Few things excite me as much, or give me as much energy as “back to school” season. School supplies, new clothes, new teachers, a different schedule, seeing friends again, seeing favorite teachers in the hallway, and even the smell in the air (it smells like football to me!). I love every single thing about it. Optimism. Excitement. Hope. Passion. Everybody has a fresh start. A tabula rasa.
Recently, as my children returned home from their respective first days of school with their stacks of forms, policies, rules, procedures, and fee requests, I took some time to reflect on what is really happening on the first day of school. Not by being critical of my children’s teachers or schools, but reflecting on my own practice as an educator.
I welcomed students to my classroom for nine first days of school as a teacher. On each of those first days of school, depending upon the time allotted, I introduced or reviewed a version of the following:
I know what I was trying to do. I wanted to set the tone that every minute of instructional time would be protected and that all non-course related matters would be relegated to the boundaries. I didn’t tell my students that I was married with kids, nor did I ask them about their families except for a generic student data card I had them complete as I launched into my annual performance of my “Tiger in a Cage” speech. I didn’t tell them I was an Army veteran or ask them about their life experiences or backgrounds. I was an AP European History teaching machine, live and in the flesh, and would tolerate no “external factors,” as Nick Saban would say.
While I termed these 20 items my “classroom procedures and expectations,” let’s be honest about what they really were. MY RULES. This is how “we” will do business in “my” classroom. Using only loose-leaf notebook paper ensures an effective learning environment, not an inventory of student learning styles and interests. Limitations on visits to the restroom and trashcan will maximize your achievement in this course, not allowing for student voice and choice in their assignments. Reading Harry Wong’s The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher reinforced the importance of establishing procedures early but I regret now, with the perspective of time and experience, that I didn’t do more to establish the teacher-student relationship first.
Was I truly setting the bar for rigor and high expectations? In my heart of hearts I like to think so, but I struggle with one question: Was it about me or was it about the students? While I was an effective teacher (IMHO) and built good relationships with many of my students, the first basis for that relationship I laid down was one of compliance rather than trust. At the end of the day (and every day), I wanted each of my students to trust that I would help them to be successful in my class. But, did the way I approached the first day of school build their trust in me or snuff out the same back to school energy and optimism that we both shared?
I can state unequivocally now, five years removed from the classroom as a high school assistant principal, that effective learning environments are born of positive, respectful, and healthy relationships between teachers and students. Setting the foundation for these relationships should be the goal of the first day of school rather than communicating teacher-centric classroom procedures and administrative minutiae.