Respecting the First Day of Class

One thing I knew intuitively but never quite articulated about teaching was how important the first day of class is to the semester’s success. As a beginning teacher, I would distribute the syllabus, explain it, maybe do an ice-breaker or name-game, and then dismiss class. This is what I saw most of my colleagues do. Indeed, this is what I was explicitly taught to do. I think the course supervisor was so focused on getting us nervous newbies through the first day of our classes, that he failed to teach us an important lesson in being an effective teacher.

Over the years I accumulated strategies for the first day of class without thinking about a philosophy to guide it. Most of these strategies fit in with my overall teaching approach and they functioned as they needed to. They weren’t just random time-wasters or a series of unconnected ice-breakers designed solely to learn names. But they weren’t motivated by an overarching goal, either. My underlying approach was still…get through the syllabus, learn some names, and go.

Then I discovered Harry Wong‘s book, The First Days of School. I learned about Harry Wong during my misguided stint with Teach Baton Rouge. Although the audience for this highly acclaimed and vastly popular book is K-12 teachers, and few of the concrete strategies apply to the college classroom, the important lessons of this book relate very directly to teaching in higher ed. According to Wong, the first day of class is THE most important class of the year (for academics, the semester). How you handle it can make or break your class.

Most significantly, the first day of class sets the tone, patterns of behavior, and expectations for the class. If you treat it as “read the syllabus and go,” you establish a counter-productive environment, and you waste a valuable opportunity to get your class off in the direction you want. So, borrowing from Wong on and from many other resources, what follows are some things to think about for the first day of class, and my opinion about how to translate Wong’s approach to higher ed. Wong reminds us that there are seven things every student wants to know on the first day of class. They are

1. Am I in the right room? — Believe it or not, this is relevant even for college students. Many of us forget to write our names and the course number and title on the board.

2. Where am I supposed to sit? — Not so relevant for college students.

3. What are the rules in this classroom? — Wong emphasizes the need for structure and discipline in K-12 schools. On the surface, this seems irrelevant for college students since they already know about appropriate behavior and consequences, and for the rest of the stuff, they can read it in the syllabus. Still, there are perennial questions that need to be addressed — what happens if I’m late, can I eat in class, can I text/listen to my iPod/use my cellphone/laptop, yadda yadda.

The question about rules provides an important chance to build community in the class. Some teachers walk in and announce their can/can’t rules. Since I prefer to build community in the classroom, I have an activity where we establish a list of class rules together. Some students think this is silly, since “we all know how to behave.” So, I reinforce that these rules make explicit to each other how we want to be treated. I point out to them that there will be times when we might be inclined to violate these rules, particularly during tense discussions about difficult topics (racism, politics, sexual orientation), and that we’ve all had experiences in classes where someone did something to piss us off. So these collective rules are designed to prevent that from happening. This activity goes a long way to build a constructive, collaborative classroom community.

4. What will I be doing this year? — Here, Wong discusses procedures. Again, all students have been through school, they know what they have to do, and what they don’t know is in the syllabus, right? Actually, this isn’t true. Students want to know things like how much lecture there will be, do they have to read the textbook, will there be homework not listed on the syllabus, how much do they have to study.

This is a chance for you to explain your teaching philosophy, your methods, your rationales for what you’re doing. Students feel respected when you explain these things to them. When you fail to do this, students feel like you did when you were a little kid and your mom said, “Because I’m your mother, that’s why.” When you make your approach transparent, it acknowledges students and they realize that what you want from them is more than busy work.

In addition, on the first day of class, you can -model- the environment you want, hitting the right note immediately. If you say you want collaboration, enact it the first day. If you say you want discussion, do it. Don’t just say it and expect it to happen on its own the next class period.

5. How will I be graded?— Although this information is usually in the syllabus listed as assignments and their weights, the first day of class provides an opportunity for you to explain your approach to grading, your expectations of the students, and what they need to do in order to be successful in the course. It seems that college instructors expect students to be able to figure this out on their own and so they typically leave this information implied. Explaining yourself on the first day of class gives you the chance to impress on your students that you aren’t inconsistent, inscrutable, or mysterious in your approach to grading. In other words, you will appear -fair-.

6. Who is the teacher as a person? — In The Most Important Day: Starting Well, Delivee Wright gives some guidelines for answering this question. She says,

Who you are and what you are like is of great interest to new students. Learning in the classroom results from an interrelationship of people, and what students perceive about you can help support that interaction. Sometimes students never have the sense that the professor is a “real person,” and they may respond in ways that would be unthinkable to someone they felt they knew. Sharing something about yourself can begin a constructive relationship.

7. Will the teacher treat me as a human being? — This is probably the most profound question on the list. Wong points out that you have seven seconds to convey an impression of who you are to your students. You do this with how you treat yourself, how you dress, how you greet the students at the door, showing that you’re organized and that you’re in control of the learning environment. As explained in Getting started the right way on the first day of class, classroom anthropologists show that positive social interactions affect learning in positive ways. The article lists things you can do to demonstrate your humanity and your competence to the students immediately. It also provides some excellent strategies for introducing students to the course content and generating enthusiasm.

Wong closes his discussion on of the first day by writing that students “are looking for security, consistency, respect, dignity, and care and you can convey that message on the first day of school by conveying how well you are organized. Your classroom management skill will tell the students if the class will be exciting or boring, whether they will learn or fail, and if you will light or blow out their candle.”