Running · Teaching

Surviving the First Day of School: A Guide for New Teachers

For new teachers, the looming first day of school is bound to cause a little tossing and turning the night before. Middle and high school kids can seem really intimidating- until you meet them! If you have a plan of action for that first day of school, none of your students will even know you’re a first-year teacher (unless you tell them)! Here’s a few things you should do to make sure that first day (and beyond) goes as smoothly as possible.

Figure Out Your Desk Arrangement

There are tons of ways to arrange student desks, and how you choose to do it depends largely on your grade level, subject area, and your personal preference.

For middle school language arts, I always like my default desk arrangement to be pairs of desks that are sitting in a few rows angled into a semi-circle. This allows for me to see everyone’s faces which is really important at the beginning of the school year. I tried groups one year and quickly realized I wasn’t going to learn names quickly enough if I didn’t have a clear view of every face in my classroom! Having the desks paired also allows for them to move easily into groups of four when the need arises. Pairs of desks are excellent for when you want to throw in a “discuss with your partner” or “think-pair-share” in the moment.

For high school language arts, my preference is to split the room down the middle with one side facing the other. I feel that this allows for lots of informal discussion and debate which is really important in my upper secondary classes.

Really, any type of desk arrangement has its pros and cons. Think about how you intend to run your class and make sure your students are positioned ideally for your format of instruction.

A Seating Chart is a MUST

It does not matter if you plan to be that cool teacher that allows students to pick their own seats. You. Must. Make. A. Seating. Chart. How else are you going to handle having four Noah’s in one class (a true story, by the way)? If the students are shuffling around everyday, it’s going to take you far longer to get names down, and you can’t downplay the importance of learning your students’ names as quickly as possible. I remember students complaining to me one year about another teacher who hadn’t learned everyone’s name by mid-year. Those students did not respect that teacher. Don’t let that happen to you! Additionally, you might change your mind about not wanting assigned seats once you start learn some of the social dynamics of your classes. It’s really difficult to move to assigned seats after allowing choice seating in your classroom. Consider strict seating assignments for the first quarter, then loosening up later.

When you are making your seating chart for the very first time, don’t forget that you need to consider students with accommodations. Review your IEPs and 504s for notes about students that require particular seating. Oftentimes an accommodation for seating is simply listed as “preferential seating” without any specifics. This can often mean front-row seating, but not always. Double check so you don’t find yourself having to change things up too much later on.

Decorate Your Classroom

I don’t think you should necessarily go all-out and head straight to Target to buy cute, expensive, and unnecessary trinkets and bins to start competing with those Pinterest teachers (are they even real?), but it is FUN to start making the space your own, and decorating can help you see your first day start to come together before it gets here. My very first teaching assignment was 6th grade ELA. I drove myself crazy trying to set up a quirky classroom that embodied my personality and sparked creativity in my students. I bought this poster of a fencer squaring off against Darth Vader and one day in freaking APRIL a student pointed it out and the whole class thought I had just hung it up. It was there since August… Anyway, my point is, decorate enough to make yourself feel happy. Students are going to benefit from their relationship with you as someone who provides a safe place for them to ponder and discover the world. That trumps any Pinterest-perfect classroom any day.

Get Your Rules and Procedures Squared Away

Go through the details of how you want your classroom to run from start to finish. Setting up guidelines and procedures for students (especially younger students) is more important than you might think. Do you want your start-of-class routine to be you yelling to get everyone’s attention after the bell rings? Probably not, but your students won’t know that unless you teach them what you expect from them. Put your expectations and procedures in your syllabus and post them clearly in your classroom. It’s ok to just quickly touch on your rules and procedures the first day- the next few days are actually where you want to really make sure students are aware of your expectations. The first day of school is often riddled with schedule changes, late students, and other wrenches that’ll be thrown in your wheels, but don’t let it set the tone for the year.

Get Familiar with Your Classroom Technology

This is really important. Most classrooms are equipped with something you won’t know how to use. So learn it! That document camera that can instantly grade your multiple-choice quizzes might be a life-saver if you know how to use it. Don’t assume you’ll have tons of time later in the school year to fiddle with this stuff. When was the last time you ever heard teachers talking about how much free time they had during the school year?

On a similar note, don’t assume your students will have access to laptops or programs on day one (even if your administration just spent an hour telling you how everything is good to go for the first day) because they just won’t. Even if you plan to have an entirely digital classroom, you need paper copies on the first day. Some kids aren’t going to know their usernames or passwords. If you’re unlucky enough to have a laptop cart *shudders* there won’t be enough working on the first day for all your students. Or, rats will chew through some wires in the media center and the internet in your building will go down for the day (also a true story).

Have First Day Activities Ready to Go!

The first thing you’ll need is a way for your students to find their assigned seats. Because you ARE assigning seats, remember? The easiest way I have found is to number my desks and then print a list of names with the assigned desk number next to them. Direct students to your posted list and they’ll make their way to their desks. This way, they’ll all be sitting exactly where they should according to your seating chart. As you take first day roll, use your seating chart- not your class list. That way you can look each student in the eyes as you say their name instead of calling out names to the room and scanning for a timid hand raise. It’s a much better way to take roll when you don’t yet know your students. And, any sneaky ones that decided to blow off your directions to find their seats will get caught during roll and viola! you have your first demonstration of your high expectations!

I like to immediately jump into something fun rather than pass out the syllabus or even give a proper introduction for myself. You don’t have to do this, but it’s always been important in my classroom that students are comfortable talking and participating so this is how I set the tone. Find an activity that will get students talking and moving around and you should fully participate. This can be something really simple like ice breaker Bingo. The game is a lot of fun if you have a Bingo card too and play along with the students. I find that students are more open to asking me questions after a fun ice breaker activity where I participate.

I recommend getting more activities than you think you could possibly cover in one day. You don’t want there to be any down time on the first day or your students will think your class is going to be a “free period” all year. I also think it’s a good idea to do something related to your content area. I like to introduce a funny, short poem with rhyming couplets and then have my students write their own rhyming couplets about summer or school or something else relevant. I put some up on my whiteboard and the students love it. It’s a great way to diffuse the fear of poetry that many students carry with them into English class.

Your first day will be a whirlwind, and with a little prep, it’ll be a fun whirlwind! Good luck in this new life chapter!

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