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Teachers like to set good tone on first day

Nervous, worried and mischievous students make the first impression important.

© St. Petersburg Times
published August 4, 2002

The first day of school. Students are nervous, worried, or perhaps just interested in seeing how much they can get away with now that they have new teachers.

What, then, is a teacher to do to prepare for the challenges?

The techniques that Citrus County's teachers will employ when classes resume on Aug. 12 vary, but one point seems constant: It's important to start off on the right foot.

"The first day really sets the tone for the year," said Lecanto Primary School fifth-grade teacher Dan Epstein. "If you say something, you need to follow through. These kids are really smart."

The 12-year teacher said he begins the day by greeting each of his new students. "The proper thing to do is stand at the doorway and shake each student's hand as they come in," he said. After the children are in the classroom, "I'll have some work for them to do right away."

The assignment is usually a get-to-know-you kind of thing and helps Epstein learn something about his new students. Plus, while they are writing, he gets a chance to answer individual questions or speak with parents who may have come by with their children.

Afterward, the class gathers as a group to go over the rules. "The big thing is staying consistent," he said.

Epstein gets some help for the new year from the students he taught the previous year. The students critique his class, writing what they think he did right or wrong. It's a good way, he said, to learn about kids.

Epstein's fifth-graders, even though they are getting a new teacher, for the most part, have been in the school for years. They know where things are and probably will enter his class knowing a considerable amount about him from former students.

The situation is different for Diane Beres' class.

A kindergarten teacher at Floral City Elementary School, Beres has been teaching for 34 years. Her very young students may have had no experience with school and they have parents who can be as worried as they are. The staggered entry for kindergarten students seems to help.

The children are divided into four groups of five or six children. Each group comes to school one at a time throughout the first week until Friday when they all attend together as a complete class.

"It's just fabulous," Beres said. "It makes it so nice for the children. It's such a small group that you can give them a lot of attention." The staggered entry, she said, makes the children feel good, comfortable and successful.

Parents are another story. They have a difficult time, Beres said. "We find it easier to stop them midway in the hall." Here the parents can talk about buses, lunch money or other concerns, but the children say good-bye there.

"When they come in on their own, it's such an accomplishment," Beres said. "We have had much fewer tears."

Once her children are in the classroom, they unpack their supplies and draw pictures. This gives Beres a chance to speak to each child. After individual time, the children gather as a group and start learning what they will do every day.

"I'm a real firm believer in routine for kindergarten kids, for all kids, really," Beres said. "It's important."

Michele Nott, a 24-year teacher, has similar circumstances to Beres', but with older children. She is a sixth-grade math teacher at Inverness Middle School who also has students entering a very new situation.

"My students are brand new to the school," Nott said. "Most of our students are scared. They're nervous about getting lost. Just the idea of middle school is scary to them."

Nott works with language arts teacher Ginger Porter, science teacher Lisa Ekeli and social studies teacher Craig Jaworski as a team. She said they spend the first day "just calming their fears. We really try to limit the fears." And they try to dispel worries about getting lost.

The four core teachers discuss and then send home a team package with general rules and homework policies. This helps the parents, too, Nott said, who are also nervous.

At a higher level, Crystal River High School English I teacher Charla Bauer said, "The first thing I do is make sure I learn their names very quickly."

The second year high school teacher has actually taught for eight years, but most of that time has been in colleges and at a university. High school is different. "I'm learning what it's like to be a teacher," Bauer said.

On her first day, she said, she'll play a get-to-know-you game or activity. "I'll actually have quizzes about their names," she said.

After that she gives her students copies of the Florida Sunshine State Standards to read. She likes to go over that the first day. Then, she said, "they help me design their class. That gives them ownership. It makes them part of the process and it puts them in a metacognitive mode.

"They are aware of what they're learning, why they're learning it and how they're learning." This, Bauer said, is the first step to lifelong learning.

Lecanto High School English teacher Laura Jones has been teaching since 1967. "On the first day of school," she said, "I'm always a little bleary-eyed because I can't sleep the night before. Every year for as long as I've taught school, the first day has been very exciting. I just love it. I just can't wait to get back to school."

Jones starts her year off by letting the students know something about her. "I always have an introductory essay about myself," she said. "It saves them from asking all those questions and I have them write an essay about them for me."

This exercise, she explained, helps her get to know them, calms them and gives her a writing sample.

She and the students do the expected review of material lists, curricula and term goals and she also has them do peer interviews. She pairs two students and has them interview each other. Later they introduce their new friends to the class. It breaks the ice, she said, and is an early lesson in interviewing and public speaking.

"And all of that sets the tone of what we're going to do," she said, "read, write, speak and think."

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