Tips for Avoiding a Nightmare First Day

Is this your nightmare?

What you planned is way too easy for the kids. You don’t have easy access to the supplies you need. The phone hasn’t stopped ringing and conversations are tricky because of all the static on the line. New students who weren’t on your register to begin with are sauntering in on their own schedule and you have no space for them. You realize the desks are positioned poorly and start to rearrange them. The kids are disinterested, disrespectful, and oblivious to you. They’re chatting here and there, turned around in their seats. Not even five minutes in, you’ve already had to address a student refusing to attend to the lesson. The other adults in the room are either totally disengaged or are trying to run the class.

You feel like you’re drowning, so you break out some great strategies from last year. Only problem is, no one’s listening. You don’t want to raise your voice on the first day of school, but if no one’s listening, how can you not? You need to do something to get their attention, to restore order. You climb up on a wobbly blue chair in front of the room, and bellow, “Um, EXCUSE ME?” knowing full well that now those kiddies will have to respect, have to listen, have to take notice of you.

And when they don’t, you wake yourself up. You’ve just suffered a school-mare.

It’s amazing the things that find their way into dreams. In each of my four years teaching, I’ve never had a first day like the one I described above, but without the proper amount of thought and planning, it’s easy for any of those damaging scenarios to throw you off from the start and doom you for the rest of the year.

Here are my thoughts on how to minimize those types of occurrences and begin the year successfully:

  • Where is it? I can’t find it! This is very real for me since my second year started one week after the kids. I replaced someone else in their room, so I didn’t have things organized the way I wanted. It’s hard enough when you need to look for something when kids are engaged, but it’s much harder when you need to look and every single eyeball is following your every single move. As long as you’re not hired the night before school starts, there is plenty of time to get the room set up before the students arrive. I don’t know how some people come in the day before school and just start then. My first year was so crazy that the room looked like a warehouse on the first day. I didn’t leave myself enough time to set up. Never again. I like to have everything organized by the middle of the week before we go back so I can go home, relax, and enjoy the last few days of summer. When school does start, organization and neatness make for a smooth beginning. (Side note: If you’re like me, your room will never be as organized or as neat as it is the minute before the kids enter for the first time).
  • There goes the phone…again. In a school my size, it’s inevitable that there will be interruptions throughout the day. It’s probably true in your school, too. So much is happening on day one that you need to just roll with the flow. There will be announcements on the loudspeaker, visits from the administration, calls from the nurse, and colleagues coming in asking for supplies because they can’t find them! (See above ;)) The key is that the kids are engaged.
  • They’re bored already, I must be the worst teacher ever. Kids love to come back to school. Sure, some are anxious, but it’s a time to see their old friends again, as well as their old (and getting older) teachers. The first day should be fun. I always start with community builders and independent activities that allow personalities to come through, but it is also a day to begin informally assessing the students. When I taught first and second grade, one of the first things I did was have the kids write their name on an index card, just so I could see if they knew how to spell it, what their handwriting was like, etc. Other ways to assess students informally include doing a shared reading or other oral reading exercise and posing a real world math problem using the previous year’s learning and seeing if they can solve it. (I linked here last year and will revisit again this year for a great list of first day activities).
  • Who’s the boss? Working in special ed, my class is entitled to a paraprofessional. As long as the para is well-meaning, I feel I can engage them to become a vital member of the team. It is of the utmost importance, though, that the para goes along with the teacher and that the adults speak in one voice (the teacher’s). One voice makes it clear to students how things are and makes them realize they can’t play adults in the room against each other. This is a conversation that needs to happen before the kids come in and whenever it becomes apparent that there is discord in the message being delivered.
  • No one’s listening! WHY IS NO ONE LISTENING? Routines need to be established from the get-go. One of my first this year will be one that worked phenomenally with last year’s class. It is so simple and so effective. To get the students’ attention, the teacher raises his hand. When kids see it, they raise theirs and give their attention. This filters through the room and gets them silent and attentive quickly. No standing on chairs and yelling when you have something so effective!

Here in NYC, the first day is still about seven weeks away. Still, I’m sure many others are already having school-mares about the first day. No need! Everything will be fine as long as you’re prepared.


Don’t Smile Until Christmas? I’ll Pass.

You Know That Old Saying About Respect?

Classroom Management Tip: Getting Your Students’ Attention

Community Building with Books


12 responses to “Tips for Avoiding a Nightmare First Day

  1. Nightmare? That was my reality more or less my first day of school last year. I thought I was well prepared, had all kinds of fun activities but boy howdy did the day not go as planned. I’ve never felt like that on a first day and hope never to again. Luckily, Day 2 went much better.

  2. My teaching nightmares have just begun–had one last night!–I’m so relieved to hear that I’m not alone!
    I blogged about this strange (but sort of funny) phenomenon last summer:

  3. Pingback: Remainders: City drops class size from survey results highlights | GothamSchools

  4. In regard to the interuptions, I used to just ignore the phone. I warned the principle ahead of time that if I expected my kids not to have and answer phones in class I wasn’t planning on it either. Since I was a secondary science teacher, it also could become a hazard during labs. There was an intercom for emergencies so since the principle and receptionist knew, if they really needed me they could intercom. Anyway, I got away with it and it took care of eliminating one source of interuptions. Thanks for the confirmation I wasn’t the only one with pre-first day jitters (and schoolmares) even into my sixth and seventh years!

  5. Pingback: Tips for Avoiding a Nightmare First Day | Formateur |

  6. I have taught 33 years now….the 1st 28 in public school, the rest in college. If I don’t have a school nightmare, I get very nervous. Mine are similar to the described above. Absolutely no control! And I’m standing on a desk stomping my feet. After my nightmare, everything’s fine! In fact, my colleagues will call me and tell me about their nightmares! Perfectly normal!

  7. Your blog is great! I could use any advice about teaching as I am in my senior year of college studying Middle Childhood Education.

  8. Everything else is great, but I find the way you talk about your “paraprofessional” degrading. It’s like you think they are in a sub-class. Try doing your job without him/her and see how you make out. Why wouldn’t this person be well meaning? Wouldn’t it be in everyone’s best interest if you actually were a team – instead of pretending to be one, where, as long as what you say goes?

    • Thanks for the comment, but I’m not sure where you’re getting this from. There’s nothing degrading or wrong about suggesting there are paras out there who are not well-meaning. That is, they are disrespectful of the kids, unwilling to perform certain tasks, etc. (Just like there are teachers out there who aren’t well-meaning). Obviously, it is in everyone’s best interest to work as a team, and, yes, I consider my para an integral part of the education process. There is no pretending. I seek my para’s input and ideas, but ultimately the buck stops with me. That applies to all aspects of the classroom: discipline, reinforcement, procedures, planning, etc. Paras are not a sub-class by any stretch. In fact, I resent your implication. But there are roles in the classroom that must be enforced in order for things to work as they should, and one role is the teacher as the final word. I’m not sure how you can dispute this anymore than you could dispute that the principal has the final word over an assistant principal.

  9. I agree somewhat with Mike. I was a para for three years while in school for Elementary Education, so I can see things from both perspectives. The teacher I worked with was wonderful. Instead of feeling like she “had the last word”, as if it were an argument to be won by one party or the other, she treated me as an equal and respected my opinions. We talked through things, and she would explain WHY certain things are the way they are. It was easy to do things her way once I agreed that it was the best way. I learned more from my experience with her than I could ever learn from a lecture or a text book, and I think her actual students would say they felt the same. Her 30+ years of experience had something to do with it, but I’m pretty sure she was magic! 🙂

  10. Pingback: First day jitters | Are we there yet?

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