In May 1993, I was hired to teach mathematics at Roosevelt High School in Fresno, California and three months later, found myself meeting my first class of students. The First Day. There is no getting around it, going over or under it, or bypassing it altogether. Every teacher has to go through the first day of teaching.
I had some previous experience student teaching, teaching summer school and Sunday school, and substitute teaching. All of these helped prepare me but they were not exactly the same as standing in front of my own students for the very first time. So how does a new teacher do it?
The first thing I did was to prepare. My major in college was mathematics and during my sophomore year I began to consider what I wanted to do with my degree. Most fields I researched involved specializing in only one or two branches of math. One of my professors told me that if I really loved mathematics I should consider a career in teaching because then I could discuss all sorts of math. I decided that was a good idea and began to take the necessary coursework to earn a secondary teaching credential in mathematics.
After I was hired, I spent the summer in training. I attended a weeklong institute in curriculum, instruction, and assessment. I did research on Roosevelt High School and its students. I knew, based on demographics, that most of my students were from socio-economically disadvantaged families and that most of them were English Learner (EL) students. I arranged a meeting with a linguistics professor for resources and strategies to teach EL students.
That summer, I also prepared the initial lessons I planned to teach. I prepared an agenda and even a script for the first week (in case I forgot my name.) I organized my classroom and bought the necessary supplies and was all set – except for one vital element. That was whether or not to smile.
In my teacher training classes, in the textbooks on teaching, and in advice from veteran teachers, one consistent admonition was “Don’t smile until December.”
There were numerous warnings to new teachers against being too friendly with students if they wanted to be respected. I could understand the reasoning behind the warning; however, if I followed their advice, I would not be me. I would be taking on an unfamiliar persona. In the end, I decided to be myself in the classroom and smile, trusting that all would be well.
I am glad that I did. In the first place, teenagers are really interesting human beings. I would have been hard-pressed not to smile or laugh at the amusing things they say and do. And secondly, teenagers can spot a fake right away. That is what they do not respect. It would be as much out of character for me to not smile as it is for some teachers to smile. Teens know the difference.
I have applied what I learned about the First Day to other “firsts” in my life. After all, First Days are part of the human condition. We all encounter them. Some are pleasant and some are painful. Some are anticipated while others are dreaded. Many are unexpected.
So I prepare for life events as best as I can, “front-loading” information. I still make an agenda as a guide (in case I forget my own name.) I do research and listen to experts. My parents taught me to always be myself and make sure that “myself” was a decent human being – a person that I would respect and love. So that is my plan for every First Day. Be myself and smile.