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June 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 9

Tell Me About … / Your Most Memorable First Day of School

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Kindergarten Cop

On the first day of school, my assignment was substituting for a kindergarten teacher. This was also my first day as a school superintendent.
Why was I substituting? Mercer County, West Virginia, had hired me two and a half months earlier. Soon after my arrival, the auditor informed the school board and me that we had a financial deficit of two million dollars, which had to be resolved by the end of the fiscal year. I immediately engaged everyone in brainstorming about how to solve the problem. One idea that we adopted was that administrators would substitute teach at least one day a month to save on the cost of subs. But after an hour as the kindergarten sub, I silently cursed the person who made this ridiculous suggestion. (Of course, it had been my idea.)
The day started to go downhill when the third child stepped into the classroom and started to cry for his mother. While I turned to comfort him, others arrived, each one seeming to require 110 percent of my attention.
I succeeded in getting 23 of the 28 children to tell me their names so I could give them name tags. By the end of the day, only about a dozen name tags were still being worn. That didn't seem to matter; most of these little people did not respond to their names anyway.
My opening line to the whole group was something crazy like, "Let's all get in a circle." It immediately became obvious that most of these children did not know what a circle was, much less how to get into one. As an alternative, somehow I was able to get all but one girl to sit on the carpet. Then I physically directed them into an oblong kind of shape. I realized that most children did not come to school hardwired with school routines. I might as well have been speaking a foreign language.
As I scrambled to find something productive to do, it occurred to me to read to them. Even that did not go smoothly. Children interrupted my reading with their own unrelated stories of whatever popped into their heads, with several children talking at the same time. A few adventurous explorers simply ignored my reading and wandered around the room. I must have looked cross-eyed trying to keep everyone in my sight.
Overall, the day was a disaster. My mission switched to praying we would all survive without any noticeable physical damage. I was like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop before he found a whistle.
The good news: Except for my ego, no one got hurt. The teachers at that school laughed and retold the story of the superintendent's first day for the rest of the year—my contribution to raising staff morale. And surprisingly, no outraged parents called to complain.
A few weeks later when I visited that same class, some of the kids called me "teacher" and hugged me as if to express their forgiveness. I gained some new insights about just how much skill it requires to teach kindergarten. I served as a substitute for 15 more days that year in classrooms where the students already knew the procedures. And by June, capitalizing on everyone's ideas, we eliminated the budget deficit.
—Art Stellar, former superintendent, First-Mercer County Public Schools, West Virginia

The Best-Laid Plans

It was 1993, and I was thrilled to start my career as a teacher. This was a second career path for me, after spending several years in business and several more at home raising twins. Using every preparation strategy I knew (Harry Wong would have been proud), I had painstakingly crafted a series of engaging activities for Day 1 of Year 1. I had lofty plans to bond with my new 8th graders, introduce them to classroom protocols, and stir their excitement for science. Instead, my carefully chosen sponge activity was greeted with a chorus of "This sucks" and "I ain't doing this." Nothing in my training had prepared me for a response like that, but after a moment of internal panic, I forged on. There was no great skill on my part; I simply kept going. The hour wasn't smooth by any definition, but I managed to meet some of my objectives.
With the help of several wonderful mentors, I soon learned more strategies for working with students who exhibited hostile behavior. But I'll never forget that first day, the one that closely resembled the bad dreams we all have prior to the start of school.
—Karla Browning, school district consultant, Lansing, Michigan

An Unexpected Interruption

After five years of waiting for a child, I was finally pregnant. As August rolled around, my tummy became round, but I still had 18 weeks to go until the expected birth. Little did I know what was to come on the first day of school. My back hurt, and I didn't feel quite right. A trip to the doctor revealed that I was in early labor. As I stood looking out my hospital window at my school, just across the street, I saw my 4th graders—the 4th graders whose teacher I would never be. I wanted to be a mother—I just wasn't ready to be finished teaching right then.
—Martha Witte, assistant professor, Mankato, Minnesota

Laugh and Move On

In the excitement of having my first class ever, I did not look at my attendance list in advance. As my students came in and I started to take attendance, I quickly realized that I had a number of students whose names I had no idea how to pronounce! It was pretty embarrassing, but it taught me to laugh at myself once in a while and move on.
—Laura Watts, government, economics, and world history teacher, Bremen, Indiana

Room Disorientation

My first day of teaching 2nd grade was on October 1, 1990. I was replacing a teacher who decided to move on. She had left the classroom completely empty on a Friday, and I had just 48 hours to set it up before the students returned on Monday. Because this was a Catholic school, there had to be a crucifix. I found a nail to hang up the crucifix I had kept from my grandfather's funeral. Someone had given me a clock, which I hung up on another empty nail.
When school started on Monday, the first thing we did was pray. All the children prayed to the clock, and not one of them noticed the crucifix. Apparently, I had unintentionally changed the orientation of the room! Five minutes into my new career, and I was looking for Allen Funt. I taught 2nd grade at that school for 11 years and went on to become the principal.
—Nancy Matteo, principal, Newtown, Pennsylvania

Starting with Social Time

My best first day occurred at my former school. We gathered all the students in the gym and held a big welcome-back bash. We had juice, donuts, and other snacks and allowed the students to mill around and talk to their peers for 45 minutes. This start to the school year was much more positive for students than listening to their teachers blather on about what essays they would be assigning or how many tardies would equal a detention. After all, isn't this social time the way we professionals begin workshops and inservice training? Why shouldn't the same be true for high schoolers?
—Jennifer Heiter, English teacher, Bremen, Indiana

A Lesson in Cultural Sensitivity

It was my first day as a young teacher of English language and literature at New Zealand's biggest secondary coeducational state school in 1972, and I was determined to succeed. I remember the long walk from the staff room to my prefabricated classroom on the outskirts of the campus. I saw two Maori students sitting outside in the sunshine. I said hello, smiled, and asked them to come inside to start the lesson with the other students. But they looked at each other, grimaced, and refused to comply. So I left them, settled the rest of the class, and got the lesson underway. Then I went outside and asked the boys their names—David and Cameron. Thinking this was progress, I asked them to come inside again, but they really dug their toes in. Unwisely perhaps, I told them I would double the time they were making me wait with detentions at lunchtime. They started shouting and being abusive. Thinking that I couldn't let them "dictate," I gave them a 30-second ultimatum to move inside the classroom and then dressed them down in front of their peers.
Two hours later, I had a surprise visit from the head of the school's innovative Maori Department, who started a conversation about the needs of Maori students. That was the beginning of my journey of teaching these students by building learning relationships with them. Now, 41 years later, I am a principal of another New Zealand secondary school leading a successful Maori student achievement initiative that started in 1972 with David and Cameron.
Thirty-eight years later, I came across David's high-achieving sister. She told me that David had suffered from bipolar mood swings from the time he was 14. It wasn't diagnosed the day I met him—but on that day David probably needed some understanding that I hadn't provided; and Cameron deserved credit, not blame, for looking after his mate outside the classroom.
—Jane Johnson, principal, Dunedin, Otago, New Zealand

Watch What You Ask

On my first fresh-out-of-college day of teaching, I decided to preview the vocabulary book by reviewing parts of speech. I pointed at the first kid in the first row and said, "Give me an example of a verb." Without blinking, he said, "kill." Well, off to a great start. Half the room said "run" or "swim"—real original. I moved on to comparisons. I pointed again at the first student, who now shared, "Dead as a doornail." Fantastic. First class, first day, and I was wondering why my training hadn't included how to deal with surprises like this.
—John Hayward, English teacher, Naperville, Illinois

Establish Those Procedures

I was an experienced teacher in a new school teaching a new grade level, and my mentor kept telling me to focus on "procedures." However, I had experience and was not worried about my procedures because in the past they had worked well. So on the first day, I jumped into expectations and academics and started moving right along! About two weeks into the year, I realized I had not established a good set of procedures so my class was not flowing! I had to micromanage everything. Lesson learned: Take time to establish good routines and procedures first.
—Pam Harris, 3/4 grade teacher, Kirkwood, Missouri

Stalled on the Subway

A few days before school began in September 1983, I was hired to teach in a small parochial school in New York City. This was my first teaching job, and I was fresh out of college. A lifelong suburbanite, I woke up very early that day because I needed to take a commuter train and then a subway to the school. Unfortunately, the subway train stalled halfway to my destination. I was going to be late for my first day of school!
In a panic, I found a pay phone and called the school. The secretary suggested that I take a cab. When the cab finally pulled up to the school, I was about an hour late—and I didn't have enough money to pay the driver. I borrowed money from the principal, a Catholic nun, to pay the driver. When I finally arrived at my room, my 40 7th grade students were out of control. I glared at them and shouted "stand up" and began to lead them in prayer. Although there was silence from that point on, it became obvious to me that I was really praying for myself, a foreshadowing of the year to come.
—Thomas J. Troisi, assistant superintendent, Valley Stream, New York

"Sit Down!"

My first day of teaching was as a substitute in a 7th grade classroom. I'd had no training to be a teacher and was very nervous about middle school students, so I asked a teacher friend for advice. "Immediately tell them what your rules and expectations will be," she said, "and what will happen if they don't follow them." That was easy enough, I thought.
The following morning, 34 students entered the class quietly and sat down. I stood in front of them and read the rules I'd written on the board. "No getting out of your seat. If you need something, raise your hand, and I'll come over." As I was reviewing these rules, one after another, the students stood up and stood next to their desks, staring at me. "Sit down!" I said, completely flustered and baffled by their behavior. It's an insurrection, I thought; they're all going to silently and passively refuse my directions!
Then, out of the loudspeaker came a deep male voice reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, which some students mumbled along with. A minute later they all sat, still looking at me like I was crazy.
—Elena Aguilar, transformational leadership coach, Oakland, California

A Smelly Beginning

Always eager to start the new school year right, I got up early and planned my morning so that I could get to school early in a calm state of mind and make a strong impression. But in my 16th year of teaching, my best-laid plans went awry when I walked my dog at 5:30 a.m. Tugging at her collar, I saw that she had something in her mouth. Yelling "Drop!" I realized that the something was a skunk.
Not only did the skunk spray my dog, but I, too, was hit by the wafting blast. With school due to start in about 1.5 hours, I dragged the sputtering and mouth-frothing dog home to the backyard for a good hosing. Repeat washing wasn't enough. The bitter smell clung everywhere. Soon, I had only 30 minutes to get cleaned and dressed, put the kennel outside for dog-airing before the sitter came, and feed the baby, who was stirring in bed. Somehow I managed to make it to the first day of high school on time, but I did not realize that I still smelled like skunk. My new students, however, did. Not quite the impression I had hoped to make.
—Nicole LaBeau, teacher, Palatine, Illinois

This article was published anonymously, or the author name was removed in the process of digital storage.

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