Imagine this scenario: Billy is a ninth grader starting a new school.
His mother has dragged him through every store in town to find him new clothes for the first day. When the big day comes, he wakes up early—staring at the clock and wondering why he was up so much through the night to see what time it was.
He barely touches the favorite breakfast his mother has made, and then he straps on his new backpack ready to go. Before he heads out the door, his mom takes his photo to post on Facebook. He already has his schedule from the orientation meeting he attended the week before.
When he walks in the school, he finds a table in the cafeteria and takes out his phone. He doesn’t really have anything to look at, but playing Angry Birds is the easiest way to make it through the awkward waiting time. Soon the bell rings, and Billy heads to first hour.
His teacher is there to greet him at the door. “Good morning,” Mrs. Donovan says. “You’ll find a seating chart on the Smart Board.”
Billy looks at the screen and sees his name is listed on the fourth desk in the second row. When he sits down, he finds a folder with his name already written on it. When he opens it, he finds a class syllabus and calendar. There is also a half-page questionnaire for him to fill out.
On the Smart Board above the seating chart, he reads: You are in Room 123, Mrs. Donovan’s Geography, 1st period. Welcome!
Billy sighs with relief. First five minutes of school, and he’s made it to the right place. He knows where he’s supposed to be, he knows he’s in the right place, and he knows what he should be doing.
Now imagine this: Jenny is a returning student at her high school. She didn’t bother attending schedule pick-up for juniors because her summer job had her working every weekday. After working the entire break, she’s been able to buy some new clothes for school. But she’s feeling pretty overwhelmed knowing that the start of school usually means buying more classroom supplies or paying other fees that are hard for her to cover. Plus, she’s exhausted and wondering how she’ll have the energy to work do her schoolwork and cover the store till closing.
She sets an alarm on her phone that wakes her up early enough for school, but she hits the snooze and oversleeps. Her grandmother finally raps on her door ten minutes before school. “Jenny, you going to get up?” she asks.
“Oh, no!” Jenny gasps. She jumps out of bed, puts her hair in a ponytail, throws on some clothes and heads out the door.
When she gets to school, she’s missed breakfast and she’s tardy. She stands in line at the counseling office when she notices a table marked “schedules.” She moves there and finds her schedule: First hour, Mr. Samuels, room 125, Algebra II. She doesn’t recognize the name. Maybe he’s one of the new teachers.
She heads down the hall. She’s flush with frustration but holds her head high and finds a seat still open in the back of the room. Everything seems surreal on the first day back, she thinks. Then she slowly begins to realize that her teacher isn’t talking about math.
Instead he is explaining their schedule for research and novel reading. She glances around the room but can’t see the teacher’s name anywhere. She looks around. No one has a syllabus. Nothing is written on the board. She doesn’t have any idea what room number this really is, but she has a feeling it’s not room 125.
By this time, she’s too embarrassed to ask, and the teacher is so involved in his first-day-of-school speech that he hasn’t paused to ask Jenny for her name, schedule, or given her any other leads.
So she endures the discomfort for the remaining 45-minutes. Then she rushes from the class as quickly as possible and doesn’t even look back as she heads to the bathroom so she can sit in a bathroom stall long enough to stop crying.
4 Cues On First-Day Do’s and Don’ts
If you’ve read this far, you’ve already picked up on a few important “first-day-of school” observations:
1. Some students have lots of supports before ever stepping into schools. Billy may be irritated and nervous–sometimes his mom’s super-involvement in his life gets on his nerves, and it was hard to sleep the night before school, but he comes to school with a lot of support from home. He’s been to orientation. He has a schedule. He’s ready and it makes the morning easier.
2. Billy’s teacher makes it even easier for him to feel secure and oriented. Mrs. Donovan has gone out of her way to make sure he knows where he is and what is expected of him. He could just as easily been in a room with less structure like Jenny. Instead he thrives even more with the support he finds in his first hour.
3. Jenny is coming to school already struggling from the overwhelming responsibilities she’s managing outside of school. She’s already working independently, and she doesn’t have the kind of emotional and family support that makes it easy to start school. Starting with low support from home makes support at school even more important for her.
4. Even though Jenny has made a big mistake in going to the wrong class, the problem is exacerbated when the teacher provides little or no direction for her on where she is. Her first-day experience was going to be tough enough because of her struggles outside of school. But the lack of follow-through from her first hour teacher (who isn’t even her teacher) only adds to an already difficult situation. How different her first day may have been had she stepped into Mrs. Donovan’s class!
As you begin your new school year, you will have a lot of Billys and Jennys in your buildings. You cannot control their experiences outside of school, but you play an enormous role in what kind of place they will find to learn.
School-wide expectations are no different from classroom ones. When everyone is working together to remember that each student comes with different perspectives, each student needs to feel safe and oriented, and each school leader and teacher plays a pivotal role in providing the clearest directions–then you have a place where the first day can be a great one.
First Days Resource
Without a doubt, my favorite book to prepare for the first-day of school is Harry Wong’s First Days of School. My first four years of teaching, I read it every summer. And as a principal, I still enjoy looking through it for reminders on ways to teach process, procedures, and set the tone for a great year.
Now It’s Your Turn
What are some other suggestions or tips you would share with your team on preparing for a great first day of school?