The children have just walked in, some with a spring in their step, and some still looking a bit tired from those last-minute camping trips. You need to take care of first-day procedures such as taking the roll and the lunch count. But before you get caught up in the hustle and bustle of this first day of school, you need to set the tone for the school year. Whether they admit it or not, kids like and need structure. They want to know that they are going to be safe while in your care.
I remember that when I was student teaching I really wanted the kids to like me. My master teacher told me it was more important to be respected; the liking would come soon enough. She used the analogy of riding a horse. She said it was harder to pull in the reins and slow down the horse if you started with loose reins and let the horse feel in control. I've really found that statement to be true. I don't adhere to the "don't smile until December" theory, but setting a tone of order in your classroom is important.
Start the first day on the right foot
After the first-day procedures are finished, I start off the next step by asking the students what kind of classroom makes them feel comfortable. I write down their thoughts using the overhead projector or on the whiteboard. I ask the students the following questions to start the discussion.
- What kind of rules did they have in their classrooms in the past?
- Did they think the rules were good? Why or why not?
- Did they think the rules were reasonable?
I often get a wide variety of responses such as:
- Keep your hands and feet to yourself
- Don't talk when others are talking
- Stay on task (they pick up the teacher lingo)
- Wash your hands
- Don't eat with your mouth open
Teachers have to be many things, and sometimes one of those things is an actor. I often tell my wife that when I get home I have an adrenaline drain because I've been on stage all day. My point is that after I have spent time with the students compiling their list, I tell them that I'm noticing something about all the rules they have listed. They all have something in common, and that thing is respect.
Keep it simple
Respect covers it all — straightforward, right? Be respectful of people by not touching them or their things. Be respectful by not speaking when someone else is speaking, whether it is the teacher or student. Be respectful of people's work by not being overly critical.
I tell the students that when they were little they had rules, but now that they are older and in this grade, I don't have rules — I have expectations. My expectations are that the students will be respectful of each other, of me, and of every other student and adult in our school. I respectfully ask the students if that seems unclear or unfair to anyone. I ask whether there is anyone who doesn't want to show respect or who doesn't want to be respected. To date, I have never received a negative response. If I ever do receive such a response, I think it might be a great discussion opportunity.
Make it official
Finally, after coming to a consensus on the premise of the expectation of overall respect, I suggest we print up a class expectation agreement on a poster that we can all sign and post in our room. This step finalizes the discussion and brings closure to the topic. The students get a sense of ownership in that they developed these ideas. They feel that they are being treated like the "big kids," with no more class rules but instead with expectations that they will show respect.
The poster looks something like this:
All Students Will…
- Show respect at all times to their classmates and teacher.
- Show respect to each others' property.
- Show respect when someone else is speaking.
Respect means polite consideration of the feelings of others and their property.
I close the poster with the statement, "We agree to abide by these expectations so that we can make our class a great place to be." Students sign in pen below this statement to make it official. Having the document posted in the room serves as a good reference point that I can walk over to with a student. I can point out their signature should the student fail to meet the expectations at any time throughout the school year.
Reward student efforts
It is a good idea to list rewards and consequences on this same document. I like the rewards that don't cost anything. Some examples of great rewards are:
- First choice of classroom supplies
- Getting to move to the front of the line
- First choice of recess equipment
- The use of the electric pencil sharpener while everyone else uses the manual sharpener.
Make sure to include parents in these rewards for showing proper respect. Positive notes and phone calls home are always a good feeling for the student, the parent, and you.
Start your year on the right foot by developing your own expectations with your class. Your students want to know their boundaries; they want to understand both the rewards and consequences of their behavior. Most importantly, they want to feel secure in their relationships with you and with their classmates.