There is a common mistake teachers make on the first day of school that sets in motion bad student habits and misbehaviors that can last the rest of the school year.
That’s a big statement, I know.
But this one particular mistake will be responsible for scores of teachers getting off to a disastrous classroom management start—one many will never recover from.
And what makes this mistake most troubling is its deviousness. You see, it’s a sneaky little thing, harmless in appearance and barely noticeable, even to the most discerning professional eye.
Most teachers won’t even know they made a mistake, let alone one so spectacular, until weeks later when it hits them like a splash of cold water to the face.
And even then, they won’t know what it is they did wrong.
It starts innocently.
Morning breaks on the first day of school, your new students arrive, and everything proceeds as planned. You model how you want them to enter the classroom. You lead them in a getting-to-know-you activity. And then you get down to the business of your classroom management plan.
Typical of a new group of students after a long summer break, they’re attentive and respectful. And you’re pleased with how things are going.
By late afternoon all is well and rolling along according to plan. You were thorough with your behavior expectations, and they’re following your rules as modeled. Yes! This is going to be a great year.
The end of the day nears. You review the evening’s homework assignment and model how you want your students to gather backpacks, push in chairs, and line up quietly for dismissal. They nod their heads, all smiles. I love my new class!
A minute or so before the bell rings, you give your students the signal to begin the end-of-day procedure. In their exuberance, several students rush the door to line up. A few happily approach you like puppy dogs, wanting to share a story or two. And a few more linger a moment at their desks, chatting with their tablemates.
You remind the runners to walk, tell the lingerers to get a move on, and banter a moment with the students who approached you. And as the bell rings you shoo them all out the door with a wave. What an awesome day. What a great class!
The door closes and you fall into your chair with a happy sigh, never realizing that you just made a colossal mistake, one that will cause your students to begin ignoring your directions, breaking your rules, and engaging in misbehavior.
It happens so fast.
So, did you catch it? Did you notice the mistake?
The teacher in the above scenario was lulled into complacency by her (or his) students’ good behavior. She was so thrilled with how well the first day was going that she dropped the ball during the final minute of the school day.
Her students didn’t follow the end-of-day procedure like it was modeled, but because they weren’t technically “misbehaving,” she let it go. And this is where so many teachers who struggle with classroom management go wrong.
When you let things go, even seemingly innocent behaviors, it nudges a tiny speck of a snowball down a steep and bottomless hill. And the farther it gets down the hill, the more difficult it is to push it back up to the top.
Although the above scenario in and of itself is harmless, it sends a message to your students that you don’t really mean what you say.
And as soon as this germ of an idea gets in their heads, a host of bad things begin to happen. Your students will start tuning out the sound of your voice. They’ll become inattentive and disrespectful. They won’t follow directions well. And misbehavior will be a daily, even hourly, presence in your classroom.
In response you’ll begin raising your voice to show your students that you really do mean it. You’ll start pulling them aside for lectures, talking-tos, and finger-waggings. You’ll grow frustrated.
And your students will begin thinking that maybe you’re not so nice after all.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
That the students in the above scenario didn’t line up for dismissal like the teacher asked was predictable. Students will test the waters, albeit gently, even on the first day of school. And when they do, it’s an opportunity for you to teach a critical lesson—one that will reverberate long after the moment has passed.
The lesson is this: In our classroom, the expectation is that we do things the right way. We listen attentively. We follow directions. We pursue excellence in everything we do—because excellence transfers from the simple and mundane to more important things like scholarship, kindness, and self-respect.
With that in mind, let’s rewind our scenario.
As soon as the teacher notices that her students are not doing what was asked, she stops talking and stands in one place. She ignores the students approaching. She ignores the running. She ignores the students taking their sweet time to line-up. She just waits.
One by one, as the students begin to notice, they get quiet. They shuffle their feet. It dawns on them that they didn’t do what was asked. The teacher then calls for attention. She waits until every student is looking at her. And then she tells them to go back to their seats.
After quickly reviewing her expectations (30 seconds), and without lecturing or raising her voice, she gives her signal for the class to do it again. This time they do it right. She pauses for effect, thanks them for the good day, and sends them on their way.
It comes down to this.
The mistake of course is ever going back on your word. If you say it, if you ask your students of it, then you must back it up with action. Otherwise, your students aren’t going to trust you, believe in you, have reason to listen to you, or be inspired by you. What they will do, though, is run right over you.
The first day of school—when you have your students’ rapt attention and when their minds are open and they’re eager to do well—is the one chance you have to get things right from the beginning.
Whenever your students don’t give you what you want, whether it’s the first day of school or the last, stop your class, ask for and then wait for their attention, and then make them do it again.
Do this whenever they fail to live up to your expectations. Before long, pursuing excellence, both behaviorally and academically, will become a habit they can’t shake.
And you’ll be one happy and effective teacher.