Thursday, July 23, 2015

Five Things to Keep In Mind on the First Day of School

Have you had it yet? Is it next week? Or still a few weeks off?

Hi, I’m Jessica from What I Have Learned. How many first days of school have you had as a teacher? Do you still get nervous at the start of every year?

I remember my first day of teaching my first year. I started my career in fifth grade. I had butterflies in my stomach that first day. I had planned everything the best that I knew how, but really I had no clue what I was doing!

In came 28 fifth graders, most of whom where pretty close to my size! I don’t remember exactly what we did that day. Most likely some name games, getting to know you activities, and team building games. Fast forward 16 years and I can tell you my first days start way smoother than my first first day of teaching!

Regardless of whether your first day of school is, next week or a few weeks away, you'll want to be sure you few key things in place.

First Thing in the Morning 

Have something for students to do when they walk in the door available on their desks so that you have time to greet each student and talk to parents.

 If you teach kindergarten and your school allows it, I encourage you to invite parents in and help their child get settled. Making a good home / school connection is important and one way to get a good start is on the first day when parents are handing their children off to you.

When my students come in the classroom, they find puzzle piece on their desks with a box of crayons. I don’t put anything else on students’ desks yet. You’ll find out why in a bit.

On the board are a basic set of directions. Students are to write their name on their puzzle piece in large letters (sometimes I’ll write their name ahead of time) and color the puzzle piece so that there is no white space left.

This puzzle piece is part of my Community Building Puzzle. We don’t put together the puzzle quite yet, but since the pieces are not colored, we are ready to put them together later that afternoon or if we have some down time later on in the week.

Seating Arrangements (or the lack of) 

I mentioned earlier that I don’t put anything but the puzzle piece and crayons on students’ desks. Why?

One, I let students sit wherever they want to on the first day. Shocking, I know. I do this because I don’t know the students yet, but for the most part, unless you teach kindergarten, they know each other. I want to see who students sit next to and choose to talk to. I want to sit back and observe how they choose to interact with one another. This gives me a pretty good idea of classroom dynamics and personalities. On the first day, students are usually so nervous that they don’t act out too much, but you can get an idea of the kinds of choices they make.

The other reason I don’t put things on students desks is that I want an opportunity to hand out materials myself. Partly so I can talk about how to use the materials and care for them, but also so that I can walk around and get to know the names and faces of each student. When I’m handing out pencil boxes, notebooks, folders, etc. I’m getting multiple opportunities to meet each student for a couple seconds as I drop of the materials I say each name every chance I get. By the end of the day I have all student names and faces memorized.

I also don’t want overwhelm students with too much stuff on the first day that we don’t necessarily need until later in the week. I hold onto supplies, like notebooks and folders, and hand them out as we’re engaging in the activity that requires that supply.

Play a Name Game 

There are tons of name games. Play one. Any one. Just do one.

As I mentioned earlier, every opportunity you have to say and interact with students names will help you learn them that much better. Once you learn their names, your brain can move onto other things, like figuring out their learning styles and personalities.

Name games also help students learn each others’ names. For smaller students, make it simple. For older students, make it more complicated. Either way, make it FUN!

Don’t Forget the Rules 

Go slow. Be deliberate. Very deliberate. Explain EVERYTHING. To the point where you think you’re going overboard. Every opportunity you get, go over how to do something both in the classroom and outside of the classroom. Chorally repeat them. Model them. Practice them.

Keep in mind those areas outside the classroom, like the playground, bathroom, hallways, etc. How do you want students to behave in those areas? Teach. Model. Practice. Repeat.

Cooperative Learning Activities & Icebreakers 

Plan a lot of them. Plan more than you will need. You never know when you might have a little extra time to throw one in. The first couple days / weeks of school are all about learning how to get along together in the classroom. Use every opportunity to build community and teach students how to get along with one another. It will pay off in the long run, later in the year.

Some of my favorite cooperative learning activities are highlighted in a blog post on What I Have Learned.

Bonus: Favorite Books 

Below are some of my favorite books that walk you through setting up your classroom for the first couple weeks of school.  The below links are affiliate links.

Keys to the Elementary Classroom  I have used every year since I first started teaching.  It is filled with awesome suggestions on how to set up your classroom, create a daily schedule, and what to do during those first few weeks.

The First Days of School is a great book for, wait for it, the first days of school!

Reaching All by Creating Tribes Learning Communities  has excellent cooperative learning activities for all grade levels.  It's much more than just cooperative learning activities, but those are what I use from it.

Are you an experienced teacher?  What tips and suggestions do you have for the first day of school?  I'd love to hear about them in the comments below.


  1. All of your advice is just perfect. It's my eighteenth year of teaching, and I've never played a name game! How could I have overlooked that? Thank you for the advice. My advice is to OVERPLAN. My first year, I thought I had overplanned, but I hadn't! Yikes. By the end of the day, I had almost run out of ideas. We made it, but it was rough!
    Laughter and Consistency

  2. I really like the community puzzle. Will be great a a bulletin board when completed. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thanks for the ideas! Also, I totally agree with Jan- overplan! And whatever you don't use the first few days I use during the school year to have fun and continue building classroom community! Thanks for a great post!

    Life As I Know It

  4. In a few short weeks I will be beginning year 33! I have taught mostly first grade but this year will be my 3rd year doing reading interventions for grade K-6.