Advice for Day 1 of School
I was always nervous the night before the first day of school. It didn’t matter if I was a student, a teacher, or a head of school. I slept very little the night before and was exhausted by the end of the first day. The more experienced I became, the more I simply came to expect and accept my nervous excitement. I realized that although you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, it’s really not true—there’s always tomorrow. However, I also knew that with good advance preparation and a clear sense of my goals for day one, everything would work out well.
As a head of school, I had two goals on the first day of school: meet the people and, as Simon Sinek writes in his book with the same title, start with the why. School is all about relationships as is leadership in general, and that means being visible. It may be more comfortable to hide in an office in front of a computer, but doing so doesn’t build relationships with people, and it’s people who stand at the center of the school. Parents are in the parking lot at drop-off and pick-up. Students are in the hallways. Teachers are in the lunchroom. Day one is for schmoozing with parents, students, and teachers. It helps build trust.
My second goal from the start was to remind the school community about our higher purpose. As an administrator, be clear about why the school exists. Why is it an important asset to the community? If you are successful, what impact will your school be making? Or if your school didn’t exist, in what way would the community be impoverished?
These two goals apply not just to administrators but to classroom teachers as well. Starting day one, focus on community-building in the classroom. Students learn best when they feel safe, valued, and have a sense of belonging. Greet students when they enter. Stand at the doorway and say goodbye when they depart. And in between, give them the chance to share a bit about themselves in pairs, in small groups, or as a large group.
First, take time to introduce yourself. Why did you become a teacher? What’s your religious or intellectual journey? But don’t take yourself too seriously. Humor will lighten things up, and the more comfortable students feel around you and around their peers, the more open to learning they will be.
Second, explain why this course matters. How does it connect to the outside world? What excites you about teaching this subject? Why is it important to learn physics or history or Tanach, Ivrit, or Talmud? How will the students become better people and better citizens of the world by learning this subject? What skills will they gain that will transcend the subject matter? Start with the why. Don’t hand out the syllabus yet, but keep in mind that the syllabus should be an answer to those questions and not just a list of topics and a description of the grading process.
Lastly, use the first day to teach something new and exciting so students return home and can’t help but brag about what they learned. One teacher always introduces a problem or question that the students will encounter later in the year. It’ll challenge them, but it will also get them to draw on prior knowledge and give them a glimpse at the intellectual journey ahead. It’ll spark their curiosity. It also lets you know what students already know.
Save the rules and regulations for another day. Instead, model the expectations in the rule book. From day one, show the students that they matter and demonstrate why the course matters. By the end of the day, you’ll realize your nerves are calmer. You’ll finally be able to get a good night’s sleep. Bring on day two!