First-Year Teaching For Dummies
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Your first week with students is a lot like a first date. In both cases, you don’t know each other very well, so conversation is awkward and forced. Therefore, you need to have a full agenda planned so that none of those awkward lulls in conversation cause the chemistry between you to fizzle. Other than learning names and assigning seats, what should you try to accomplish during the first week? Great question.

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Addressing administrative tasks

Nothing says “first week of school” more than paperwork, rules, expectation setting, and more paperwork. Although these tasks are routine, they’re nonetheless crucial.

Highlight important classroom rules

Now’s the time to address the rules most important to you, including hall-pass rules, dismissal rules, and rules foundational to the way you conduct your class. Any nontraditional rules or procedures need to be addressed so that students get time to acclimate to them.

Co-author Mike says: For example, I gave no credit for any math homework assignment that was incomplete, rather than constantly spending time determining how many points partial assignments earned. Either you tried all the problems or you didn’t — to me the effort mattered more than the correctness as students learned new skills. Because this rule is rather odd and strict, I always highlighted it on the first day. Every year, it caused ripples of panic. “What if I don’t understand how to do one of the problems? Am I going to get a zero?”

I explained how I wanted students to attempt problems, even if they ultimately got them wrong, instead of just leaving them blank. As long as you tried, you got full credit, and if you had no idea how to even begin, you’d still get full credit if you wrote a few sentences explaining what was hanging you up. That way, we could jump straight to remediation.

For more detail on creating classroom rules that suit your personality, and for everything you need to know for your first year as a new teacher, check out our book First-Year Teaching For Dummies.

Discuss emergency and safety procedures

Students need to know what to do in case of any emergency, from fire to zombie apocalypse. Mike will never, never, never forget the safety lecture delivered by his tenth-grade chemistry teacher. During it, she talked about how dangerous it was to wear loose-fitting clothing while performing experiments. “Think about someone you have a crush on, someone that matters to you, someone who you either write love notes to or wish you could. What if they had loose sleeves and one caught fire over a Bunsen burner? As the teacher, it’s my responsibility to rip their shirts off and throw them, half-clothed, into the safety shower.”

You could hear a pin drop. The room was awash in silence and hormones. Message received. Chemistry was going to be the sexiest class anyone had ever taken. Turns out nothing could be further from the truth, but it was still effective. Mike still rolls up his sleeves if he sees so much as a candle.

Distribute school-furnished supplies and equipment

Make sure to set the expectations about caring for these items. Books should come back without writing in them or torn/folded pages, and laptops should come back in the same operating condition, without missing keys or a cracked screen. Make sure to complete whatever inventory control forms the school requires to ensure that all equipment is returned.

Explain your grading system

Whether you use total points, categories, or a blindfold and a dartboard to assign grades, enlighten your students to your computational method as soon as you can. If you expect them to keep a journal or portfolio, explain how you want it organized and how often you’ll collect it. Will you allow partial credit or is it all or nothing? Do you give multiple-choice tests or do you fancy essays?

Surprises are nice, and they keep things fresh, but you don’t ever want your grading system to be a surprise. Parents and administrators alike tend to frown on things like that. For example, if you insist on students using pencil in your class, you’d better let them know before your first assignment and give them time to buy the supplies they need.

Distribute introduction cards to collect information

We suggest using half of a letter-sized sheet of cardstock, so you can print two cards per sheet. Introduction cards are your way of learning more about the student and who you will be contacting at home if the need arises. On your introduction card, ask for the following:
  • Student full legal name and nickname/preferred name
  • Student home address
  • Student birthdate
  • Student email
  • Parent/guardian full names, home addresses, cellphone numbers, and e-mails (don’t assume that parents have the same last names or home addresses)
  • Student’s most trusted teacher in the building (where they’d feel comfortable going for emotional support should something happen)
  • Anything you want the teacher to know about you
Co-author Flirtisha says: Add questions that fit your personality. For example, I asked each student to identify their personal theme song, the song they wish would play when they entered the room. (I also told them to pick songs that have school-appropriate lyrics.) I read through my introduction cards over and over during the first week of school, honoring the effort they made by answering my questions. Each year, I make a master list of the theme songs they choose, and every once in a while, I’ll have one playing when the kids walk into class. They love it: “That’s my song! You actually read my card!” Then I cross that song off the list and make sure I play all of them by the end of the school year.

Elementary students may need help completing their introduction cards, so you might need to send them home to get filled out. Secondary students can complete them during class. You can list the questions on the board and have students write their answers on 4-x-6 index cards while you go around the room learning names on the first day. That way, everyone is occupied if they’re not digging the name game.

If you’re a secondary teacher, consider asking students to identify their preferred pronouns and preferred gender identity. Remember, your roll is not to make a judgment call on their lives. Acknowledging these preferences reinforces your willingness to meet them at their level. We know that some are diametrically opposed to the idea of preferred pronouns and gender, and in those cases, we would expect teachers, at the very least, to address students by their preferred nickname.

Discuss any major projects for the year

Outline each of the major projects for the upcoming school year, especially any projects that are going to require multiple steps and stretch out over a lengthy period of time.

List the field trips you’ll take

Field trips are a welcome respite from day-in, day-out drudgery, and discussing the field trips you will take during the school year gives students something to look forward to.

Explain how to get extra help

You’re not only expected to teach students during school hours, but also as requested (on a reasonable basis) after school. In our district, our contractual working hours extended 20 minutes beyond the close of school, and we were expected to tutor any of our students (without cost, of course) who needed help during that time. Realistically, you’ll be tutoring longer than that. You’d be a monster if you stood up at the end of those 20 minutes and said, “Well, my workday’s over; see you later, alligator.”

Ask your students to schedule tutoring, instead of showing up randomly. You don’t get much time during school to take care of personal matters, so sometimes when the day ends, you need to blaze out of that building like a comet to make a dentist appointment, mail a package, drop the dog off to get shampooed, or address whatever other pressing errand is on your plate.

Co-author Mike says: I always told parents, “I’m available every day after school for any kind of tutoring help your child may need, and I don’t mind staying as long as it takes. However, your student needs to take the initiative and set up an appointment with me at least 24 hours in advance so that I can rearrange my personal schedule to match.” There’s nothing rude about asking for a little common courtesy, just as long as you explain your terms upfront. I also set up a weekly Study Buddy Day, which worked very well for me.

You’ll have a lot of stuff to cover during the first week, but we have faith that you’ll get through it all and get the year started with positive momentum and a huge playlist of theme songs!

Breaking the ice

By now, you’re probably stressed about all the things you’ll need to accomplish quickly. Don’t forget that you’re not the only one making a big adjustment as the school year starts. Kids who have never been in school (we’re looking at you, kindergarten and first-grade teachers) may very well be traumatized. Other young kids may be having a hard time adjusting from one teacher to another.

The attachments at that age are deep, and there may be a weaning period from “Mrs. Wilson, my last year teacher who was always so nice, and who was my favorite teacher of all time” to you. Don’t worry; they’ll come around. Younger kids really want to like you. Sometime in middle school, though, a big paradigm shift occurs, and the students realize that it’s much more fun to begin the school year not liking the teacher.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

W. Michael Kelley started as a high school math teacher and has spent 30 years teaching and training people of all ages. Carol Flaherty is a 25-year veteran elementary school teacher who spent most of her years teaching first and fourth grades. Flirtisha Harris has been teaching secondary school for more than 20 years in Texas and southern Maryland.

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