Making the First Day Count

Do you still get a little nervous on the first day of school? Or, like me, does the nervous energy—with the corresponding sleepless, mind spinning nights— start around August 1?  As you drive to work for that first day, do you notice the same rumbling you felt in your stomach all those years ago, when you said goodbye to your childhood summers and boarded the bus back to school?

Well, if so, you’re in good company. Most every teacher I know, regardless of how many years s/he’s been teaching, still talks about first day jitters…..even if this is the 30th or 40th first day. The nerves are understandable. There’s a lot riding on the first day. How we feel about our students and how they feel about us and our classes will be largely influenced by the impressions we make with that initial hello.

So how can we ensure that we make the first day extraordinary?

Here are three guiding principles (and two very strong suggestions) for making the first day count in all the right ways.


Start Building Relationships Now

This is crucial. Make students feel welcome. Help them to feel honored and valued. Show interest in their lives, and demonstrate that you respect them as people and as learners.

What Does this Look Like?

First impressions matter. Greet them at the door. Smile. Shake their hands, and welcome them. Consider what will be your first words to them. What will your words, and your nonverbals, communicate?

Tell them some things about your bio. Consider having a letter written to them (here’s a sample) telling about your education, experience, hobbies, etc. Remind them that you’re an interesting person who has a life outside the classroom….just like they do.

Ask about them. Distribute a student inventory (examples are numerous online). Consider ways you might use technology for this purpose. Have them use pictures or stories to tell you about their lives….their interests and loves.

Have them talk to each other. Chances are high that you expect them to collaborate throughout the year. What better time to help them start learning about each other than the first day? Consider a classmate scavenger hunt or some get to know you games. Again, the Internet is a great resource.

Caution here: If you value it, they will, too. If you tell them why it matters and believe what you’re saying, they will believe it, too. If you don’t, or you’re a bit hesitant, or give the impression that it is hokey, it likely won’t work well. Let’s be clear though: This isn’t necessarily an issue with the activity. It may be a problem with the delivery.

Set the Bar High

You don’t have to tell them that you’re going to hold them to high expectations. Just do it.

Start right away. Have a well-planned, purposefully-paced lesson for the day. Ask open-ended questions. Give them time to think, write, and talk about their answers. Keep it moving. Thank them for their attention (even when they’re struggling to give it). Tell them why it matters that they show mental fortitude.

When you see what you want, praise it. Acknowledge the courage that it takes to put yourself out there when you’re not sure of an answer. And let them know that you’re going to push them to think deeply and to leave the safe zone of easy answers. Tell them that you know it can be a little scary but that you’re in it together.

Do you see what you’re doing here? You’re challenging them without coming down on them. You’re pushing them without lecturing. You’re giving them a vision for who you know they can become. And I promise you….it’s working. It’s building trust and enthusiasm because it’s based in belief and passion. They can feel it, just like you can.

Model What You Expect

Rather than talking at them for the entire period, what would it look like to show your students your passion for your subject and your love of learning? To communicate with them what makes your class unique and how they can be successful?

Give them opportunities to do the things they’ll have to do during your class. Give them feedback, framing everything as a chance for growth. Tell them something like,

In this class, it’s going to be really important for us to work together to solve problems. This will require each of you to contribute your ideas, to challenge each other, and to have a solutions-oriented mindset.

Then give them an open-ended question (connect it with the course’s content or goals), offer a few minutes for discussion. At any point, bring them back together (this will allow you to establish how you’ll signal for their attention) and give them feedback.

Phrase your feedback in the Positive, Suggestion, Positive+ model:

Positive: I really appreciate that you all got right to work when I asked you to do so. That’s an excellent use of time.

Suggestion: I’d really like you to be sure that each person in the group offers an idea or asks a question. If you’re the _________ person in the group (enter adjective like oldest or tallest), can you make sure that happens this time?

Positive+ a clear instruction : The commitment to teamwork you’re showing will help us accomplish our goals this year; each of you has something important to offer, (+ clear instruction) so let’s make sure to contribute at least one idea.


Hold Off On the Syllabus

Simply put, this can wait until Day 2 (or later). Students are anxious. They’re tired. They haven’t sat still for more than five minutes all summer. And we welcome them to our classroom with a multipage document that outlines our rules and expectations?   (To be fair, there are ways to make this engaging, and if you insist on reviewing your syllabus on Day 1, please do so in a way that does not involve standing in the front and reading the document). But could we consider an alternative? Certainly, we need to communicate our expectations. Let’s just think about ways to do it that might help students be excited about coming back the next day.

Content? Maybe.

Some folks suggest starting Unit 1 on Day 1. This is fine but not required. Really, Day 1 is about developing a mindset and communicating the routines and procedures of your classroom. It’s about creating excitement and getting students talking…in a good way….about your class. A rush to get right into the textbook at the expense of focusing on some of these other goals could cost you more time in the long run. That said, if you can accomplish these primary purposes using your content….go for it.


Here are your major jobs on Day 1:

  • Build relationships. Be compassionate. Honor the personhood of each member of your class, including yourself.
  • Set the bar high
  • Show passion. Be unique.
  • Model what you want, and praise them when they give it.

Here’s to a great first day, (a less anxious second day), and your best school year yet. Welcome back!

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