Do's and Don'ts of the first week of school

The first week of school is an important one, regardless of what grade you teach. It's the first time you meet your students, establish expectations, and begin to build a relationship with your students, some of which can go far beyond the year you're their teacher!


Here is everything you need for your first week back to school to go off without a hitch, and set the right tone for the year ahead!


DO Incorporate Ice breaker games daily!



Using ice-breakers seems like a no-brainer, but often people can overlook the importance of including many different versions, both where you participate and where it's just the class. Ice-breakers allow your class to get started on a positive note and immediately settle student's nerves! Allow yourself the opportunity to both participate in the fun, and observe how students interact with each other. This is a great chance to see cliques that were already formed before students made it to your class, and to see students who may end up working well together throughout the year! (Need some examples? Check out my list of top 10 fave ice-breakers for any class - most are Covid friendly or can be adapted!)


DON'T give out assignments or assessments on day one!



These will not be accurate assessments of student's capabilities! As I've mentioned before, anxiety can deeply impact a student's ability to perform. I understand the importance of identifying where students are at early on so that you can tailor their learning; however, how useful will the assessment be if it's inaccurate?


Even students who do not experience test anxiety or seem relatively at ease, the overall energy of the first day or so of school is one of nervousness. Allow that energy to pass before handing out assessments. If you can wait until week two - do!


DO learn students' names on the first day and DO a pronoun circle!


Some of the best ice-breaker games are also name games, so you get a two for one! Start by getting students to introduce themselves and their preferred pronouns (she/her, they/them, he/him, etc.) Try to do this several times throughout the year and when you have guests visiting your class. This allows for students to change their pronoun identity without feeling like they have to announce it to the group as a whole. It will also help ensure guests don't mis-gender someone and make a student uncomfortable.


(Need more info on how to do a pronoun circle? Here's a done-for-you script!)


Focus especially on the students you feel may need some extra support. If you've had other teachers say to you "oh boy.... You have *insert name here*?! GOOD LUCK!" Spend extra time making sure you learn this student's name and that you check the tone you use when you say it. These students are often used to hearing their name shouted or with an authoritarian tone - the more you come at it with gentle humour, the fewer issues you are likely to have!


It's a great idea to get students to make name tags for themselves on the first day, place them at the edge of the desk, and then practice saying their name as you look at them!


DON'T focus only on getting your classroom to "look Pinterest cute"!




When I started at the school I'm at now, the classroom I inherited was a nightmare. It was packed with literal garbage - broken furniture, moldy dishes, smashed props and set pieces (granted it was a drama class, but oddly enough I still haven't found myself wishing I had that one moldy plate from 1994 that I threw away...). I spent the first 2 weeks of school trying to make my space feel comfortable, clean, organized, and to make it *look* nice. I spent money on cute decor, and jazzed up my bulletin boards with bright colours and fun paper...


Of course, organization is key for your own sanity, but guess what?! The students don't really care, and they didn't notice all of the decorations I'd added. I have a room FULL of students every lunch hour, spare block, and after school, and I promise you, it isn't the ambiance. Our school is in the midst of an enormous move to a new building, where we'll be for only 2 years. So no, I'm not going to spend a thousand dollars getting my new room to look "cute and colorful" for two years. Are my students worth it? Of course! But what they deserve the most is a teacher who is present. The teacher makes the classroom, not the bulletin board decor...


DO complete expectations with students, rather than for them!



In my drama class, I start the first week with an activity I like to call "Good class/Bad class." Students then have to create a scene that reflects all of the elements of a "good" (safe, supportive, nurturing learning environment) drama class. We then tease out all of the important details students notice from these scenes. Typically things like "encourage each other, respectful communication, try new things, be brave, etc..." normally come from the scene. Then we look at "bad" drama class scenes. This is an opportunity for students to be silly, go BIG with their absurdity, but also highlight the things that they don't want to see. Along with "don't swear at the teacher" (haha...) they also come up with things like "don't shame someone for not feeling comfortable taking on a certain part" and "don't shame someone for not knowing something, but rather just help them learn."


I then write everything on the board and it stays there. All semester.


In my English class, I do something similar. My English practicum supervisor did "My Job/Your Job" and I've done it ever since.


Put on the board "The student's job is ..." and "The Teacher's job is..."(you can find my simple template for this here) and allow students to brainstorm. Feel free to provide guidance (such as "students should also remember to bring their finished homework to school, right?") and students will typically agree. I do this over two days, and allow it to get really detailed. Once it's complete, I type it up and post it to my Google Classroom. This serves as a reminder for students that they, in fact, created the classroom environment they wanted. It's not me setting the expectations for them, it's merely me reminding them of the expectations they set for themselves.


Want to know more about this process and how it helps with classroom management? Read more here!


DON'T shame students for forgetting details during the first week.


Actually, don't ever shame students. This is one form of emotional manipulation that teachers can easily and unknowingly fall victim to. Allow students to forget things, be late, etc. and just help guide them to make different choices the next day.



DO give them an outline for the week on day one.


This can be written or verbal, but either way, giving a detailed outline for what the week will look like will ease anxieties. Elementary teachers are fantastic at doing this! Somewhere along the line we forget this important strategy in high school... I'm often not one to follow a structured plan (which is why teaching in elementary school ate me alive...) but week one, I always follow my plan and I let students in on it.


Summary


Overall, try to use the first week to set the tone for the rest of the semester. The old rule "don't smile during the first week" is counterproductive... Just make it collaborative, fun, and above all, be you!


High School Teachers, if you want the first week done for you, take a look at my week 1 outline here!


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