14 Things Teachers Should Never Do on the First Day of School

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14 things teachers should never do on the first day of school
photo credit: Noa Strupler via photopin (license)

It’s the first day of school. Your only chance to make a first impression. Your students will be intrigued, energized, and excited about you and your class. Or they’ll dread coming back. Rarely, is there anything in between.

If you prefer the former, there are many things you should do. But your success is almost guaranteed if you stay clear of the following.

14 things you should never do on the first day of school

1 – Read from the student handbook

Distribute it and tell them to take it home, go through it with parents, and bring back every signature page that it contains–signed, of course. Remind them of its value; then, leave it alone.

2 – Discuss classroom rules

There’s only one guideline that matters: Treat everyone as you want to be treated. Build on this throughout the year, and soon you’ll have a courteous, respectful learning community.

3 – Distribute a syllabus

You have 150-plus school days to focus on curriculum. Avoid it on Day 1, when you’ll be much better served building rapport, practicing your self-deprecating humor, and learning just who your students are.

4 – Assign seats

Sure, you don’t know who the kids are, and you feel compelled to seat them alphabetically or by some other prefabricated seating chart. Forget it. As they walk in, tell them to sit anywhere they like. As you become acquainted, you can seat them in a place that suits them and your class.

5 – Seat students in rows

Rows of desks or chairs scream “The teacher intends to lecture.” Send this message, and you may lose the bulk of your students before you even say Hello.

6 – Hand out textbooks

As noted in item 3, you have nine months for instruction. Sending kids home with a 30-pound backpack will discourage them faster than talking about “The Test” (see item 7).

7 – Talk about “The Test”

Students hate standardized testing, nearly as much as teachers. So, why bring it up on the first day of school?

8 – Say you’ll need weeks to learn your students’ names

For far too many years, I announced to students on Day 1 that I would probably take longer than anyone to learn their names. “I’m just really bad at it.” Can’t you just hear them whispering, “This guy is a loser”? If I had it to do over again, I’d read every Memory for Dummies book I could find, and I’d challenge myself to know all 130 names by the end of the second day. I’m just bad at it is pitifully lame.

9 – Use sarcasm

Early in my career, there was rarely a first day of school that I didn’t say to two or three students, “I hope you’re better at language arts than your sister” or “Oh, I’ll be watching you” or some other asinine statement. There’s no smirk or wink that can soften this gaffe.

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Remember, stay away from sarcasm, and treat all students like they are unique because, guess what, they are.

10 – Denigrate a colleague

In the mid 1990s on the first day of school, a 7th grader asked me if we’d be doing a lot of writing; I told him we would. “Do we have to write 10-sentence paragraphs?” he countered. Seeing that I was puzzled, he explained that a former teacher demanded 8-10-sentence paragraphs. “That’s ridiculous,” I said. “Anyone who says such a thing is just wrong.”

While attempting to look like an expert, I came off as a know-it-all, who may have demeaned the efforts of an excellent teacher. Meanwhile, I likely destroyed my own credibility, in the process. No matter what a colleague does, it’s best to assure students that teachers have reasons for everything they do. You may do it differently for an equally good reason.

11 – Make students introduce themselves

The easiest way to alienate the shy kids is to demand that they stand and introduce themselves. All get-to-know-each-other activities should be optional on the first day of school.

12 – Talk too much

Ask any student what is likely to happen the first day of school, and she is sure to tell you that teachers will talk about rules, talk about procedures, talk about textbooks, talk about homework, and talk some more. Want your students to like you (yes, it’s important that they like you)? Do something unexpected and fun the first few minutes of class. Stop talking. Let them talk. And listen.

13 – Assign homework

When I was a bad teacher, assigning Day 1 homework was one of my favorite strategies. “We’re here to work,” I’d thunder, “and the work starts immediately.” A chorus of groans and sighs followed. I felt victorious and was too ignorant to realize that my new students already hated me and left my room dreading coming to my class.

14 – Frown

Greet students with a smile. Get excited. Kids have doubts; they have fears. Make sure they know they are in a safe and happy place.

There are more things teachers should avoid on the first day, but these are the biggies.

You have many days to assess students’ strengths and weaknesses. You have months to discuss high stakes testing and standards. You’ll spend weeks probing the textbook.

The first day of school should be dedicated to rapport-building and to joy.

Your goal should be that students go home that night and tell their parents: “I’m going to love (insert your subject) because Mrs. (insert your name) is awesome!”

Accomplish this goal, and you’ve had one truly great first day of school.

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Mark Barnes is the Founder and CEO of Times 10 Publications, which produces the popular Hack Learning Series -- books that provide right-now solutions for teachers and learners. Mark is the author or publisher of dozens of books, including Bestseller Hacking Education: 10 Quick Fixes for Every School. Barnes presents internationally on assessment, connected education, and Hack Learning. Join more than 140,000 interested educators who follow @markbarnes19 on Twitter.
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