Over the last few days, I have seen several posts and comments about the importance of the first days of school and the impact they can make on the lives of students, so I thought I would share a letter/reflection I recently sent out to the teachers in our district as they get ready to welcome a new group of students on July 30th.
I am certain that if not now, then very soon there will be hundreds of teachers in our district preparing both physically and mentally for the first week of school. What I remember from my days as a middle school teacher is that the yearly anticipation of a new crop of students standing at my door step always filled me with excitement, and I will admit a little bit of anxiety. For most of my teaching career I taught 7thgraders, so on the first day of school I always stood before a whole group of students new to the middle school experience. They would sit down in my classroom where I had spent painstaking hours before their arrival creating an inviting and warm environment for learning. As the bell rang, they would often stare anywhere except the front of the room as they waited nervously for me to shed a little bit of light on what this whole middle school experience would be like for them.
Every year I taught I spent a significant amount of mental energy thinking about the experience I wanted them to have those first few days knowing that what I did would set the tone for us for the entire year. I knew with 7th graders that my team and I held a significant amount of power in our hands because what we said and did when that bell finally rang would shape the thinking of 176 students of what to expect in middle school. My team and I took this responsibility very seriously and put a lot of collective thinking and energy into how to make those first experiences special and meaningful for our students. We didn’t want those first few days to be filled with rules of what they “can’t do”… we wanted to open their eyes to new possibilities and create experiences for them that made them want to come back for more. I am not sure we ever got it exactly right, but we worked hard to try to make those first few days memorable.
Although no longer a teacher, I have had two occasions in the past few weeks to revisit the power of those first few precious days we have with our students and the amazing impact the choices each teacher makes can have on the psyche of our students. Within the first few hours they are with us, our students will be making decisions about their role in their classroom and the kind of year this will be for them. We hold an amazing amount of power over their thinking!
The first experience I had came a few weeks ago when my husband, a high school teacher, finished the initial draft of his first book, and he finally let me read it. There is a chapter in the book he titles “My First Three Days” where he shares what he believes is most important to convey to his students during the first three days they are in his classroom. He describes the activities he does and the reasons he does them, but at the end of it all what struck me is his unwavering commitment to convince his students that the time they spend in his classroom is going to be different. He shares that his first three days are a carefully orchestrated “sales pitch” to convince his students that no matter what their experiences have been in school, that his is a classroom where he will guarantee them success. You can find his blog post, “The Third Day” at http://www.daveburgess.com/blog/?m=201108 One of my favorite points he makes is this:
“Many of the students who will be sitting in front of you as you start the year have not been successful in school in the past. School has beaten them up. They have been told, and shown, that they don’t measure up…. They’re evaluating whether or not this will be an emotionally and psychologically safe environment. They’re wondering whether or not it is worth their time and effort to give it another shot and try. It’s easier, sometimes, to not give your best and then blame failure on a lack of effort rather than possibly be forced to consider that it could be a lack of ability. If you don’t try, it’s easier to save face with your peers when you fail. It is our job to address these unspoken thoughts that are rattling through the minds of our students and the earlier we do it the better. My goal is to completely smash all thoughts and ideas that my students have about my class being more of the same for them. I will pull out all of the stops to convince them that it doesn’t matter if they have failed before because my class is absolutely and completely different. My class has been specially designed for them to be successful.”
The second occasion I had to revisit the idea of the first few days was at a conference session I attended led by noted author and educational leader, Alan November. He is known for his work on integrating technology and web resources into the classroom and for pushing all of us to do more to help our students learn about their role in a global society. He centered the theme of his talk around the idea of “students as contributors”, and he laid out five key roles he thought students should play in the classroom. An article he wrote on this topic can be found at:
Ultimately he shared his thinking about how he would spend his first five days of school with his students centered around teaching them how to fill these roles and how to contribute to the classroom community. My notes don’t do his work justice, but at the heart of his message was this – he would spend his first five days:
- Building capacity for all children to contribute to the learning of others
- Teaching children a variety of ways to document their learning and teaching them tools they would use as a class to document the learning of the group.
- Teaching his students advanced research skills – showing them how to maximize their use of the internet to get the best content from anywhere in the world and to use it as a tool to help them search for what quality work looks like.
- Encouraging students to think globally and understand there are multiple perspectives on any issue
- Creating a community of learners who collectively build a shared library of resources.
Both of these experiences took me back to my days as a teacher and helped me reconnect with the memories I have of working with a great team of teachers to do our best to make those first few days of middle school special for our students. They also made me think of each and every one of you who has had very little time for rest, relaxation and rejuvenation this summer and who will quickly be returning to a sea of little faces anxiously waiting for you to take them on a special journey of learning this year. Thank you for all the time and energy you have spent, and will spend, to make your first few days, and every day after that, impactful and memorable for our students.