Best Practices, Pedagogy, Teaching Advice

Making the Most of The First Day of Class

The countdown to the fall semester has begun.  I’ll give you a moment to sob or stomp your feet…

Despite our wish for a never-ending summer (perhaps without the humidity), the reality is classes begin soon.  As you work on your syllabi and OAKS courses, give some thought to how you approach the first day of class.  Do you read the syllabus to your students line-by-line?  Do you have students play an icebreaker game that makes them sigh and roll their eyes?  Or do you simply introduce yourself, tell students which textbook to buy, then let them go after 5 minutes?

When I first began teaching, I admit to doing all three of these.  I was young and nervous and awkward.  But in the years since, I’ve learned to embrace the awkwardness of the first day and use that class period to set the tone for the rest of the semester.  So I challenge you to give more thought to what you do on the first day of class to set expectations and start building your classroom culture.

In a previous post, I discussed why you shouldn’t treat your first day as “syllabus day” so I won’t belabor those points here.  But I will offer a few additional suggestions:

Introduce yourself as a human being.  If students are so inclined, they can look up your bio on the department’s webpage.  They can Google you.  So instead of telling your academic story, consider telling a more personal story.  Share your hobbies and passions or something students would never guess based on their first impressions of you.  This is more than being personable; it’s about being authentic.  When I introduce myself to the class, I share quirks and pet peeves.  These usually get a chuckle and make me seem like a human being rather than a lecturing and grading robot.  I once had a professor who played a piece of music he wrote as a way to introduce himself.  I still remember him vividly 12 years later.

Find an icebreaker that isn’t trite.  I know, I know.  Icebreakers are awkward and many of them are incredibly boring.  But there are ways to encourage your students to get to know one another that don’t make them want to gouge their eyes out.  Remember, by the time students get to your class, they could have already suffered three or four terrible icebreakers.  So rather than the usual “let’s go around the room and each person tell us a little about themselves,” spice it up with an activity or game, even something silly.  For example, I have had students engage in “speed dating” where they have 2 minutes to chat before the bell rings and they have to move to the next classmate.  We’ve also played “6 degrees of separation” where they make a list of 5 things they have in common with a classmate, then they have to find someone else in the room who has at least one of those things in common.  Then those two students make a list of 5 similarities and the game continues.  Students may roll their eyes at first, but by the end of class, they are laughing and I notice friendships forming by the next class period.  So try something new this semester to encourage your students to talk to one another, rather than spending the minutes before class begins texting on their phones.

Establish intentions.  Rather than spending time listing policy after policy, consider setting intentions for the semester and involving your students in this process.  What do you hope they accomplish and what do they want to learn?  What do you expect from them and what can they expect from you?  Is there a way both parties can be satisfied?  For example, after I explain a few of the more important policies, I ask students to compile a list of what they would like from me.  Punctuality, availability, and fairness are usually mentioned and these are qualities that I already deem important.  But because students composed the list themselves, it gives them the sense that I’m willing to share my power and that I’m open to their perspectives.  We also spend time establishing a classroom code of conduct.  Some of you may find this infantile, but I believe it’s one of the best and easiest ways to establish a respectful classroom culture.  When students generate the rules, they own them.

Showcase course content.  Some of you may disagree with me on this point as well, but sometimes we have to convince students to buy what we’re selling.  The first day is all about introductions and the course content should be included.  But rather than provide a regurgitation of the course catalog description, pitch the course as something students will find exciting and, yes, applicable to their lives.  And just as important, tell students why this is content you love and why this is a course you want to teach.  Enthusiasm is contagious.  I also recommend you start teaching the first day.  Students may look at you with incredulity, but it communicates that you take the course and their learning seriously.  In contrast, if you let them go after ten minutes, it communicates the course isn’t important.  So use this time to jump in and provide an outline of the fantastic content you’ll be sharing.

The first day of class is ripe with possibilities.  Make the most of it and it will set you up for a successful and enjoyable semester!