Many teacher preparation programs tell you not to crack a smile until December. They say the first days of school are for establishing respect, rules and routines. While this advice is grounded on sound ideas, it overlooks an essential classroom practice: building community. It is community that makes a student look forward to going to class, and helps a student stay strong when the rest of his or her world falls apart. Community that encourages a student to work at his or her full potential. A strong community creates a learning environment where all students can succeed.
This past year I scraped all of my former first day plans in favor of activities that built our classroom community. We went outside and I shared my “vision statement” for the year. I asked students to help me complete an exercise that demonstrated that vision. Students looked at me a little confused as to why I was asking them to splatter paint on a canvas instead of reading a list of rules. However, this set a completely different tone for our year. Our vision, fully know(n) and fully love(d), created a community where we could freely express our ideas. We had to trust that when our classmates fully knew and understood our thoughts and feelings they would still love us. This vision encouraged us to share openly with one another, making our community that much stronger.
After the first day I hung the paintings and our vision statement on a bulletin board in a prominent part of the classroom. Each day my students and I were greeted with this reminder. During class discussions we’d go back to this vision and let it mold our conversation and tone of voice. On presentation days we’d start with a reminder of our vision and let it influence our feedback. When conflict arose we discussed where the breakdown in this vision occurred and how we could prevent it from happening in the future.
We eventually discussed our rules and routines, but this first day activity set the tone for what was most important in my classroom — it was the first impression, and I only have one chance at delivering a great one for the classroom! It both deepened our curricular learning and encouraged us to be better people. Isn’t that what every teacher wants?