What to do in the First Five Minutes of the First Day of Class

If I had to summarize my philosophy of the tone teachers should set on the first day of school in one sentence, it would probably be this:

The teacher cares about you, and the teacher is in charge.

Or, if you prefer: The teacher is in charge, and the teacher cares about you.

When I speak at new teacher orientations, I often compare the first day of school to running an airport. You want to, as quickly as possible, make students feel that they are in a structured environment run by capable hands. This will allow you to give more targeted attention to students as the year goes on. On the flip side, giving students a sense that you care about them makes them happier to go along with structure the structure you set. This may seem like a tall order, and of course it is. But you also have a chance to steer in this direction within the first few minutes of class.

Have an orderly system for assigning student seats—even if your class roster isn’t final.

Students have many questions on their minds as they walk into a class for the first time, but one of the first questions is a practical one: where should I sit?

You have your own reasons for providing a good answer to this question. You want to keep students from grouping themselves with the friends they are most likely to talk to, or heading to the back of the room where they don’t have to participate. You also want to save shy students from feeling like they’ve entered that painful cafeteria scene found in so many teen movies, where a kid walks around with a tray in their hand and doesn’t feel welcomed at any table. The challenge is that your class roster generally isn’t final before the first day. You don’t want to assign seats ahead of time, only to make the few unassigned kids feel extra left out.

So, what is a caring-but-still-in-charge teacher to do? Here are two tricks for assigning seats in an organized way that makes all students feel included—even if your class roster isn’t final.

Have clear directions on the board and a quiet, simple assignment to start right away.

Your goal here is to get students in the door, into their seats, and immediately have them start on something quiet. This will help you avoid answering questions or repeatedly asking students to be quiet in first five minutes of class. You also want to be able to get everyone’s attention when you are ready to start teaching without having to raise your voice to do so. With this in mind, your first assignment should be easy enough to for students to figure out without talking to you or their classmates. It should be positioned in a place where students aren’t blocking the door if they have to pick up a piece of paper. And it should keep students busy for about fifteen minutes without being absolutely vital to finish perfectly by a specific time. If there’s a chance students will show up without pens or paper the first day, you may want to have a cup of golf pencils for emergency use. There will be plenty of time to talk about coming prepared later. In the first five minutes of the first day of class, the most important goal is to get students into their seats and in an upright position, ready for takeoff.

Stand at the door ready to greet, seat. . . and repeat.

You’ll want a short, polite greeting that has three parts:

  • Polite greeting: Good morning. / Good afternoon. / Welcome to third grade. / Welcome to English I.
  • Clear directions on how to find a seat: Please pick a card and find the seat that matches it / Please find the desk with your name on it / (Or, especially for younger kids) Your seat is right over there.
  • Clear directions for what to do next: The rest of the directions are on the board.  / Please get started on the paper that’s on your desk.

To be clear, keeping it short doesn’t have to mean acting like a human robot. You can respond to students’ greetings and questions as they come in, and certainly greet students by name if you know them. The aim is to make sure everyone gets the basic information they need quickly so you can have the wiggle room to address these other things without creating a traffic jam at the door.

Avoid unnecessary power struggles in the first five minutes of class.

If a student doesn’t follow the simple directions you give, you may need to redirect them. But beyond that, try to keep things flowing. If a student doesn’t say good morning back to you, let it go. You don’t need to ask students to introduce themselves as they walk in, especially with a big class or older students—you’ll have time to learn students’ names later in the day. And even before the pandemic, I was never a big proponent of asking students to shake the teacher’s hand or high five as they walk into the room. Why? Every request or requirement you make of students as they walk in is a chance for them to force you into a series of additional decisions. Does the kid have to repeat that mumbled greeting or limp handshake until they get it right? What if there are other kids waiting behind them? What if the bell is about to ring? What if the second greeting or handshake is only slightly less lame? The fewer of these opportunities you create, the more likely you’ll get everyone through the door with the impression that all their classmates are following directions and they might as well do the same.

Acknowledge the official beginning of class, but don’t begin teaching immediately.

Often, on the first day of class, not everyone has made it to their seats by the time the bell rings. At the same time, it can be an awkward moment if the bell rings and you don’t acknowledge it. It’s easy enough to address all of this by saying something like, “We’ll give everyone a few extra minutes to find the room on the first day. In the meantime, please keep working on your first assignment for now.” That’s why that first assignment is meant to take about fifteen minutes.

Tell students how to wrap up their first assignment before you begin talking.

Hopefully all of the above goes relatively smoothly. The bell rings. The flow of incoming students slows. Everyone gets seated with minimum drama, even if they were a little late. Hopefully, everyone is still working on that first assignment. You can see for yourself how far along they are by circulating around the class, hopefully in comfortable shoes. The first students who have arrived may be close to finished while the last students may just be getting started. It’s nice to have a way to wrap everyone up at the same time without making anyone sit quietly with nothing to do or feel panicked about not completing their very first task. One possibility is, if you’re working on a student interest survey, tell everyone they should now pick the ONE question they find most interesting give a good, five-minute answer. Another possibility is to pick up the papers from those who are finished while you are circulating and give out the next assignment as you do so.

Congratulations on finishing the first five minutes of the first day of the school year!

Only 415 minutes left to go in your first day lesson plan.

Wishing you nothing but the best for every one of them.

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