Are You Ready for the First Day of School? (Part 1)

It’s almost here – that First Day of School.  In fact, as I write this the first day of school for our students is less than 48 hours away – and today is open house visitation for students and their families.  This is certainly an exciting time of year for all of us involved in caring for children!

Last week I had the privilege of listening to Harry and Rosemary Wong address a group of teachers on what contributes to a successful year, and their entire presentation focused on one key idea – that having an effective teacher in every classroom is the only way to improve student performance.  They then spent the next three hours helping to define characteristics of effective teachers.

The Wongs identified three characteristics of effective teachers:

  1. Good Classroom Management (note, this is not the same as discipline)
  2. Lesson Mastery
  3. Positive Expectations

Now those are some pretty broad terms, and I’m not sure anyone reading this blog will see that list and have an epiphany because those three terms are the basis for just about every teacher-preparation program or staff-development initiative that teachers have ever participated in.  But let’s break them down a little and see where what we get.  So we’ll begin with looking at characteristic #1: Effective Classroom Managers (we’ll look at the other two in days to come).

According to the Wongs, 80-90% of problems in the classroom have nothing to do with discipline and have everything to do with the teacher.  That’s a startling statistic!  In fact, I was surprised to hear it worded the way that way, but Dr. Wong went so far as to say, “The number one problem in a school is not discipline but teachers who don’t have a plan.”  So how do we address this?  By creating a plan – and if you don’t yet have a plan in place for your first day of school (you can worry about days 2-181 after you get through day 1!) you need one.  And not something that’s just out there in your mind, but a concrete, written-down plan.

To start with, research indicates that when students arrive in your classroom they are looking for the answer to seven questions – and my guess is that they discern the answer to those seven questions is less than seven minutes (perhaps even seven seconds).  The research also indicates that these questions are asked by students of every age – including high school.  Those questions are:

  • Am I in the right room?
  • Where do I sit?
  • Who is the teacher as a person?
  • What are the rules in this room?
  • What will I be doing this year?
  • How will I be graded?
  • Will the teacher treat me as a human being (ie, will I be treated with respect)?

I suggest you use those questions to guide your planning and procedures for the year.  Have a seating chart, get to know your kids, allow your kids to get to know you, share with them the goals for the year, and don’t belittle them by using sarcasm.

Let me pause here for a second… I know there are a lot of teachers out there, particularly secondary teachers, who like to use sarcasm with their students as a way to have fun and joke around.  Here’s my advice (even if you didn’t ask for it): Don’t do it.  Sarcasm creates a climate of distrust and disharmony and it tears students down instead of building them up.  If you think I’m alone in this area of thought read this article.  Please, if you do it to be funny, know that while people may be laughing when you use sarcasm they are not laughing at you – they are laughing with you at the student who was just belittled.

The Wongs tell us that a key component of having a plan to manage your classroom is to have procedures in place for all the routine tasks required to run your room efficiently and effectively.  Examples would be entering the room, getting the teacher’s attention, handing in homework, participating in class discussions, sharpening a pencil, going to the restroom, lining up, leaving the room, etc.  You need to have a procedure in place for each action that students will need to do in your classroom – and then you need to teach the procedure.  Teaching the procedure is very simple: you explain it, you model it, you practice it, you give feedback, and you repeat the process until they demonstrate they have learned the procedure.

Let me tell you a humorous, though depressing story.  I spent the first four years of my career teaching elementary music what is traditionally considered a difficult school in Southeast Florida.  One day I was standing outside my door dismissing my class and the next class was waiting to come in (I was dismissing kindergarten and my 5th graders were waiting to enter).  The kindergarten class were being very quiet and serving as excellent models to the 5th graders of how a class of students should behave in the hallway.  The 5th graders were loud and obnoxious.  When I got into the hallway I witnessed the 5th grade teacher yelling at the top of his lungs (literally), “Someone needs to teach you kids how to walk quietly in a line!”  What I wanted to say (but didn’t, since I was “just” a second year teacher and this person had been teaching for years) was, “And aren’t you the teacher?”  For the record, this wasn’t the beginning of the year, either – it was well into the Spring semester.

What I did do was simply tell him, “It’s okay, I’ve got it from here, you can go back to your room.”  He stormed out of the building, I looked at my class, they were immediately silent, and I allowed them to enter the room.  As they went in they found their seats and we got to work – there were no more disruptions for the rest of the 45 minute period.  A the end of class I lined them up at the door, they were quiet, and when he arrived and they walked out of my room they began their obnoxious, loud behavior again, and he continued to yell and berate them.

I tell you this story not to make myself look like an expert classroom manager – because, believe me, I had plenty of issues (particularly in those early years).  I tell it to show you the difference between a teacher who taught and enforced procedures and one who did not.

So, teach procedures – and practice them until the students can do them without fail.  The Wongs also indcated that the #1 priority for teachers when students get to class is to get them working – and I would agree with that 100%.  Don’t waste time doing administrative tasks while students sit (or stand) doing nothing – because when they have nothing to do they will invent something to occupy the time.  Find a way to do your administrative tasks while students are working.  Another statistic they shared was startling – if you waste 5 minutes in every class (by doing routine tasks) that translates to at least 30 minutes a day (in a six period day).  30 minutes a day times 181 days is 5430 minutes a year, or 90.5 hours of instruction.  While that sounds like a lot, it gets worse.  Let’s say for every year a child is enrolled in school they have 5 minutes of every class wasted – 90.5 hours of instruction per year times 13 years equals 1176.5 hours of instruction over the course of a K-12 education.  That is equivalent to one entire year of school!  Lengthening the school day and school year is as simple as maximizing the time we already have!

The last bit of research I want to share with you from the Wongs is that research indicates effective teachers spend the first 10 days of school (ie, first two weeks) teaching and establishing procedures.  Students fail in school for one primary reason: they do not know what to do to succeed.  Procedures can address some of the “doing” that has to happen in a classroom, but procedures are not an end in-and-of themselves.  The purpose of procedures is to create an orderly classroom so learning can take place.  I’ll do another post on characteristics #2 & #3 after the first week or so of school – but for now answer this question for yourself, “What’s my procedure for _________?”  If you don’t have one, create one.  And once you have it, teach it, model it, reinforce it, and require your students to demonstrate it.

For more information and resources from Harry Wong, visit their website at


One thought on “Are You Ready for the First Day of School? (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Lesson Mastery Part I: Having a Clearly Defined Destination « Thomas R Feller, Jr.

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