First Day of School

First Day of SchoolThe most valuable lesson that I learned from all of my classroom management strategies last year was that none of them are as important as what a teacher does on the first day of school.  This did not come as a surprise to me. As a first year teacher, I was told countless times by numerous, experienced teachers, principals, and trusted family members, that the first day of school is the most critical time for establishing effective Classroom Management. There is even a  very popular book written with the title,  First Days of School, by Harry Wong. While I took this advice seriously, it rings more true to me now than ever. Now that I have had a year to reflect on my effectiveness at managing the behavior of two fourth-grade classes, I can see how my classroom management plan was rather vague, at best. I am not disappointed in myself for a lack of effort or for not taking the message and topic seriously enough. On the contrary, I took all of this information very seriously and did everything possible to put a classroom management plan in place for the first day of school. Now, I can see, only one thing was lacking: experience.  The reason that virtually all first-year teachers struggle to manage behavior effectively is that there is no substitute for experience.  There is nothing wrong with the advice I got as a first year teacher. I simply lacked the experienced vision to design an effective classroom management plan.

My First Day of School

Prior to the first day of school, I was not familiar with the environment of my own work-place. Consequently, I learned the every-day routines, procedures, and transitions right along with my students for the first-time. It is impossible to have a plan in place for the unknown. Most of the advice we new teachers receive doesn’t come in the form of such specific details. As a first-year teacher, I had no idea what questions to even ask of my school and principal. I remember the work and detail I put into classroom management prior to my first day of school. I put together a blueprint for how kids were expected to behave in the hallways, classroom and at lunch. I put together a behavior plan with a golden rule at the very top of the chart that said, Serve God. I explained to the students that serving God is the most important thing we can do each and every day and by following this rule we could do no wrong. Obeying the golden rule includes a lengthy list of do’s and don’ts. Some of the don’ts include, talking while teacher is talking,  talking while another student is talking, blurting-out answers. Some of the do’s are, raising your hand to be called-on, silence in the hallways, addressing the principal and priest politely, and appropriately, and treating other classmates with respect.  I also made it clear that when I raise my hand with five fingers, there needs to be complete silence in the room. While we practiced implementing our golden rule on the first days and week of school, I soon learned that my classroom behavior plan was not nearly specific enough about addressing specific events, situations and circumstances of the typical school day. I came to realize that my own initial expectations fell well short of  reality. The biggest mistake I made, however, was how I allowed kids to enter the room on the very first day of school. Later, as I watched videos of other effective teachers on the first day of school, I began to see a very amusing, if not fitting,  analogy:  A teachers is like the conductor of an orchestra.

Good Behavior is Orchestrated

Successful classroom behavior is orchestrated, not improvised. The teacher is like the conductor of a large symphony. The students are the orchestra members and the school-year is the musical score to be played.  The conductor must know every note of the score inside and out. Furthermore, an effective conductor knows exactly what his expectations are from each of his orchestra members. Imagine a conductor who has never looked at the score and lets the orchestra members stumble into their seats and start playing before they’ve been told what and how to play the piece.  It is funny to imagine the results. The loud trumpeter in the back of the room is blurting out notes before his turn. The obnoxious clarinetist consistently screeches out notes in the wrong key. A quiet flute solo is interrupted by a rambunctious string section. A lost oboe player doesn’t know what page everyone is on. The snare drummer is disorderly banging away trying to prove he is louder than everyone else. Some are laughing at the noises coming out of the tuba and the shy piccolo player is asking why she never gets a chance to play. The conductor, meanwhile, is pounding on his podium, pulling his hair-out,  screaming at the top of his lungs, and demanding that everyone play the right notes at the right time. That conductor is me in my first year as a teacher. Like a conductor who was not familiar with his score, I was not familiar with the daily school routine. From the moment the kids enter the classroom until the final bell rings, there are so many situations and events that require a teacher to become a director of acceptable behavior. The experienced teacher is intimately familiar with each and every one of these situations, so much, that many of the routines become second nature to them.  While an experienced teacher at a new school does have to learn new routines, they already know what questions to ask of their school. As a new teacher at a new school, I wasn’t even aware of the most common situations where behavior needs to be orchestrated and taught.  As the school year progressed, I bemoaned the fact that my kids took so long to get ready in the morning, took forever to line-up for specials and lunch, and didn’t do as they were told when they were told, etc., etc..  As my frustrations mounted, I began observing the behavior routine of other experienced teachers. One particular, real-life example that left an indelible mark on me was a YouTube video of a ninth grade teacher conducting his first day of class.

Classroom Management: Day One

The video demonstration below gives a very clear-cut example of how an effective teacher manages his classroom on the first day of school. Mr. Hester knows exactly what his expectations are from his students and conducts his class accordingly. From the second they walk in the door, they are greeted, and told what to do.

From watching the video, I get the sense that Mr. Hester is the kind of teacher who will never have to raise his voice the entire school year. I remember when my principal told me that she believed highly effective teachers never had to yell at their class. Contrast this with a new teacher who has yet to gain a clear understanding of expectations and routines.

Establishing Control of the Classroom on the First Day

New teachers: Don’t be fooled by the calm, polite and cooperative demeanor from fourth grade kids on the first day of school. Kids, are understandably shy and a little nervous on the first day. Never again will I mistake this first-day-of-school-honeymoon for a well-behaved class. I’m embarrassed now to admit that I was a little too proud of myself after my first day. I remember thinking how the kids respected me and keeping them well behaved throughout the year would not be a concern. Boy, was I wrong. I was warned by several other teachers about the honeymoon period in the classroom, but I didn’t take it too seriously. How could I? I was just happy to make it through my first couple of days. As I now know, that temporary, calm, and docile period in the classroom is the best time and place to build the foundation of an effective classroom management program.  This year, from the moment the students first walk in the door, they will get a warm introduction from me and told precisely what to do and what is expected of them while waiting for the opening school bell. This is the time to take control of the classroom. Even though the classroom is likely to already be quiet from the opening day jitters, this is a prime opportunity to establish a precedence for absolute silence when it is expected, while demonstrating them that their teacher is in full control of the classroom. Failure to begin the school year this way will result in kids walking in the room on their own terms and time, gabbing, giggling, pushing and shoving and often not in their seats and ready to work when the bell rings. Silence in the classroom while getting ready for the opening bell, will be my first policy taught on the first day of school. The remainder of that first day and week will include the policies that address the events and routines of each school day – those same routines that I overlooked as a new teacher.

Classroom Behavior Policies are Born from Bad Habits

One of the bigger advantages a new teacher has over a rookie is a familiarity of common behavior habits of students. I’ll never forget how many times my experienced, school-teaching sisters seemed like prophets during my first school year. They would frequently tell me some of the common habits of school children throughout the year before I experienced them for myself. Here are some of the annoying habits of kids that I was warned about which all came true: Tapping me on my back to get my attention, blurting out my name before raising their hands, forgetting pencils, forgetting to put names on papers, not having a book ready, not listening to instructions, and the list goes on. Yet, hearing about these habits and actually experiencing them first-hand are two different things. The latter motivates change. Change requires action and action results in classroom management policies to address the bad habits. There are literally dozens of habits that can hinder the effective management of a classroom. It would be way too restrictive, if not impossible to create a rule or policy for every single undesirable behavior. All teachers have their own style and teaching strategies. It takes experience to know which of these bad habits a teacher finds most annoying and/or detrimental to their own management of the classroom. From my own experience, the most destructive behavior problem of students is talking when they are not supposed to be talking. This is why that first day of school and proper entrance into the classroom is so important. A teacher must have the ability to get the class silent when he/she needs them to be silent. Yet, that is only one issue which requires policy and practice.

Practicing Good Behavior

The rest of my first day this year will be based on practicing specific routines to address the behavior that affected me most last year: When to talk, when not to talk, how to participate in a discussion, how and when to line-up for specials, lunch, and recess, how to behave in the hallways, and how to behave in Church. One thing that really annoyed me as the school year went on was the way kids handed in their papers. Nobody ever took the time to make sure the name was right-side up, some kids weren’t paying attention and turned the papers in out of order, and some kids didn’t turn their paper in at all. I was so annoyed at how a seemingly simple task took so much time. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I never told these kids what I expected and practiced doing it!
How important is that first day of school?

When I look back to my analogy of the frustrated conductor pounding his fists on the podium, it reminds me of how I would have looked in front of an impartial observer. If I saw a conductor acting this way, I would not have much confidence that he knew how to conduct beautiful music. I would think he was frustrated because he was unprepared and failed to tell his musicians what and how to play the piece. While the conductor may not have taken the time to learn the entire score, he knew enough to dislike what he was hearing.  Isn’t the same thing true of a new teacher? While I didn’t foresee all of the events throughout a school day that would require a proactive behavior plan, it became obvious to me when those situations arose and demanded it. This year, I will once again be at a new school, but I will not be a new teacher. I fully intend to take a good look at the score and learn how I want it played before I begin conducting the class. At the very least, I will be conducting instead of reacting. Let the music begin, but not until I raise my baton.

9 thoughts on “First Day of School

  1. Boy, for a new teacher you sure learned a lot! The things you say are spot on. The first day really is critical and that video is a gem! Never, ever should we assume that any task is simple! Always assume that the students need specific instructions and modelling.

    The only thing I will add is that even an experienced teacher runs into new situations. You never stop learning. I believe that good teachers continue to grow and change. Though there are these important and universal basics, every class is different and flexibility to meet the varied demands of each class is essential. But, that us one of the beauties of teaching. Classrooms are as unique as individuals. For that reason alone, teaching is never boring and always challenging and rewarding.

    I can tell you are already a fabulous teacher.

  2. Love this post, and the attached video. I am an experienced teacher, but I always look to see what others are doing and appreciate your sharing of insights and practices. I am sure you are a wonderful teacher.

  3. Is there a remedial Technique for an ongoing class with bad habits? Coming at different times, talking and not paying attention, not bringing homework, not listening to each other, not knowing how to study?

    I have founded very difficult because these behaviours are accepted in other classes because the program calls for communicative activities, pair work, etc,.

    The students are in 8th grade, they are 14 years old and is a mixed ability class, a large group of 43 , boys ang girls

    • I completely understand and sympathize with the challenge you have. Would love to hear other teachers talk about their techniques. I am convinced that the dynamics in some groups of kids make it nearly impossible to do certain things that you would do in other groups. I have a particularly challenging group of fourth graders this year. Despite the clear-cut explanations and procedures outlined in my articles and tips, it almost never goes according to plans. I have really had to curtail certain group activities because they just get too rambunctious. I would try a behavior reporting system. Simply place a name and a mark on your whiteboard anytime a student is not doing what is expected of him/her. I use Class Dojo, but only as a means of tracking a behavior log with a percentage that I can send home to parents. If a student’s behavior drops below 70%, I send them home with the graphic of their student’s behavior compared to the class average. They must bring it back with a parent signature. It is not perfect, but it really has helped. In fact, some kids have completely turned their behavior around because they want to have a good score. IT’s worth trying with 14 year olds. You don’t need to use the cutesy Class Dojo graphics, just use it as a reporting mechanism. Other teachers, please chime-in, especially of middle-school aged. Thanks for writing,


  4. Thanks for a great lesson on classroom management! I will have to tweak it a little for my first graders but it was all very helpful and reminiscent of the style I have aspired toward in the past.

  5. I am a high school math teacher and in my 5th year teaching, my second year teaching at my current school. The district I teach in has a below average graduation rate and has seen some tough times. Our students are allowed to wear hats and hoods in the classroom. Cell phones and head phones use during class time is a big issue. Last year our electronic device rule was “off and away” but it was more like teachers constantly telling students to put them away and students putting them right back on when you walked away or making excuses for using their cell phones. Our students also talk when ever they want, often right over the teacher and during lecture or discussion time. We have students that refuse to do any work or participate when called on. This year administration did implement a new electronic device policy in our handbook that stated that teachers were to confiscate and turn over to the office any electronic device that was in sight. The problem is that a lot of the kids will refuse to turn over their cell phones to a teacher and then end up being sent to the office. I watched Mr. Hester’s videos religiously last Christmas break and decided that I was not going to allow my students to just enter class on their own terms. I have also been strict about eating and head phone use in the classroom. I use a lot of silent gestures to remind students to remove head phones at the beginning of class, but I am agian having students enter class now after several weeks with head phones on and cell phones out until the bell rings. I also have some die hard head phone users who I confiscated phones from this last week, creating a big hassle for admin as they refused to turn them over- one even walked off campus. This next week I will again have to start greeting them at the door and remind each class how we enter and then practice it till it again becomes routine- no visiting, head phones off, cell phones away. I am having an issue with hoods and am getting some resistance from some specific students. I have sent one to the VP and he did remove his hood for the rest of that class period, but continues to wear it currently. Meanwhile several other students in the classroom decided to revolt and they put their hoods up because they claim no where does it say in the rule book they can’t wear hoods and since other students are allowed to wear what’s the difference? These students came from a middle school wear hats and hoods were not allowed but now because our administration doesn’t really support this and considers it a inconsequence that is not worth a teachers time to deal with I rethinking it. I am in a bad place to push the issue. I will continue to ponder this and try to get admin to understand that it is a BIG issue and needs to be addressed.
    Here’s what I have discovered, it isn’t about the head phones and cell phones or hoods. It’s about gaining the cooperation of the students on the little things that then leads to cooperation on the big things like participating in the class room discussions and doing work. When I have to go around and remind individual students every day to remove head phones after class has started, it creates an immediate “negative” climate. If I am allowed to set the expectation from the start they know the policy and know I will enforce it and so will admin then it is their choice. I simply go quietly up to the student explain that they now have to turn over their phone and if they don’t comply then they must leave. I do it quietly without disrupting class but I insist on compliance and consequences for not.
    I did get called in with P and VP because they felt that I was the only teacher having students blow up and had a confusing lecture about while the policy is confiscation, I should do it differently and that if I would just ask them for the phone and write a referral instead of sending them to the office it would somehow at a future time create a more positive atmosphere and those students would decide to cooperate. Of course I disagree. By allowing them the out of just putting the device away I am back in the position of the cell phone monitor instead of the class room teacher and we might as well have no device policy. My P is convinced that acted out of frustration with repeat offenders and that if I would take a more compliant stance allowing them to stay in the classroom then they will magically respect me more and eventually comply. I told them that I would of course do whatever they requested but that perhaps the handbook shouId be changed to reflect that- it was not received very well by my P.
    I do know that when I allow the students to enter the classroom on their own terms – with headphones on, standing around chatting and when I don’t confiscate the device if they use it during class time that it does create a negative climate that no amount of pleading and/or nice calm requests for compliance on my part will magically change it for the positive. What creates the positive atmosphere of cooperation is setting the expectation and following through both for the teacher and administration no matter how painful. Only then can interactions between the teacher and student be positive.
    I had a really wonderful day with a difficult student the very next day after he had head phones on during class time, refused my request to turn it over and had to be escorted out because he also refused to go to the office. The next day he was angry with me at first, but he didn’t even have his head phones hanging around his neck, he asked for all of his back work which I helped him get. Then he asked me look over some of his work with him, which I did and was able to point out several really great steps that he had done on a couple problems. I also pointed out a problem that was incorrect and asked him to find what was wrong, which he finally did. This student usually refuses to correct any mistakes and isn’t interested in anything except getting a D since that is passing. He also told me that he didn’t like to be bored and I praised him for his great work ethics – he was smiling and ended the day with Monday’s work completed. I then ask him if he could help me by assisting another student which he did. This was a positive experience for both the student and I and it came out of a very negative previous day. I am hopeful that administration will understand and support me, but we’ll have to see. The conversation they had me, left me feeling like they don’t trust me, that I acted out of frustration and that I need to be more patient with whole head phone issue by asking for them to put them away first before I confiscate them. This isn’t going work as it hasn’t worked in the past – I just hope that I can somehow help my P. see that or our school will never change for the better and I probably will be looking for a new job – but I will take what I have learned onto the next school and my students will be better for it. 🙂

  6. The First Day in The Classroom is very educational and the Video on Mr. Hester is truly an eye opener and a Gem.

  7. This information can be vey helpful especially, for new Teachers. This research data can be very useful and can be a road map to successful year in the classroom.

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