By Elyse S. Scott
On the first day of middle school, I would position myself in the main corridor of my building as the last bell rang and ask students about their first day back.
Smiles would precede mentions of seeing their friends again, but frowns would accompany that dreaded six-letter word middle level teachers cringe at hearing: “BORING!!!”
More often than not, when I asked why this was so, they would lament the same old back-to-school procedures repeated through every period of their day.
However, these days, as students make their way back from the magical world of their iPhones and game consoles (or this year, the latest Pokémon GO adventure), I envision even more scowls and complaints about ending the summer hiatus.
First impressions count
As middle level educators, do we believe that “first impressions count”? Is the phrase just another sweeping generalization or does it have merit? We all have a narrative stream about people who did not conform to our original impressions. However, in the adolescent world, first impressions, right or ultimately wrong, hold sway in the early days of a new school year.
The saying goes, “Save the best for last,” but highly effective teachers know that revealing “the best” at the beginning can be extremely powerful. I am not talking about best lesson or best assignment or even “the best that you can be.” Everyone tries to be on best behavior, decked out in our best back-to-school attire, optimistic and positive, raring to go.
I am talking about “the best you can deliver” that will engage students and hook them into you so that they just might look forward to tomorrow. The fact is that the persona of the teacher on that very first day is a signal to students of what lies ahead. The person they will be connecting with is more important to them than the content delivered, paperwork completed, or diagnostic test administered.
Students don’t have adult coping skills
We tend to assume that middle school students know the drill: it’s time to buckle down and get back into the business of school. But adolescents are a reluctant lot, already missing late night texting sessions and sleeping in until lunch time.
So aside from touching base with kids they may not have seen for awhile and enjoying their favorite hallway antics and chit chat, many students are less than thrilled to be corralled in a classroom for forty-some minutes with Mr., Ms. or Mrs. Whoever! It’s a very tall order to awaken their spirits and start building those connections that are integral to student engagement.
All human beings have more success when they have a vested interest in what they do, but this is a mandatory requirement for adolescents. And they become more vested in the learning journey when their teachers present themselves as being worthy of taking the helm. Their teachers have to show they are smart, humorous, understanding, inventive, entertaining – all in their first trial run!
So what do we do?
So what can make for a meaningful first class – one that opens pathways for receptivity and interest? After 30 years of teaching at the middle level, my experience tells me it comes down to sharing who you are as a human being and showcasing your gifts. We all have our own ways of doing this, and yours may be more visual or techy than mine, but here’s what worked for me.
Because I love to write poetry (see my end-of-school post), I used that medium to tell my students about myself, my rules, my likes, my dislikes, my personal life. After the first four lines, they were hooked into the rhyme, and they loved it! I got my points across, and they had a wonderful time. My efforts were worth it.
For many years now I write poetry and verse
Usually in June, but I decided to go in reverse.
Let’s start the year off with a poem by Mrs. Scott
It will break the ice and give you some idea about this teacher you’ve got. . .
For the rest of the period, I shared letters with them on “How to Survive Mrs. Scott’s Eighth Grade English Class” – written by my previous classes at the end of the school year. When my newest students left our first class session together, they were already my students, many of whom told me in various ways that they thought they were going to like English!
Invite your students into your amazing universe
So we are not all into writing poems. But we all have gifts. Teachers are a talented lot: photographers, storytellers, magicians, artists, musicians, cooks and bakers, humorists. What part of you can you open up to your students that will make a difference on that very first day?
How will you have them wanting to be part of your universe as well as considering that maybe your classroom will be a place where their gifts and talents can be celebrated too?
On the very first day, I urge you to forgo the course outline, the pre-tests, and the other busy work that can easily be embedded a few days down the road.
How about a quick, entertaining short story in ELA or an amazing film clip in science to spark inquiry? How about some intriguing math puzzles, or samples of student art work that invite lively conversation?
Do not underestimate the importance of beginnings. Do it your way, but do it! The key at the middle level is to establish trust, without the luxury of lots of time to get there. Those initial days in the classroom can be the catalyst for building community and ultimately a collaborative learning environment, and it all starts with that first impression!
Elyse S. Scott is the author of Secrets From the Middle: Making Who You Are Work For You and her latest book Awakening the Middle School Voice: ‘Engineering’ the Language Arts To Excite Adolescents (AMLE, 2015), reviewed at MiddleWeb here. She is a retired English teacher who found her true passion teaching eighth graders for almost 30 years. She now writes, lectures, and consults in the Hudson Valley of New York and is enjoying her own granddaughter’s journey “in the middle.” You can reach her at email@example.com