students are fun and interesting and will want to engage, but in order to give them your best, you also need to establish that you are the authority.
Don’t get me wrong, you can develop a friendship with your class as the year moves on, after everyone is used to and appreciates boundaries and rules. This just means that on day one, friendship is not your priority, establishing a firm and healthy class culture is. Once you’re there though, you have plenty of room to be the cool teacher.
6. Get to work.
This is straightforward – on day one, make time to actually start doing work. This not only gets the class started on the material, but it also establishes that you are not going to dawdle and that work is the main concern of each session. You might be tempted to spend the first class playing ice breaker games or just talking about the syllabus, or even just getting to know each other, but that’s a waste of time. You have all term or all year to get to know each other, but you also have plenty of work to do and a group of students who need to see that you take it seriously. Don’t waste time, even on the first day.
7. Show you know your business.
Some teachers show their authority by barking at kids, others show it by being unduly strict. Others throw punishment around like it’s a dodgeball in PE class. These are bad ways of establishing authority.
The best way is to just be really good at your job. Be confident, be able to answer questions, and when you get to work, explain the material really, really well. As a matter of fact, plan your first lesson to make yourself stand out as a teacher. Wow your class with what you know and what you will be able to teach them. There is nothing like confidence in a teacher’s ability to educate for gaining the respect of a class.
8. Be prepared, be organized.
A great way to lose both the attention and respect of your class is to come across as flustered and scrambling. Avoid this by making sure you have prepared for every little thing before a single student walks into class.
If you are providing books or materials, have them ready to go, along with your system for issuing them to students. If you are passing out papers, put them on desks before students even come into the classroom. Have a warm up question ready to go. Be at the door ready to greet each student individually. Have name tags on desks, shelves, books, wherever you need them. Do you see where I’m going with this? When students walk in and see you are on top of your game, they will get into the groove of learning a whole lot sooner than if you’re rushing around trying to scramble for the basics. Be on the ball.