Rethinking the First Day of School

Today I celebrated (in my head) my 10th first day of school as a teacher. Some things felt the same as always. At the beginning of the day I didn't feel ready. At the end of the day I was exhausted. The day felt to crawl along and fly by simultaneously.

But in other ways, I definitely felt the difference that experience has brought to my first day of school. For the second year in a row, I actually got some sleep last night. When I got home today, I managed to cook dinner! More significantly, I've begun to understand the purpose and structure of my first day of school in an entirely new way.

I used to think (because I taught) that the first day of school is all about structures, routines, rules, and procedures. I would spend lots of time focusing on rules, and practicing basic routines like circling up ("Let's see if we can do that even faster!"), coming to the rug ("Let's try that again!"), and lining up ("We need to try that again and do it silently this time."). We had fun too with activities like a classmate scavenger hunt and the silent birthday line up. These were a means to an end however, intended to help us learn each other's names, but also practice listening and following directions. Once the early days of school were behind us, these games were left behind as well. Meanwhile, content had to wait. I was afraid to jump into anything before the kids were "ready."

Today felt different. As I grown to better understand and value relationship building, culturally responsive teaching, and student autonomy in my classroom, my first days of school have changed as well. Perhaps for the first time ever, I wasn't afraid at all to jump into "regular" teaching. I felt comfortable doing so, because I've realized the way good practices like ice breakers and team builders should be a part of year long teaching beyond the first day, and bad teaching, like drilling kids over and over again like pets, should not be a part of any day of teaching.

I won't shame myself or other teachers for making this mistake. Like I said, many of us don't know any better. Books, teacher prep programs. and administrators often push this misconception as well. Additionally, I don't think I could have done this type of teaching early on, even if I wanted to.

I know today was imperfect, but I'm proud of what we did in our classroom. As much as possible, we tried to show the kids what to expect this year, and practice doing it. We opened with a restorative circle. Weread One by Kathryn Otoshi, and collaborated to interpret the theme. We filled out heart maps for our writer's notebooks. We worked in teams to build self-supporting towers out of index cards. We played category tag outside.

In other words, we did built community by doing things we'll do all year round. Or at least I hope so. It is easy to de-prioritize engineering challenges and outdoor games as we get into the middle of the year. But the things that make those activities good for a first day of school make them valuable every day. They allow kids to be kids, to move their bodies, to use their creativity, and to work together.

I'm confident the kids will still know how to circle up, come to the rug and line up when they need to. And if it takes a little extra time to do, it still feels worth it.


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