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Five Things To Do on the First Day of School

A good first day can set the tone for the next 179 -- so get it right!

Found In: advice & support, new teachers

  1. Suit up. “I call it power dressing, and I do wear a sports jacket and nice shirt,” says Jay Hoffman, an award-winning Vermont middle school teacher of 15 years. “The kids notice dress—at least they do in middle school—and it does give me an edge. I don’t want to look like them. I don’t want to look like one of their friends. Sometimes, new teachers make that mistake.”
  2. Smile! “Forget that old saying, ‘A teacher shouldn’t smile for the first semester’—that’s bunk!!” says Oscar Ortiz, a middle school band director in Iowa for 31 years. “Greet those kids at the door, shake their hands, and smile. Don’t be afraid to show enthusiasm!”
  3. Set the rules. Your veteran colleagues agree that you don’t need more than four or five basic rules, and it works best if the kids decide and “own” the rules themselves. One might be, “We respect each other,” then talk about what that might look like: “It looks like raising your hand, listening to each other, and not putting each other down,” Hoffman explains. It’s okay to go slowly and take some time here. “If you take the time to build community, you’ll be able to move faster during the semester, because you’ve set the stage.
    Hoffman also asks them what they want to learn, and from their answers he makes a list to refer to later: “You asked me to teach you this….” Again, this puts the responsibility for learning on their shoulders. You might also try a seating plan—it’ll help you remember names, Ortiz points out, and sometimes, avoid discipline issues.
  4. Make a friend. Remember what your mom said? To make a friend, be a friend. Stop by the other classrooms in your hall this morning and wish your colleagues a great start. No doubt you’ll get good wishes in return, and the opportunity to swap stories and lesson plans down the road. And because you can never have too many pals, why not step into a few virtual staff lounges as well? Ning groups like California teacher Jim Burke’s English Companion offer tried-and-tested advice, as can new networking sites such as Scitable. Of course, you’ll always find a friend on NEA Today’s Facebook page. We also encourage you to head over to a new discussion group at, where veteran NEA members like Kate Ortiz from Iowa are poised to answer anything about classroom management, from spitballs to bathroom breaks.
    Just ask away!
  5. Write it all down. We’re not suggesting you start drafting your best-selling memoirs à la Frank McCourt, although we loved Teacher Man! But a journal or blog that records and reflects on days gone right and wrong can be a very useful memento. Years from now, you’ll pull it off the shelf (or log into the archives) and remember the lessons that really clicked. Other benefits of journaling are more immediate: “The writing process is reflective, but more importantly, it’s also cathartic, and I find that to be its greatest benefit,” says Sam McElroy, a fifth-year New York City high school teacher. “To any new teacher who likes to think things through by writing, I would recommend writing about what they find really difficult, rewarding, frustrating, or confusing.” If you choose to blog publicly, you might also get the benefit of a more experienced audience. But be careful! Before you slam your principal for her unfeeling ways or unflattering waistline, keep in mind that the Web is rarely anonymous.


+And a bonus item! Start your feel-good file. Michelle Gambino Fleck, an elementary ESL teacher in Pennsylvania for the past six years, calls it her “Why I am a Teacher” folder, and stuffs it with commendations from colleagues and parents, sweet notes from students, positive evaluations from principals, and other required reading for tough days.

Illustrations: Joel Castillo


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