What kids need on the first day of school…

As a welcome gift when I was hired, my principal gave me the book The First Days of School by Harry K. Wong. It is an exceptional read. In fact, I just bought a new copy to give to a friend of mine who was hired as a middle school science teacher at a school in Kentucky. He does not have an education degree, nor does he have any classroom experience (or prior to June any desire to be a teacher).

One of the parts of the book that has stayed with me is a spread about what kids really need to know on the first day of school. The layout included text and cartoons of students with thought bubbles revealing their real needs on the first day of school. 
As teachers, we might think the most pressing needs on the first day of school are to cover the rules and expectations and to highlight the learning journey of the year.
According to Harry K. Wong, kids want to know where the bathroom is, if they will have friends, and whether the teacher will know their names. (This is what I remember from the book, however, it could be a little different since it’s been years since I’ve opened to this particular page.) It’s not important whether I get this verbatim, what is important is I remember kids have different first day of school needs than teachers.
I’m seeing this firsthand since I live with a second, third, fourth, and sixth grader. In addition, I’m spending this week with two high school seniors. We’re talking (in tiny bits) about the new school year. All of them are less-than-thrilled about the first day of school (from the 7 year old to the 17 year old) because it’s “boring” and “all you do is listen to things you can’t do” and “teachers must think we’re going to be awful.”
“Maybe this year will be different,” I say.
They give me that look.
Although less-than-thrilled about the first day, for the most part, they are looking forward to returning to school. They just aren’t looking forward to the first day.
I think it’s because the things that are most pressing to them may not be answered on the first day of school.
“What do you hope your teachers do on the first day?” I ask.
I think their answers are useful when considering first day plans.

I’m thinking through creative ways to meet their needs and to give an excellent first impression of what it means to be literate inside the walls of the classroom, as well as in the world — both now and in the future. I’m thinking the rules and the syllabus can wait. Curiosity, communication, and community can’t.

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  1. Amen. As I have spent time in my classroom this week getting it ready for school to start (on the 19th), I've spent a lot of time thinking about how to place desks, how to make a high school classroom feel comfortable, what I want kids to notice and enjoy.

    I haven't looked at my syllabus.

    Here's hoping the kids' teachers read this post!

  2. Like Deb, I hope other teachers read this too. Community & friendships first, knowing choices are there next. Love the balloons & words from those we need to hear from! Thank you!

  3. I think people used to think I was crazy not having all the bulletin boards up, bright and shiny, on the first days of school. I wanted my kids to make everything. The room was about them. They liked their artwork, their names applied by themselves, etc. And though it would have been easier to do it myself and have it all ready, they enjoyed the process of making it their own and chatting about what they were doing. My room was never the most beautiful, color coordinated classroom, but it was fun! What's important to us as adults, is not always (hardly ever) the most important to them!

  4. This is one of those posts that makes me want to be that special teacher–the one who gets it just a little bit righter. Immediately I think that I know what kids need and that is why my first day of school looks the way it does. I think I am one of the ones 'getting it right'…but do I REALLY know what my students need? After all, I don't even know my students yet. This is a great reminder to listen a little harder and plow through my agenda a little bit less.

  5. I just spent two days with three teachers new to a district to give them a brief run down of how a reading/writing workshop classroom should look/sound/feel. I spent the morning of the first day on the importance of building community and getting to know their students. I am so happy to read this post and know that I am on the right track. I hope each child gets their wish for the new school year. I will be saving this and using it in future trainings.

  6. If you don't know Hal Urban, I can't encourage you enough to read his books. A very helpful and practical book is 20 Lessons Every Good Teacher Knows or something life that. He taught HS and found ways to really make his students bond and grow. He is a fabulous speaker and person. Check out his website or read up on him via a google search.
    Janet F.

  7. The first thing that struck me is that I always worried about the same things as a mom and my kids went off to school (even now when they are going off to college). My goal is always to create that environment in my classroom where kids feel safe to take risks, talk, and create. Your post is a good reminder to all of us as we get ready to begin a new school year. Good luck to your kids as they start back to school. 🙂

  8. It's so helpful to be reminded that kids' worries, expectations and hopes for school are often quite different from those of adults. Thank you for sharing real-life examples!