Critical First Week of High School
Tried-and-true strategies for building rapport and setting expectations from day one
- Grades: 9–12
Has this happened to you? You’re lounging on a white sandy beach. You reach for your PDA so that you can check the time for your scuba lesson. Then, as you look at your calendar, you have a revelation. THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL IS ONLY WEEKS AWAY! The transition from vacation back to the classroom can be stressful, but with the right amount of pre-planning and a good strategy for that first week, you can ease into school feeling cool and ready for success.
In my high school classroom, I've found the key to success has been to focus on three critical areas: Building a rapport with students, establishing rules and expectations, and having a strategy to help students get motivated to learn. Use my week-one strategies below and printable calendar to guide your back-to-school plans.
Build a Rapport With Your Students
Contrary to popular belief, teachers who develop positive working relationships with their students do not do so by magic. I've found that developing a good rapport with students takes strategic planning. My formula:
- Perform tasks such as establishing rules with your students to create a class community.
- Present yourself with a stern yet caring demeanor.
- Most importantly, clearly communicate your expectations to your students on day one.
Establishing Rules & Expectations
On the first day of school, immediately after introducing myself and giving a brief description of the READ 180 program, we develop our class rules. This is a two step process.
Step 1: I lay down some essential "Ground Rules" that are based on what I need in a classroom environment. These include things such as:
- Follow directions the first time they are given.
- Arrive on time and prepared.
- Respect others as well as class materials.
Step 2: After I communicate these guidelines, I make creating a Class Rules list a community-building process. I incorporate students’ views and opinions by posing two simple questions:
- Why are you here?
- What is necessary in order for you to accomplish your goals?
Student responses are charted. Then I use their answers to modify and add on to the Ground Rules. Involving students in the development of class policies initiates the critical thinking process and gives students the sense that my class is more of a democratic community than a dictatorship.
Forming Class Rules is one part of the process of conveying clear expectations to students, which is critical for creating a productive learning environment. Other areas that need to be addressed within the first week of school:
- Giving students a list of materials that will be needed daily (binder, pens, pencils, folders, etc.
- Communicating the methods that will be used to assess their work (i.e. rubrics). Providing visual examples of what is considered "presentable work" and what is considered "unacceptable work." I have learned from experience, that if you skip this vital step, you will likely receive written work that appears as if the dog has chewed it or it was accidentally left in a back pocket and run through the washing machine.
Tip: In order to address multiple learning styles, all expectations should be conveyed verbally, in writing, and visually.
Getting Students Ready to Learn
I divide my first-week activities into those that get students acquainted, projects that introduce technology and warm up skiils, and reading-focused lessons.
The first day of school can be difficult for teachers and students. My students' main concern is adjusting to their new environment and getting to know new classmates. I feel that a high-quality teacher must begin the year by trying to get to know the students well. Thus, it is equally as important for teachers and students to get acquainted. To help us all start out right, I rely on these key icebreaking activities that have worked well with my teenage students.
To get students ready and motivated to learn right from the start, introduce technology-based projects during the first week of school. For these examples, the only necessary materials are books and a video camera:
- Have students create a commercial advertising their favorite book or a book they’ve read recently. I start by leading a discussion about the characteristics of commercials that are particularly memorable to viewers (jingles, great tag lines, strong images, etc.). In addition, I create a "sample commercial" to serve as a model for students.
- Have students create a five-minute video biography. Try to have students include details about their early childhood years, life at home, hobbies, interests, and lifelong goals.
Motivating Students to Read
Motivating most adolescent readers, especially those who struggle with literacy, is a challenging task. To get students excited about reading, I start the school year with a read-aloud that will be relatable to students and will increase their enthusiasm about reading. One book that's been a big hit with my students is Sharon Draper’s Tears of a Tiger.
Once students are enthused about reading, it is time to assess their reading levels and allow them opportunities to preview your class library.
- As an assessment, I like the Scholastic Reading Inventory.
- Use the Book Pass activity and Book Pass Log (PDF) to help familiarize students with your class library.
Both of these projects help me become more familiar with my students and get the students enthusiastic about attending class.
Connecting With Parents
Not only is it significantly important to clearly inform students of your expectations, this information must be conveyed to parents as well. Developing good relationships with students' guardians is vital in limiting the amount of turbulence you encounter during the school year.
Like most teachers, I send home a general letter the first week of school. This note to parents outlines our Class Rules, necessary materials, and the types of activities we will be occurring throughout the year.
I've found it to be helpful to also attach a notice requesting parental permission for students to be photographed and video taped. Parents are usually comfortable with this when they are clear that those photographs and videos will only be displayed within the school building and will be used for the sole purpose of exhibiting their children's hard work.