Here are some frequently asked questions about the first day of teaching. Please note that these questions aren’t in any particular order. I always add questions to the bottom of the list in the order they come in, so if you’ve been on here before you can assume you’ve read all but the last few questions.
Q: Should I tell students this is my first time teaching?
Q: Won’t they know anyway?
A: Probably, so don’t lie about it. Just add this to the long list of personal questions you try to avoid completely, which also includes questions like “How old are you?” “Do you have a boyfriend?” and “Is that a tattoo?”
Q: I really just have one rule in my class: “Respect everyone!” Isn’t that enough?
A: Noooooo. First, it’s not your only rule. Don’t you want students to come prepared? On time? Without candy and gum? Second, the word respect itself can be open to interpretation. Does it mean “No cursing”? “Don’t interrupt”? “Don’t smack your lips and curse under your breath when your teacher reminds you not to interrupt”? Respect is important in a classroom, but you will also need concrete, specific rules that are easy to enforce.
Q: My racial/cultural background is different from that of my students. Will they still listen to me?
A: There is both good and bad news for you: The good news is that great teaching crosses cultural lines. Teachers from every culture have successfully taught children from every other culture. Kids need role models who look like them, but they also need to work with and learn from people who are different. The bad news is that race and culture do make a difference. You are likely to have a few incidents that would have played out differently if you looked or sounded more like your students. No paragraph in any book will change this. Your job is to be the best teacher you can possibly be, and hope the differences between you and your students fade into the background.
Q: Can I count on my class list to be accurate?
A: Most public schools are still processing new students the first week, so kids may show up who are not on your list. Plan your seating assignments in a way that allows space for new students and time to write down names and sign schedules. You should also know how to get more desks and think about where to seat kids if you can’t get them desks right away.
Q: Should I start planning on my own or wait until I meet others in my department?
A: You may be told that your department does something called collaborative planning, in which teachers meet to plan ahead, share ideas, and make sure everyone is on the same page. Though many new teachers hear of this legend, few experience it. Teachers who have taught a subject before have often made their plans already. Some are possessive about the work they’ve put in. Others have little interest in changing their style or already work together informally. And everyone is busy. As a result, so-called collaborative planning sessions tend to be disorganized meetings that involve neither collaborating nor planning. In other cases, you may receive a curriculum or benchmark calendar your school wants you to follow. Your plans should be flexible enough to adapt to a school-provided calendar, but you can’t go wrong planning your own first week in detail.
Q: Should I try to plan my whole year now?
A: Time is scarce during the school year, so you’ll be grateful for any planning you’ve done ahead of time. Planning the entire year in detail, however, is not the best use of your time and probably not even possible. This year will be filled with surprises that could throw off your schedule. A better idea is to start with a general sense of what students should learn this year – and when they’ll have to take a big, high-stakes test to see if they’ve learned it. Then plan backwards with this information in mind. For this, I recommend using the giant desk calendar that was on your back-to-school shopping list, but any calendar will do. Map out important dates in pen or marker. Include school holidays, state test days, and any other information that is unlikely to change. Also include progress report days and the end of each marking period so you know when grades are due. (More on this in the Grading Work Without Hating Work chapter of See Me After Class.) You will use this calendar to map out academic units so they fit into the rhythm of the school year. (i.e. You don’t want to start reading a novel or preparing a science experiment two days before Thanksgiving break.) Plan in pencil, though, and plan only your first week in detail. By the end of your first week, you will have an idea of how the kids act, what they can do in a day, and whether big, last-minute changes are on the horizon. Then you can block out the next plan-able chunk of time. As you feel more comfortable, you’ll be able to plan further into the school year. Remember that all long-term plans should be simple overviews, not detailed, day-by-day lessons. The goal here is to avoid planning your entire year based on something that may change, but also not to be paralyzed by the fact that you can’t plan everything.
Q: Should I let parents come into the room on the first day?
A: Standing up to parents the first day is hard—after all, they mean well, and you want to keep them on your side. Still, unless you teach really young children, think of a polite-but-firm response to parents who try to question you, fill you in on their children’s personal problems, or inspect your room for safety hazards as they drop off their babies. This is a great gift to your students, also. Kids deserve a clean slate with their peers, and Mommy coming into the room to “kiss her big, brave ninja good-bye on his first day at his new school,” puts a child at a disadvantage.
Q: Should I let students help create classroom rules to show I value their opinions?
A: New teachers often receive this advice. It looks great on paper, but it’s usually not worth the classroom management risk it creates. Not everyone agrees with me on this. In fact, this advice gets more pushback than any other advice I share in New Teacher Orientation speeches, but here’s why I recommend that new teachers think twice before doing the rule-making activity: Your first year, you are far more likely to give off a vibe of being unsure of yourself than of being too strict. It’s easy to get nicer over the course of the year. It’s very hard to get less nice. (Not impossible, but definitely hard.) With that in mind, signing on to run a group decision-making activity with a room full of kids you’ve just met is a huge a classroom management gamble. There are lots of chances for kids to argue, or laugh at each other’s suggestions, or get too loud, and it puts you also you in a position where you can’t say anything about it, because until the activity is over, your classroom has no rules.
Q: Can I really not smile until Christmas?
A: “Don’t smile until Christmas” is a sound bite of wisdom passed down through generations of teachers. It’s not really about smiling. It’s about breaking character and letting your guard down too early. (More detail on this in the See Me After Class chapter called Your Teacher Personality: Faking it. Making it.) Some teachers are strict the first week but relax the second week because the kids seem to be behaving. By the time they realize it’s too soon, it’s too late. This advice should really be “Don’t smile—and don’t let kids know you have a first name, curse, cry, like kids, want them to like you, or do anything besides eat and sleep when you’re not at school—until Christmas.” Just remember: the first few times you think your class is under control and it’s okay to relax, you’re probably wrong.
Q: What if the first day doesn’t go as planned?
A: If your first day didn’t go as planned, come in tomorrow and try to regain control. Today, comfort yourself with these first-day memories from experienced teachers.
Q: You keep talking about getting a good night’s sleep before the first day of school. But what if I can’t fall asleep?
A: Welcome to the club. Lots of teachers have trouble falling asleep on “New School Year’s Eve” or the Sunday after a break. Here are a few tips on getting the best night of sleep possible. And here are some semi-comforting interpretations of six common teacher nightmares.
Q: What if I’m not clicking with my mentor teacher?
A: If the mentor assigned to you isn’t a perfect fit – and even he or she is – always remember that as a new teacher you need more than just one mentor. You need a whole “board of advisors.” Most of these will be people you select yourself, and you’ll check in with different advisors in different situations. Here’s more about who should be on your board of (teaching) advisors.
Q: My mentor is great… but I’m not exactly sure what we’re supposed to talk about.
A: Even if people have told you over and over that there are no stupid questions, it can be scary to ask your mentor something that reveals what you don’t know. On the other hand, you don’t want to waste precious mentoring time listening to a list of general advice you already learned in training. In general, the best mentor questions things that are specific to your school and/or can keep you from reinventing the wheel. Here’s a list of no-shame-in-asking questions to help get a productive conversation started.