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School Daze – First Impressions September 7, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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The first two days of school are done, and I feel a bit done in myself. Not once over the summer did I have to check the clock to see how soon I could use the bathroom or eat. Summer vacation is already a distant memory. But 178 days of “teachable moments” await!

As a kid, I loved going back to school. Okay, make that elementary school. You couldn’t pay me to repeat middle or high school. I loved the ritual of buying the new notebook and a new box of 48 Crayons (my parents were too cheap to spring for the box of 64 with the built-in sharpener). I loved wearing my new long-sleeved plaid “Back to School” dress, even though on the first day of school the classroom was a sauna.

I can also recite the names of ALL my teachers – up until the seventh grade. That’s when the hormones kicked in and their names and everything else got all blurry.

So I was shocked, no make that appalled, when my husband, Richard, told me he couldn’t remember the name of a single teacher he’d ever had. Was he raised by wolves? I told him I found this deeply disturbing. Richard did some serious thinking then bounded up to me the next day, all smiles. He’d remembered the name of his fifth grade teacher. “Mr Murray!”  he announced proudly. I wasn’t so easily placated. “What is it you remember about Mr. Murray?” I asked. “He was missing all the fingers on one hand,” Richard replied. “Actually, he had part of a thumb so he could pick up stuff. He used his hand like a pincher, sort of like a crab.”

Yikes! If that’s what it takes to make a lasting impression on a student, I’m in trouble. (I should mention that my husband was one of those kids who NEVER liked school, and he rode on a full-sized bus.)

The first day of school is a teacher’s chance to make a big first impression. Every teacher wants students to go home and tell their parents how GREAT their new teacher is. At the same time, you can’t be a push over. You want to make a big splash, but you don’t want it to be a belly flop.

A substitute once told me she would always remember her third grade teacher because of something she did on the first day of school. At the end of the day, the teacher told all of the children to stand on top of their desks. At first, the students were confused. You’re not supposed to STAND on your desk. But the teacher proceeded to help them climb up until all were standing. Now, this was before class size reduction, so I’m picturing 30 plus students standing atop their desks. (This image alone makes MY knees wobbly.) Not one child fell. The sub told me that as she stood on her desk, this thought came to her – “This is going to be the most amazing year of my life!”

No one could get away with doing that now. Actually, I’m surprised a teacher got away with doing it THEN. But it left a lasting first impression, and it was a positive one.

The first day is all about teaching the new students classroom procedures. How to sit. How to stand. How to walk in a line. How to raise your hand. (The common thread being – how not to drive your teacher crazy.) Sometime after lunch on that all important first day of school, I realized I was beginning to bore even myself. I’m easily amused, so this was a serious offense.

The air-conditioner in my classroom is there for one purpose – to mock me. When the students came back after lunch, I had the lights off to trick them into believing it was cooler inside than out on the blacktop. Then I flicked the lights back on and had them sit on the rug, so I could read them a story. Oh, it felt good to finally sit down.

I love to read aloud, and the children listened attentively. They raised their hands and made predictions and comments at just the right times. In short, we were having a good time. When I finished the story, someone mentioned something about being afraid of a snake. Someone else chimed in that they were afraid of bugs.

Now according to my plan book, the next thing we were going to do was write a paragraph about My Summer Vacation (I am seething with original ideas!), but I saw an opportunity. “Who’d like to sit and talk about stuff that scares us?” I asked. All hands shot up.

“Let’s pretend we’re sitting around a campfire on a cool night,” I said. I had the children form a circle. My mind was now racing. “We’ll need a campfire!” I grabbed some orange and red tissue paper and wadded it up so it vaguely resembled a campfire. Then I switched the lights off.  “I like this fire because it won’t make us hot,” I said. “But we can’t roast marshmallows either.”  The kids giggled.

Each child was to introduce themself:  Hi, My name is _________ and I’m afraid of __________. If someone didn’t feel like sharing, they could just do the introduction. They began. “I’m afraid of snakes.” “I’m afraid of the dark.” ” I’m afraid of bugs.” Those were the big three. One boy was afraid of heights, and then there was the kid who said, “I’m afraid of the movie Saw 3. Whoa! Who’s letting their eight year old watch THAT movie?  Three children said, “Pass.” One boy bragged that he wasn’t afraid of anything (there’s always one, but he had yet to see my face when you tell me you didn’t do your homework). One little girl, who only speaks Korean, had her friend translate.

When everyone had shared, we talked about our fears. One boy, one of those scientific types that I love, informed the other students that most snakes are not poisonous, and snakes are actually quite helpful because they eat garden pests. The kids were impressed. We agreed that everything is scarier when it’s dark, but agreed no one was scared sitting in our darkened classroom because we had each other.

“Do you know what scares more people than anything?” I asked. When the answer wasn’t snakes, the kids were stuck. I told them the thing that scares people most is getting up in front of other people and talking. And yet they’d just spoken in front of their classmates on the very first day of school. They were all smiles. They had good reason to be proud of themselves. This was just the first of many lessons they will learn in third grade.

Sometimes, the most important lessons aren’t the ones in the plan book. And first impressions DO count. I realized this year’s class was off to a good start. Then I turned the lights back on.


1. elissestuart - September 7, 2008

What a good teacher you are.
That was a ‘campfire’ that I bet they will always remember.


2. Catherine Sherman - September 7, 2008

I’m going to send a link to this post to all of my current and former teacher friends and relatives. It was so cute. And wonderful, too. Can I be in your class!?


3. Catherine Sherman - September 7, 2008

I forgot to add that most of my teachers in elementary school and high school were Catholic nuns, so we could get away with just saying “Sister.” When I reached high school, with the modernization of the church, the nuns could take back their birth names, so Sister John Robert from freshman year (almost like the Supreme Court justice) became Sister Janice in my sophomore year. So that means remembering twice the names.

I don’t think Sister Florella ever reverted to her birth name, however. She was my Latin teacher. Some of the nun’s skirts in their new habits were shorter than ours were allowed to be! I realize I’m veering off topic. You’ve sent me back in time again.

I can just picture you all sitting around your “campfire” and Richard’s crab-handed teacher was a great image. I will write about the Fuller Brush salesman with a hook for a hand in a future post, now that you’ve mentioned missing fingers.


4. Ginger - September 8, 2008

Jan, I can’t remember any of my teacher’s names or faces, either. Except one. “Mr. Gettys” ….an American History teacher in the ninth grade. I remember he was old, bald, and he used to say, very solemnly, “Those who can, DO. Those who can’t, TEACH.”

Funny how he’s the one who made the biggest impression.


5. Deb Estep - September 9, 2008

Wow, a teacher really does wear a whole bunch of hats….
psychologist, nurturer, policeman…. ect. 🙂

As my 12 year old headed off to 6th grade this year I gave him
the same advice I have for a few years. ‘Make sure your teachers do not know your name right away’. August 20th was his first day, and he just told me yesterday… ‘Mrs F still does not know my name’.
In some previous years, the teachers have known him nearly immediately due to his behavior. He does change between 2 teachers through out the day, so it’s not like this one teacher has him all day long. But as a parent, and considering his past behavior, I am thrilled.

Now, you might be thinking, if he were participating in class she would certainly know his name, but for now this works just fine
for me.

Last year, mid way through the year, after several calls about his disruptive talking and 1 parent – teacher conference I came up with an idea that has helped him tremendously. I went on the internet and created a personalized wrist band. On the wrist band are the letters… P.O.P.T. – It stands for Power of Positive Thinking.
It’s a reminder to Kevin that he pay attention to what he needs to be doing. The first day he wore it in 5th grade he explained to his 2 teachers the meaning of the wrist band. He improved dramatically over the remainder of 5th grade. An $8 dollar investment that continues to pay dividends as he is still wearing it this year.

I can recall a few elementary school teachers and my 3rd
grade teacher stands out. This was the year to learn ‘cursive writing’. I can recall Mrs. L playing classical music on the record player. I can still see her hands swaying in the air as she described how to loop the letters to the sounds of the music. It was as if she was conducting her students as the orchestra.

Your whole post reminds me of the words from Mary Poppin….

A Spoonful of Sugar

In ev’ry job that must be done
There is an element of fun
You find the fun and snap!
The job’s a game

And ev’ry task you undertake
Becomes a piece of cake
A lark! A spree! It’s very clear to see that

A Spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down
The medicine go down-wown
The medicine go down
Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down
In a most delightful way

I was a substitute teacher before becoming a “real” teacher. Kids used to come up and ask me if I knew their name. I’d say “No, and that’s a good thing because it means you’re flying under my radar.” So, it sounds like you’re giving your son some sage advice.

That wristband idea is a great one – I should have had those for my sons, but they would have cut them off the first day.

Third graders still learn cursive, though I tell them they’ll only use it to sign checks and soon there won’t be checks. And teachers still play classical music when they’re practicing their cursive!

Would you believe I dressed up as Mary Poppins one Halloween? Yikes! Maybe that’s my alter ego! Jan


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