I remember sitting in the staff room in 1997, I was a substitute teacher, trying to figure out the gig and was willing to take any sage advice I could find. One would be mentor told me, "Eat tuna fish for lunch and wash it down with black coffee, then just get right in their face fifth period - they'll never act up again." This was just one of many pearls of wisdom that were doled out to the fresh group of educators looking for that silver bullet solution to gaining the attention, control and approval of our classroom constituents.
When I read the book, Blink, by Malcom Galdwell, it struck me like a rock: within the blink of an eye, we make a first impression. As humans we instinctively make a judgment to determine whether or not the person running the classroom has our best interest in mind, whether the teacher cares about us individually and whether or not this is a person we can make a connection with. Paul Tough, the author of Helping Children Succeed, clearly assembles research that points to the fact that kids, especially those with the highest risk factors for failure, learn best in a room where there is a relationship between the teacher and the learners.
So, on that first day of school, in those first moments, although it may be tempting to, "Lay down the Law," or to get the syllabus completely read through, I would suggest something a little different: Play. Smile. Create a sense of Joy.
After nearly 20 years of working in education, I have found that those who set the rules and regulations aside on day one, and instead, invest deeply in building relationships right away, are those educators that have the most productive rooms in the long run. Rather than single-filing in, finding our seats, learning the procedures for roll call and hearing a lot of grown up talk about the launch of the new year justifying the need for order, imagine if each student were greeted at the door with an individual conversation and a small slip of paper leading her on a personalized treasure hunt through the room, while the teacher spoke to each new entering student. Imagine the delight of students of all ages if the loudest laugh came from the teacher and the first structured activity was a progressive Rocks-Paper-Scissors tournament that ended in the mounting of a plague upon the wall highlighting the name of the champion and signed by all of the tournament’s participants.
In award winning researcher Berne Brown's Ted Talk regarding vulnerability, she unpacks the key to allowing powerful relationships to blossom. She explains that when we close ourselves off, and don't allow for vulnerability, we protect ourself from the pain of rejection and rebuff. However, in doing so, we psychologically have also walled ourselves off from the feelings of Joy and Pleasure that come from truly falling into a meaningful accord with another person.
On that first day of school, when first impressions are not an option but a reality, there is nothing more attractive than looking to the front of the room and recognizing a person seeking Joy rather than control. Be vulnerable, allow the kids to see the kid in you, don't worry about covering the rules right away, because as my friend Phil Boyte loves to say, "Rules without Relationships create Resistance."