First Week of School Activities to Build Culture

by | Jun 22, 2020 | New Teachers Tips

By Susan Jerrell, TOFT Founder

The first week of school sets the tone for the entire year. The minute your students first see you, they begin forming opinions of you and your personality. They form their perceptions of your classroom.

While many teachers spend hours of their time and money decorating their room, beyond a first glance, what students are really paying attention to is you. 

  • How do you react to them? 
  • What kind of “vibe” do you give off? 
  • What do you expect of them? 
  • Will you be nice? 
  • Are you approachable? 

Their questions are endless and whether you realize it or not, you become a topic of conversation at lunch and in the halls. Any parent can tell you stories of all the things their children tell them about their teachers. 

That is why the first week of school is so important. What happens then is a big predictor of how the year will go. Building a strong classroom culture begins at the very beginning.

Work on relationship building

One of the best things you can do to build strong culture is to build relationships immediately. No matter the grade, students feel a bit nervous at the beginning of school and even high school students wonder if they will like their teacher.

Be ready to greet each student as they come to class. This starts at your door. Get everything prepared early, so when students are released to your classroom you can give them your full attention. 

If you have been told “not to smile until Christmas” as many new teachers are, ignore the advice. Smile as they come down the hall. Welcome them and introduce yourself. Ask them their name. 

This simple act immediately tells your students that you are friendly and interested in them as people. You quickly establish yourself as a friendly face in the building. It will help decrease student anxiety and make them feel better about being there.

Once class officially starts, continue to smile. This helps you seem confident and makes the students feel more comfortable. The side benefit is that when students are used to you smiling, they take notice when you get serious about a discipline issue later. They know you mean business and they have crossed a line. This simple change in facial expression can stop many misbehaviors on the spot.

Get to know your students

To build classroom culture, I used the first week to really get to know my students. There are any number of ways you can do this from group activities and games to individual questionnaires. The point is you want to know more than just their names; you want to know them as people. 

One activity I liked to do with my high school students was to have them answer questions on a notecard. I liked to know things like what school activities they were in, if they had brothers or sisters or pets, and if they had after school jobs. 

This activity gave me topics to talk to them about throughout the year and also let me know how busy they were from the time school was out until bedtime. Knowing these details provided important information for assigning homework. 

I learned a lot of information on day one, so that my students quickly became more than just a name on the attendance sheet. Your own questions will be based on your own grade and what you personally will find helpful.

I also liked to have them include anything they wanted me to know. By the end of the first day, I learned information about them and also had a list of things I needed to know to make their time in my class more successful. 

You may learn that a particular student is allergic to bees (good to know when you go outside). A student may tell you they can only hear with their right ear (now you know where they need to sit and where you need to stand). Sometimes you may learn that a particular student cannot get along with another student (great to know for group dynamics). With my notecards I have information I need immediately and will use in the future.

Let students get to know you

I also had my students ask any questions they wanted to know about me or my class. I figured if I was going to ask them questions on day one, it was only fair for them to ask me questions as well. Students usually have lots of questions but are often afraid to ask. The notecard allowed them to ask what they needed to know in a non-threatening way. 

I answered all of these questions anonymously out loud, so that students got to learn a little about me and have their classroom questions answered. If one student has a question, odds are there are other students wondering the same thing.

One question I always got asked was if I was nice. Proof that high school students have the same concerns that elementary students have.

Make students feel comfortable at school

Students like to know routines. It reduces anxiety and fear when they know what to expect. If you have a beginning of the class routine, explain it to them and start it on day one. Each day walk them through the procedures until they are comfortable and do them automatically.

Make students feel comfortable in your classroom by making sure they know their way around the room. Show them where they are allowed to go and where to find whatever you expect them to use. Explain simple procedures like how to use the restroom or how to line up. 

Next, be sure they know the way around your school. Do they know where key areas are like the office, counseling office, media center, lunch room, etc.? Have they been shown the restrooms? Do they know where exits are? 

Take the time to answer these simple questions. The older the student is, the less likely they will be to ask, but they still want to know. Make it easy on them by answering their unasked questions.

If you have other teachers, aides or teaching assistants who will be coming to your classroom, explain this to the students. Be sure to introduce them when they come in. It makes many students anxious when a stranger enters, so prepare them beforehand.

Explain to students how school-wide procedures should be handled. Go over lunch and library procedures. For upper grades, make sure they know their schedules and where to find their classes. Talk about how to change classrooms and what the expectations are in the hallway.

Students will appreciate that you took the time to ease their fears. It helps build trust in you and establishes a strong rapport that will pay off throughout the year. The more comfortable they are, the better response you will get. 

Do the unexpected the first week of school

So many classes, especially at the high school level, spend the first few days doing the exact same thing. Honestly, how many times do students need to sit and listen to teachers drone on about their classroom rules and reading the class syllabus to them? Take that activity and multiple it by a seven period day, and it is a wonder any student even comes to school the first week.

Instead, I liked to mix things up. I spent about 15-20 minutes each day the first week discussing what Trust, Respect, and Responsibility looked like. In a New Tech school, where those were our guiding principles, students were hearing the same type of things in all their classes, but each teacher did completely different activities to make sure that there was no repetition.

Some activities we did included: making desk name tags, creating memes, making introduction videos, taking selfies that we used to create a goal poster, defining goals with quotes students found, doing trust walks, doing group games etc..

In the first week my journalism students interviewed each other and wrote up a short bio to share with the class. They also took a picture and created a mini poster that I displayed in the classroom. They also took a photo walk and made a digital poster of their photos. By the end of the first week, they had learned basic interview skills, written a short article, taken photos, learned how to download them, and how to use Adobe Spark. 

They did all of that, and I had not once gone through the syllabus. Students were engaged and excited to find out what else we were going to do. (The syllabus was available online for them and/or their parents, but I didn’t use class time to read to them.)

I liked to keep my students active, so they quickly learned that they were going to be moving and participating, not sitting silently, taking notes. Without me telling them what to expect, they learned what to expect by experiencing it.

I also benefited because each activity helped me get to know my students more personally and also let me quickly assess where they were academically. 

  • Who was a strong writer? Who needed more assistance? 
  • How well do they follow directions? 
  • Which students stayed on task and which needed redirection? 
  • Who seems afraid to speak in class?
  • Who likes to lead? 

By the end of the week I had much of this figured out and could plan future classes for more success.

Establish classroom expectations the first week

During the first week of school, establish classroom expectations. I found that working on those with my students, under the premise of Trust, Respect, and Responsibility, led to better class cooperation. They had greater buy-in because they helped establish the expectations. 

I never called them class rules, but told them we were going to create how we wanted our classroom to work. As we worked through our 15-20 minute activities on Trust, Respect, and Responsibility, I had a student record the ideas the students came up with on the white board. 

We then spent a few minutes going over the ideas and finalizing a list that represented the class consensus. When we compiled the lists, I created colorful posters and laminated them to hang in the classroom. Once we created the expectations, it became easy to point at a poster and ask: Are we meeting our expectations of what respect looks like in our classroom?

While I know many teachers simply say, these are the rules in my classroom, end of story. I found that establishing expectations as a class created a more cooperative classroom and ended in good behavior results and a cohesive classroom culture.

Another step I took when establishing classroom expectations was to ask the students what kind of expectations they had for me. What did they expect and want in a teacher? 

Those were excellent conversations and worth taking the time to have so that you are not working on the assumption of what you think they want or need. This leads into the next tip.

Don’t assume things about your students

First don’t assume that because you heard something bad about a student that it means you will have the same experience. I found it better not to listen to previous teachers. You may have no problems at all from a student that has given another teacher trouble and vice versa. 

Start every year with a clean slate. That also means that even if you have a repeat student from last year,  you should not expect the year to go the same. Students change, so give them the benefit of the doubt. 

Secondly, don’t make assumptions based on a student’s family or background. Don’t assume that students will be like their siblings. Even though I taught in a small school, I often didn’t find out until the end of the year that a freshman student was the sibling of an older student I had taught. I never asked if they had siblings at school, so unless they volunteered the information I was usually oblivious. 

This benefits the student because some teachers make comparisons or even tell students, “You are nothing like your brother or sister.” Students hate to be compared and want to be recognized as their own person, so please avoid comparing them or assuming they will act a certain way or be a certain type of student.

And regardless of their background, do not assume anything about students. Avoid stereotyping or assuming students will be smart, lazy, competitive, conceited or whatever adjective you want to use based on any factor. 

Just get to know your students for who they are. They will appreciate you allowing them to be their own person, and it will allow you to teach them fairly and respectfully. When you approach the first week with no assumptions you make it much more pleasant for all involved.

Remember that you have all year to teach content but only a short amount of time to create a classroom culture you and your students want to spend every day in. It is well worth the time spent to use the first week of school activities to build culture.

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