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How-To: Get Started

Planning an Exciting First Day for Your High School Classes Judy Jones

As a new teacher, it is important to remember that the impression you make the first day is VITAL!

What do you imagine your students are thinking about as they walk into your class the first day? In all likelihood, a very small percentage of them are actually very curious about the subject they will be exploring or the activities they will be involved in during the year! MOST students, particularly the younger ones, are asking themselves questions similar to these:

  • Which of my friends are going to be in the class with me?
  • Will my teacher like me?
  • Is my teacher kind, friendly, and enthusiastic?
  • Will I be successful in this class?

In other words, your students want to feel emotionally safe; they want to be happy; and they want to be accepted and successful. Nowhere is there any mention of "the subject." This may cause pain to us as academic teachers, but research has shown that students learn best when they are in a comfortable environment where they feel valued and accepted by teachers and peers. This is not to discount all of the teaching strategies that you have learned in your education classes; those strategies are useful and important. But they will not be as effective unless you establish a class atmosphere that is warm and inviting.

Many teachers spend the first day handing out texts and going over rules and regulations. Doesn't it bore you just to imagine a high school student who spends every class period the first day in a maze of rules and expectations and walks away with a load of books and documents to be signed by parents? I take care of these administrative matters over the first two weeks, setting aside just a little time for them each day. This leaves the majority of each period for more exciting matters!

So how do you begin creating a positive, friendly, and exciting environment on the first day?

Here is what I do with my biology classes:

1. CREATE A CLASSROOM ENVIRONMENT: Since I keep a room full of animals - particularly snakes - I hang green streamers from my door (vines) and don a pith helmet, wrap my large boa constrictor around my waist, and welcome my students into the "zoo." Believe me, students and parents report the excitement of taking biology from day one!

2. BUILD A CONNECTION WITH EACH STUDENT: When the students have settled and after I have talked to them about my big boa constrictor, I take attendance (a requirement!), but I try to say something to each student or ask him/her a "get to know you" type of question. This means that I have gone over my class lists carefully before the first day. As a new teacher, you can ask experienced teachers who have been at the school for a while to tell you a little about the students on your roll. I explain to the students that I really want to pronounce their names properly (that they deserve it!) and ask them to tell me what they want to be called. I ask them to correct me until I get their names right. I don't do a seating chart until later the first week so that students can find their "comfort zone" over the next few days.

3. SHARE YOUR EXCITEMENT: I tell my students a little about me and why I love biology. I let them know that I am excited to be starting the year and getting to know them. I ask them to tell me what kinds of things they think they will be studying in biology during the year. I validate their responses! This whole routine is focused on helping them feel comfortable with exchanging ideas.

4. HAVE THE STUDENTS DO SOMETHING: I plan a short observation activity. First I explain how important making accurate observations is in science. Sometimes, I have the students work in small groups with magnifying glasses. They observe a meal worm (the larva) and a darkling beetle (the adult). (Most students do not realize that these are different stages of the same organism's life cycle!) The students try to draw these organisms and develop a hypothesis explaining how the organisms are related. This activity gets them "into science" and gives them a chance to relate to each other.

The bonus to planning a first day that is fun and exciting is that you will enjoy the day, also!


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