First day of class – a teacher perspective

This was the first week of class at university. Throughout the course of the following year I will be asking lots of questions of my students. For this reason, I’d hoped to be teaching intermediate level students, who would be able to respond to me in English. I am, however, working with beginner level students, who will, at least initially, be giving me feedback in their native tongue of Turkish, with me translating. More work for me, but that’s how things work out sometimes. On to the student perspective later, first, I what do we teachers think about day one?

I’m interested in how people go about dealing with the first day of a new class, both students and teachers. I posed the following to teachers on the ELT World TEFL discussion forum:

1) Do you still (if you ever did) get nervous?2) How do you approach the first day, in terms of making new students feel welcome?

3) Do you have a range of special activities that you wheel out for such occasions?

I’m happy that there have already been some responses to these questions. A poster by the name of Glenski was quite keen to help me out, wanting to offer advice if I could specify more clearly my background. My error: I had to clarify that I was actually interested in what others do on first days, rather than looking for ideas for my own class. I’ve been doing this job for ten years, and for better or worse have a number of activities that work for me in my context. Other poster’s also suggested I be more specific in describing my context; something to consider for the future when trying to engage others on discussion forums.

Well then, briefly as it doesn’t make for compelling reading, about my teaching situation. My classes have a 24-hour week, 24 50-minute classes spread between three teachers, at least one of which is a native English speaker. the class that I will be gathering the bulk of my research responses from will have 10 contact hours with me per week over a sixteen-week semester. In addition, each student has regularly scheduled one-to-one tutorials with one of their instructors: nine students will be tutored by me.

This was the first week of class, hence the catchy title of the post. I didn’t teach them on Monday, consequently missing the first day of school. I do however, have a range of activities I’ve used over the years, along with a list of tasks that I have to perform on the opening day. For me, like many people in our profession, this can be an exciting time. My first year as a teacher saw me a bag of nerves on the opening day, indeed, I remained very nervous about meeting my new class for many years. It’s only in the last couple of years that this ‘apprehension’ has subsided: I prefer to think of this as being a benefit of experience rather than anything sign of crustiness.

The view from the trenches

I feel that over the course of this project it will be important to get the view from the trenches; find out what those of us in the classroom actually do when dealing with particular situations. For the issue of dealing with the first day of classes, I asked three questions and garnered the following from among the responses.

1) Do you still (if you ever did) get nervous?

This seems to be down to the individual, some still feeling some anxiety, or perhaps excitement is a better word, even after many years of teaching:

‘I am never nervous teaching my first class, maybe I should be. I have been doing it for 15 years and the same university for over 7. Maybe my first class of my first day of work, I’d be a bit nervous, but the students would be the last ones to know about it.’

‘I am always a little nervous. I have been teaching for 20 years.’

‘I cannot imagine feeling nervous in front of a new class. This is what I do.’

‘The reason I feel nervous is the unknown, so if I have to do a demo lesson for example, I would never know if I would have 10 people, or 50. I didn’t even know how many copies to make. I also wouldn’t know what their level was, so I felt nervous about my materials. But once I walked into the room and began, I stopped feeling nervous.’

2) How do you approach the first day, in terms of making new students feel welcome?

Setting an appropriate tone appears to be number one on the list. This might not necessarily mean touchy-feely comforting; more like making sure that the students know where they are and what is expected of them.

‘[I] simply treat mine as adult / professional colleagues. In this university context, either being ‘above’ the students, or trying to ‘bond’ with them is unproductive.’

If they feel like they don’t need to be in the class, make sure they know why they do need it.

‘I used to teach an advanced class of adult “returnees”; so-called in Japan because they had spent long periods of time outside Japan, usually in an English-speaking country. They had TOEFL scores of above 600 and usually they thought they did not need the class. So in my first lesson, my aim was to shake up their over confidence – the exact opposite of usual classes.’

Set the ground rules and make them aware of the consequences. Being overly strict or describing punishments is not cynicism: it is, ultimately, fair on the students that they know this from the start:

‘I usually tell my students because if they miss a certain number of classes it is an automatic fail. I tell them when they reach their last absent class so they know not to bother coming back if they miss another class… One less student to grade.’

‘As most of my classes are either uni or high school, I’m generally a little over strict with them so they don’t take the piss later on. I also remind them not to ask me how many absences they have towards the end of the semester as, strangely enough, it will be exactly the same as the number of times they have been absent. If they cannot count, it is not my fault.’

3) Do you have a range of special activities that you wheel out for such occasions?

You will probably find that the first day of class is very quiet, as friendships and the overall classroom dynamic are, obviously, yet to form.

‘I might do a 15 minute one then I usually get straight into it, take advantage of the ‘strangely quiet and attentive’ period.’

Giving the relevant information and making preparations based on the course are a vital first day routine that I cannot recommend enough. Don’t take it for granted that, for example, the university or local book store will carry enough copies of your course book. What do they need to do to pass the course? Tell them. Do you have enough handouts? Does the computer projector work in the room? The following advice, to which I’m bestowing the title ‘The Glenski first day doctrine’, pretty much sums up how I go about getting ready for day one:

‘In my university classes, I of course prepare the students with my contact info, a reason they should be taking the course, and often a feedback survey to assess their needs and expectations and experiences related to the course.

I prepare myself just by being organized with enough stuff to fill the time (not kill it), knowing my PowerPoint show works in that room, and having all the right handouts in sufficient numbers.

When you’ve gone into classes where you didn’t know how many to expect, there’s bound to be some trepidation. I’ve had auditoriums allotted to me, which may seem daunting, but at least one knows a large number might show up, so one prepares accordingly. The shocker comes if a handful show up, or if you are in a small room and there is standing room only. But, that’s nothing you can really prepare for, other than to figure out what past class populations have been and make sign-up sheets if necessary.

Is your textbook in the bookstore? Find that out, too.

Does the room have chalk or marker pens and erasers? How do the controls work on the screen, lights, speakers, etc.?

All these things are preparations that essentially make the class go smoothly, and that’s why you feel comfortable. Do your best to expect the unexpected and don’t flip out if you can’t expect everything.

Finally, as the class fills up, be sure to get there early enough to set up your stuff and chat casually with a few students. Opening your mouth then helps take off any final edge, I have found.’

My thanks to all those I’ve quoted here. I hope this helps anyone reading this to ease their way through the first day of classes.

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