The first-day “rule”? Be true to yourself.

by | 09.9.21

Sydney Chaffee is the 2017 National Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). She teaches ninth grade Humanities at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Follow her on Twitter @SydneyChaffee.

I work as a teacher coach in addition to teaching my own students, and I’ve been meeting with fellow educators as we all get ready to head back. The other day, I met with a teacher to talk about the first day of school, and she confided, ‘I kind of hate the first day.’

‘What’s that about?’ I asked.

‘Well, there are all these rules. You’re supposed to do games. I don’t like games.’

I asked her to tell me about her plans for day three. She pulled out a lesson plan, full of these brilliant ideas for introducing students to a book, every teaching decision guided by what I knew to be true: She’s very talented at building community.

I said, ‘Okay, well, this lesson looks really great. Why can’t you do this on day one?’

‘Because you’re not supposed to do content on day one. That’s a rule,’ she said.

I said, ‘Who made that rule? I think you can.’

When I asked her what her goals were for the first week of school, she said she wanted to build relationships, start routines, introduce kids to her style and make sure the kids start to get comfortable with her and each other.

We looked back at her lesson plan for day three – and guess what? She could begin working toward all of those important goals for her students, even while jumping into her content. We began to re-envision her lesson, asking, ‘What if this were day one instead?’

I told her that I needed her to remember that she’s an incredibly strong teacher and that building relationships is a strength of hers. What she decides to do on day one – whether it’s an icebreaker or a lesson rooted in her content – is less important than the way she draws on her strengths to meet her students’ needs.  

As teachers, especially early in our careers, we absorb all these messages about what we’re supposed to do and not supposed to do. It can make us afraid to do the things we’re actually really good at. I think we need to release those messages and plan with our own unique teacher strengths in mind. 

Planning for the first day – and for any day of the school year – is really just about centering what the kids need, and that can take a lot of different forms. There’s no one way. There is no rule. 

We can trust ourselves to draw on our own strengths and passions to meet students’ needs. When we do that, we are going to come up with a stronger plan than we will by following someone else’s idea about what the “rules” are – and that’s how we can best support our students.

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