Do you remember your first day of school? It has been nearly 40 years for me, but I still remember my mom walking me to school on my first day of kindergarten in Hobbs, New Mexico. I remember her holding my hand tightly as we crossed the street. I remember her telling me that it was going to be great and that I was going to learn so much. I remember walking across the schoolyard playground where I had spent many afternoons, but somehow it was different today. I remember opening the school door and smelling the remnants of the school breakfast coupled with the smell of cleaners. The hallway floors were brighter that morning than they would be for the next 9 months. I remember mom walking me to my classroom and helping me find my desk. I remember finding my cubby and putting my Peter Pan lunch box in it and finding out another boy in our class had the same Peter Pan lunch box. I just knew he and I would be great friends. I remember my colors. I had a whole box of unbroken, unused crayons. They were beautiful and they were mine. I remember my teacher talking to me for the first time. She spoke softly but firmly, and then she put her hand on my shoulder to let me know everything was going to be ok. I remember looking out the window at the playground when the bell rang. I remember seeing my mom walking away from the school and I remember she was crying... just like me. I remember my first day of school.
I couldn’t tell you what happened on the majority of days after that first day, but that first day is seared into my memory. The smells, the sights, the noises, and the anticipations are all still easily retrieved in my mind. To this day when I walk into an elementary school, there is always something that takes me back to that day. There is something so special about the first day of school for a new learner. It is scary and exhilarating and fun and hard and crowded and lonely all at once. It is the start of the single greatest intellectual growth journey anyone will ever take. These little ones walk into that building unaware of the world around them and they leave 12 years later ready to contribute to society. Amazing!
Teachers: do you remember your first day when you walked into your classroom and you were in charge?
Do you remember the anticipation as you parked your car, wondering if you were really ready to be in charge? Do you remember the second guesses as you walked to the school building? Do you remember bouncing emotionally between feeling prepared and wondering if you are really up for the challenge? Do you remember seeing your students come into your room for the first time and the empty feeling in the bottom of your stomach as you watch their faces and listened to the talk and saw their interactions... and you began to realize that you must be in control of all of these? Do you remember your first day as a teacher? Do you ever stop and think that those students who walked into your classroom on that first day will leave your classroom in 9 months one step closer to independence and being a contributor? Amazing!
There is something truly special about this time of the year.
Whether the student is a brand new to kindergarten or is a returning middle or high schooler, there is something special about the start of school. Summer break is a great time for rest and fun and work and lots of things other than a primary focus on school. But the best thing that summer break offers is an opportunity to start over this school year. The students who didn’t do as well as they should have last year have a new clean slate this year. Last year’s trouble makers may be known to the faculty, but when they walk in on that first day they are walking in with a clean slate. That shy little girl who couldn’t work up the nerve to speak in class last year is starting over this year. The knot in her stomach will be churning when she walks down the crowded hall for the first time, but she is walking the hall with a clean slate. None of the kids have a mess up or a social disaster or an academic failure sitting on their shoulders for this school year. The first day of school is one of life’s rare times when people get to start over.
Teachers, the first day of school may seem routine to you if you are a seasoned teacher, but it never gets routine to your students. Use the magical excitement of the first day to challenge your students to be better than before. Spend time on the first day helping your students truly understand that they get a start over today, something not offered very often in life. On the first day they can truly reframe the perception the teachers, their friends, and the other people in the school have of them. The shy girl should be encouraged to make her voice heard. The troublemaker should be explicitly told that he is starting over and that he controls what people think of him. The students who struggled last year should be reminded that this year is new and last year’s struggles stayed with last year.
The first day of school is almost like a mental “Etch-a-Sketch”: Summer break was the big shake... and the first day, students are starting with a clean screen to paint their personal picture upon. Teachers can be the influence of what that picture ends up being. The first day of school affords a true conversation with all of your students where you can honestly say that they will control your opinion of them, because you are just now getting the opportunity to truly know them. Tell them that you are rooting for them to make a great impression. Tell them that you are rooting for them to make friends. Tell them that you are rooting for them to show the other students how they have grown during their time apart.
Many teachers want to lay down the law the first day of school and set a tone of unrelenting discipline. While I firmly believe in classroom rules and discipline, this hard-edged approach takes that clean slate and shades it with tempered expectations. The hard-edged approach tells your students that you don’t trust that they will act the way they should act. It tells them that you are there as their disciplinarian as much as their teacher. Is that really the message you want them to hear?
The first day of school is special. A clean slate is an opportunity that can be fostered and nurtured. Tell your students your rules, but couple those rules with an excited anticipation of the days to come. Think about going to a movie: The best part of the movie is usually the previews before the actual movie begins. Nearly every preview elicits reactions that surpass those of the actual movie. That is because the previews offer a glimpse of things to come and that is exciting. It builds anticipation.
What if... you make the first day of school your preview?
What if... you couple the rules of the classroom with a synopsis of the wonders of learning that your students will come to know?
Some of you may be shaking your head thinking that what you are teaching is not exciting enough, but that can’t be true. If you are teaching it then it is necessary-- and if it is necessary then it should be taught. Since it should be taught that means you were trained to teach it-- which means somewhere along the way you had a passion for what you are teaching. Make the first day of school the day when you revive your passion for teaching and give your students a preview of the days and weeks and months to come. Let them see you loving the knowledge you are going to impart and let them see your passion.
The first day of school is the day of starting over for your students. Make it your “Etch-a-Sketch” day as well. Recapture that knot in your stomach of excited anticipation. Remind yourself why you became a teacher and then look at your students as your blank slates upon which you have the privilege of painting life’s lessons. Is there anything more exciting than the first day of school??