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Why Can’t the Whole Year Be Like the First Day of School?

By Craig McKinney, AVID Staff Developer

Two weeks ago, I started a new position as an English Language Arts Instructional Specialist after years of teaching English, Humanities, and/or AVID at Shepton High School. Consequently, Monday was the first first day of school since 1993 that I was not standing up in front of a roomful of teenagers with whom I would spend the next 180 or so days. Instead, I spent most of the day visiting five middle or high schools around the district, meeting some teachers, and tracking down everyone I’m supposed to support at those schools.

As I stepped in and out of classrooms and walked through the halls, I noticed a few things that seem to be generally true about middle school and high school students and teachers on the first day of school...

  • Nearly everyone looks excited to be there.
  • Students are eager to please, want to succeed, and are willing to make an effort.
  • Teachers are polite, patient, and well-rested.
  • Students don’t mind asking adults for help, and the adults don’t seem to mind being helpful. 
  • The teachers are prepared and organized. So are the students. 
  • The classrooms are full, but the hallways aren’t. 
  • No one is failing.

Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, if most or all of these things were still true in May? I realize that is a Pollyannaish idea, but it’s worth considering. Here are a few thoughts about what teachers might do to make this “schooltopia” a reality:

Nearly everyone looks excited to be there.
My buzzword for the school year is “joy”—so much so that my coworkers keep jokingly asking me “Where’s the joy?” if they happen to catch me with a furrowed brow. I’ve been urging teachers at back-to-school in-services to make their classrooms joyful places for students. “How do I do this?” you may ask. Share your love for your subject. Enjoy the exploration with your students. Laugh. Play. If you’re not having fun, I’m pretty sure your students aren’t either. Find the joy in what you have to teach, and it’ll make coming to class easier for you and for the students.

Students are eager to please, want to succeed, and are willing to make an effort.
In an inspirational and hilarious TED Talk, Rita Pierson said, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” They will, however, keep working for a teacher who likes them and believes in them, even when the work gets more challenging.  Although Machiavelli in The Prince suggests that an effective leader strives to be feared rather than loved, I’m not sure that’s the best advice for teachers. Though students may work in a classroom with a climate of fear, they won’t be excited to be there, and they won’t do anything more than required. You can’t make teenagers like you, but you can let them know you like them, which makes it much harder to dislike you in return.     

Teachers are prepared and organized. So are the students.
Even Pigpen from the Peanuts comic strip had an organized binder and a clutter-free backpack on the first day of class. When students have their time and materials organized, they are primed for success. Help your students with organization, the O in WICOR, by providing them with structures for calendaring and keeping up with assignments and classwork. When teachers are prepared and organized, the classes run more smoothly, more learning occurs, teachers are calmer, and there are fewer disciplinary issues because lessons move seamlessly from one activity to the next, giving students no down time to cause trouble or get bored. Also, calm teachers are happy teachers, which makes them infinitely more tolerant and patient.  

Teachers are polite, patient, and well-rested.
You may be the only adult in a student’s life who reacts to the world in an adult manner. Show students how to treat others through your actions. Handle conflicts and disciplinary issues with logic and maturity. Take care of yourself. Get plenty of rest. Breathe more often than you think you need to.  When we get stressed and overwhelmed, we become less patient and pleasant. Remember that your students are not fully-formed adults, so they will do things that will test your every last ounce of self-restraint. Be the adult who responds calmly and pleasantly.

Students don’t mind asking adults for help, and the adults don’t seem to mind being helpful.
Is your classroom a place where students can ask questions safely? Do you encourage students to take risks? Is a struggling student an opportunity or an imposition? When a student comes in with a question, do you stop what you’re doing and help? Making your classroom a safe place to learn, to mess up, to explore, to get frustrated, and to ask for help is a key to making learning happen.  

The classrooms are full, but the hallways aren’t.
After years of seeing students wandering the halls without a sense of purpose or urgency, I have concluded that most of the students in the halls don’t really have to go to the restroom.  They’re just bored and restless. Make your classroom a fun place to be so they’ll want to stay there. Ensure that they feel the time spent in your room is worthwhile and that they’ll miss something important if they aren’t there. And utilize state changes and activities that involve movement frequently so they can get the wiggles out in your room and not have to roam.  

No one is failing.
Isn’t it great when students feel successful? The beginning of the semester offers hope to all. As our gradebooks fill up, however, we chip away at the self-esteem of some of our students as they find themselves unsuccessful and increasingly see the futility of trying to dig their way out of the hole. I think, though, that if teachers work on the other six items on this list, they will create an environment that makes failure less desirable, encourages students to work harder and seek help when their efforts aren’t paying off, and maximizes success for all students.

I can already hear the naysayers telling me that these things could never happen. I concede that they’re probably right. But isn’t it worth making an effort to make things perfect even if we don’t quite achieve perfection?

Thanks for the work you are doing and will continue doing to help shape the future positively.

Have a wonderful new school year!


This painting was created for Craig by his students: Kavina Hsu, Amy Wang, and Sara Watters.Craig McKinney is an English Language Arts Instructional Specialist for Plano ISD. A Dallas-area native, Craig attended Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, where he received degrees in English and Sociology. He earned his master’s degree at the University of North Texas. During his 22-year teaching career at Shepton High School, Craig taught English, Humanities, Latin, and the AVID Elective. He also bakes a mean loaf of sourdough bread, serves as an officer of his university’s local alumni association, and loves herb gardening, attending cultural events, and playing board games.

For more on AVID, visit http://avid.org/what-is-avid.ashx.

Want to read more blogs from Craig? Check these out!

How We Do This All Day Long
10 Painless Ways to Manage the Kinetic Energy in Your Classroom

10 Ways to Infuse Your Final Exam Reviews With WICOR
Do Your Students Know How To Ask Questions?
Loaded Questions
Your Teacher WICOR Summer Homework
A Brain-Based Paradigm Shift
In the Classroom: Setting House Rules
Giving Thanks: A Reminder

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