The first day of a new academic year, whether it be in school or Church School can set the tone for the rest of the year. Here are the Ten Guiding Principles, the corresponding messages they convey to students, and suggestions for implementing each principle. These principles are adapted to a church setting, using Your First Year of Teaching and Beyond by Ellen Kronowitz.
Ten Guiding Principles
- Be prepared – My teacher knows what he/she is doing!
- Motivate kids – Church is exciting!
- Establish routines and schedules – Church is safe and predictable
- Establish classroom rules – I will learn self-control!
- Orient students to your room (and church) – I am comfortable and belong here!
- Preview the curriculum – I will learn new things!
- Let students decide and choose – We’re all in this together!
- Include a Bible experience – Reading is wonderful!
- Acknowledge every child – I am special!
- Review and do something easy – I can succeed!
Be Prepared. Arrive at church very early. You will feel more confident if you can spend time checking out the room and feeling comfortable in it. Make sure that your name is on the board along with the schedule, there is a welcoming sign on the door, all your name tags are carefully prepared, the furniture is arranged to your satisfaction, all your instructional materials are ready, and your plans are summarized on an index card for easy reference. I tend to go to the classroom at least 15 minutes before each of my class sessions. Laying out materials and writing the schedule or topic for the day on the board conveys to students that the teacher is well prepared and well organized and will help them pass from a state of uncertainty to a state of knowing and understanding.
Motivate Kids Capitalize on anticipation this very first day. Provide a variety of highly motivating experiences. Keep the pace moving and overplan so you never drag anything out to fill time. Kids need to go home that very first day with the message that class is exciting. The first day can either reinforce good feelings about church or turn around bad ones. In middle or high school, a short demonstration or experiment serves this purpose. Make this a day that students will remember and talk about at home later that day. Make sure, whatever your activities, that kids will respond to the traditional question “What did you do in class today?” with a glowing smile and excited report, instead of a bored “I don’t remember,” or worse, “Nothing much.”
Establish Routines and Schedules Begin to establish a set of daily routines that first day. Routines are a management tool for saving time and ensuring smooth functioning of the classroom. But they also provide the structure and security that help kids meet a basic need. We all make certain predictions about our environment, and when our predictions are verified in reality, we feel good. But when even one of our expectations goes awry (the car won’t start, or the alarm doesn’t go off, or the shower water is cold instead of hot), we can become disoriented. We need to do certain things by rote so our energies can be spent in more creative endeavors. Introduce some routines on that first day as they are needed; others can be introduced as the weeks progress.
In addition to established routines, kids (and adults) appreciate a fixed schedule. We are creatures of habit, and when our schedules are disrupted by travel, or by house guests, or by any one of a number of outside factors, we become cranky. My students appreciate knowing how the time block will be divided, and I always have an activities schedule, including times, on the chalkboard prior to class. They like to see if an exciting activity is coming up, or a video, or a simulation game, or maybe they want to mentally check off how much time there is until break. While I don’t always stick to the schedule, it’s always there as a guide, and students can predict the order of the session. Your students at all grade levels will also want the security of a schedule, and since it is in your head and or paper already, why not let them in on it by writing it along with the allotted times on a special part of the chalkboard?
Your first day/class should be planned within the context of your eventual daily schedule. While the first day will not be typical, neither should it be so different from a usual day that kids later are surprised and resistant to a new schedule that seems to come out of left field. Surprises are best introduced and most welcome within predictable routines and an established schedule.
Establish Classroom Rules Begin to implement your discipline strategies and create a positive class climate that first day of class. This is the time to talk about and model a discipline system based on mutual respect, responsibility, and dignity. At no time will the students be better behaved than on the first day of class. Capitalize on their first-day formality. Collaboratively establish rules and then show the students you are consistent and fair in enforcing rules. This might be a time to explain the classroom meeting and have your first go at it. Middle school students can brainstorm the rules in small groups. Hopefully they will include some of these, but they may need your subtle (or not so subtle) suggestions:
- Raise your hand to speak and listen to others.
- Respect each other’s space, person, and property.
- Be responsible.
Don’t let infractions slide that first day. The kids will be checking you out carefully. You can always lighten up as the year progresses, so start out a bit more firm than you plan to be by midyear. Pass all of their tests with flying colors by using your own good sense. This is also the day to send home the note to parents (in translation, if needed) that describes the class rules and procedures for enforcing them.
Orient Students We all need to get our bearings in a new situation. And even though a change of scenery can be broadening, it is also very scary. On most vacation tours, no matter how tightly or loosely scheduled, a quick orientation tour of every new city encountered is the first order of business. Students are no different in that they need to quickly get their bearings in a new school or classroom. The easiest way to orient new students, especially little ones, is to take a walking tour that first morning, pointing out such places of interest as the restrooms, water fountains and sanctuary. In the classroom, schedule a walk around the room using just eyes that first day. Students can make a mental note of where storage containers are located, where art supplies are stored, and so forth.
Preview the Curriculum On that very first day, let students in on some of the exciting things they will be learning this year. Preview some of the topics they will cover and introduce them to at least one of the stories and materials they will be using that first day. Let kids know it’s going to be an exciting year and that they will be learning many new things. Telling them about a special service project or events that will be coming up can send them home that first day brimming with high expectations and great anticipation for the coming year.
Let Students Decide and Choose Share responsibility for decision making with your class from the outset. Let them know they will be encouraged to make choices and participate in classroom processes. For younger students, participatory experiences that first day might include choosing seats, deciding what game to play, deciding what song they prefer to sing, choosing an activity, writing classroom rules, and so forth.
Include a Literacy “Biblical” Experience Let the kids know that very first day that you value reading by incorporating some simple reading or reading-related activity of the Bible into your plans. If your classroom has bibles for each student, let them design a cover using paper bags to personalize them for their future use.
Acknowledge Every Child On that first day (and all others) enable each child to feel unique. Let each one know with a verbal or nonverbal response from you that she or he is welcome, valued, and special. It can start with an individual greeting to each one on the way into the room. A greeting in the primary language of second language learners will make them feel welcome. It continues when you listen to their introductions and learn their names. It is reinforced by your positive remarks and smiling demeanor. It is expanded when you ask them to help you write the rules. It ends with a special good-bye to each student at the end of the class.
Review, Assign, and Post Easy “Work” Prepare work for the first day that is slightly below the anticipated level of the class. Why? Students should go home that very first day feeling successful, feeling that they have accomplished something. For younger students, a few papers can be sent home that very first day with an appropriate happy face or comment by you so parents can see the results of their child’s initial efforts. Step in when you see that a given task is too difficult or frustrating.