How can you make the first day back at school more exciting than intimidating, for both you and your students?
Start your day right. Even just five minutes for a spot of mindfulness can focus your thoughts, before the mayhem ensues. Get to your classroom earlier than usual for some pre-emptive reflection time. Don’t be printing out worksheets, checking emails or writing out notes on the whiteboard - give yourself some time to sit and think: What do you want to achieve this year? Many teachers who have made this an everyday occurrence report lower stress levels and a greater sense of control over their day. Looking after your own mentality towards teaching is important for every day, and can have a real impact on the learning outcomes of a class.
As students begin to arrive, greet them individually if possible. Introduce yourself, engage in small talk until it’s time to begin. This eases the tension in the atmosphere, but will also help you to learn all your students' names as quickly as possible. Ideally by the end of the week, you would be able to greet each person individually. This is an easy way to establish a level of respect, which necessitates effort on their part to maintain. You might have seen a viral video going around recently of a primary school teacher in the US, doing an individual secret handshake with every member of her class. You don’t need to spend hours thinking up different ways to high-five, but there’s something to be said here for the value in having individual rapport within education.
When teaching secondary and sixth form education, it’s likely that the students in your class will have never met before. In this case, some kind of icebreaking activity should begin the class, but try to minimise the inevitable awkwardness. Asking for ‘one interesting fact about yourselves’ can lead to sheer inward panic and later, some existential crises around the ‘interesting’ nature of their lives. Not the feelings you should aim to conjure. The best icebreakers are actually fun! Ask everyone to get up google on their phones then read out the last (socially acceptable) thing they searched. Or ask them about the worst icebreaker they’ve ever done. If everyone is talking and laughing, it’s done its job and its time to move on.
Now it’s time to ask your students what they want to achieve this year - and ask them how they would like to get there. Getting everyone involved in the learning process from the get-go creates a communal atmosphere. Start some discussion groups about different styles of learning, aural, visual, logical, physical and verbal. Get them to think about which style of learning is most commonly used in the classroom, compared to which style they think they would learn best.
As your first lesson draws to a close, ask some ‘pre-questions’ about the syllabus - questions posed about material before a student has learned any of it. A recent study in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition has shown this will enhance memory for that future information. Then instead of setting reading, recommend some lesser used visual or auditory learning tools to begin to impart the information they need.
By introducing different styles of learning students experience can be personalised for the term to come. Also by providing these ‘pre-questions’ instead of learning outcomes, the class will be subtly compelled to seek answers amongst a variety of sources. You can’t plan everything at school (even on this very first day), but you can set the tone for inclusion, inquisitiveness and acceptance, that will cushion the more difficult days through the year.