For new teachers, or for experienced teachers entering new classrooms, first impressions are incredibly important.
Students will be testing us, trying to discern where the boundaries lie, what they can get away with and what the expectations are. While it may be overstating the case to say that the first few classes can make or break your school year, failure to make a solid impression on your students (and your co-teachers, if applicable) can certainly make your life much more difficult for the next several months. Elsewhere on this site you can find information on what you should do on the first day of classes, so I will not address that here. Instead, here are 6 things you should NOT do in those early days.
Avoid the Following Deadly Mistakes on Your First Day
DON'T: Monopolize the Talk Time
Students tend to be shy and nervous during the first few classes, making them reluctant to speak up. To counter this, teachers often make their first classes about them (the teachers) talking. We explain the class rules, expectations, perhaps do a bit of review, etc. However, as ESL teachers, speaking (in English) will be a key part of our classes and we should try to encourage students to engage and participate from the very beginning of the year.
DON'T: Be a Talking Post at the Front of the ClassBy moving around the classroom, you spread your attention throughout the students and include even those who have tried to avoid that inclusion
It can be very tempting to remain at the front of the class, that place where the authority of being the teacher seems strongest and where we often have things to point at on the screen/board. But this sets a precedent that you will not interact with your students and creates an imbalance in the class. Those in the front receive most of your attention and those at the back are much more difficult to engage (and control). Traditionally, troublemakers will attempt to sit in the back of the class where they are comparatively free from the teacher’s scrutiny. By moving around the classroom, you spread your attention throughout the students and include even those who have tried to avoid that inclusion.
Note that, depending on your teaching style, this may require that you buy a remote to advance your presentation from anywhere in the classroom.
DON'T: Call Only on Students Who Volunteer
This is very much linked to the above point. It is easier to call only on students who raise their hands than it is to force all students to engage in the class. However, you will eventually want all your students to participate, so setting that precedent early will help you down the road. Unfortunately, this is not quite as simple as just forcing everyone to participate. To begin with, you may not have time to get all students to speak. Further, if it is the beginning of the year, this will be a new class and the students may not be entirely comfortable with one another. Some students are particularly shy and forcing them to answer overly difficult questions can only cause them to withdraw. Ideally, call on groups or have every student complete the same basic speaking tasks.
DON'T: Ignore Your Own Class Rules
Class rules are there for a reason. Most literature emphasises the importance of presenting the classroom rules in the first class. The follow up to this is that teachers need to start enforcing them right from the start. Of course, this requires coming to class with a concrete set of rules and consequences already in mind. Not enforcing them will result in an uphill struggle of trying to break established bad behaviours among your students in subsequent classes.
DON'T: Just Play Games
Teachers may feel pressure to make students like them, like their class, and like learning English. This can lead to simply playing a series of English games, often considered review games, for the entirety of the first class or two. While there is value in getting the students speaking in a fun, relaxed environment, not all of your classes are going to be games based. So, play games if that is what you prefer, but also include some partner dialogue practice or easy worksheets so the students are aware that they will be expected to do some work during your classes.
DON'T: Categorize Your Students
Teachers tend to class students into two categories: good students, and troublesome students. This can cover a whole range of qualifiers that usually vary based on the teacher but may include behaviour, intelligence, interest, etc. Having these mental categories can be very helpful when it comes time to create seating charts, groups, or for classroom management, but it is important that teachers don’t form their impression based on the first class or two. Early in the year, students are still finding their own role within their new classroom and their relationship with their teachers. It is not uncommon for a student’s behaviour to change significantly after the first few weeks of class. I am sure that many of us have seen watched a few exemplary students turn into classroom management nightmares over the course of the semester. Keep those assessments flexible until things have settled down a bit.
As a side note, there is a plethora of literature out there stating that teachers should never pick favourites. Ever. I agree with this, with a slight twist: teachers should never play favourites in class. We all have favourite students: those who make us laugh, are interested in our subjects, go the extra mile, but, and this can be very difficult, we can’t favour them above their peers.
First classes are important testing periods for any teacher.
It is the foundation of the relationship that will exist between the teacher and that class. There are a million things that can go wrong in these early weeks, but being well-prepared will help stave off most of them. Teachers, especially new teachers, tend to be nervous and anxious for the students to like them. This may often lead to the common mistakes discussed above. Remember that students will often like a teacher who is consistent, fair, and inclusive. Beyond that, relax and have a great year.
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