Fun fact about me: I once was so stressed and frazzled on the first day of school that I WORE MY DRESS BACKWARDS. And I didn’t even notice until I had already taught a class or two. It was that moment–as I stood in front of the mirror surveying my wardrobe malfunction–that I realized I needed to seriously change something. Even though I was so excited about the first few days and the new beginnings of a fresh new year, I was letting the overwhelm consume me to the point that I wasn’t enjoying first week back. My stress was skyrocketing, and everything felt like a blur. I’d get home, crash on the couch, and then realize I hadn’t retained a single student’s name or any of the get-to-know-you info I’d tried to gather.
After that realization, I got to work on managing my back-to-school stress. Years later, I’m happy to report that I no longer stress about the first day of school. And that’s coming from someone whose close friends and family would label “easily stressed” (or worse, LOL). So if I can do it…so can you!
If the first day of school absolutely freaks you out, fills you with dread, or freezes you with stress, you’re not alone. It’s intimidating, but it also has the opportunity to be the opposite of the monster you’re making it out to be in your mind. The first day can be exciting, peaceful, fulfilling, and energizing. If that sounds good, keep reading. 🙂
If you’d like to actually ENJOY your first day of school with your students, here are 5 tips for a stress-free first day of school.
1. Plan something easy & stick with what works.
Both you and your students will likely be a little overstimulated and overwhelmed on the first day of school, so it’s best to plan something low-prep and simple. The first day of school is not the day to try some complex, elaborate activity that requires lots of moving pieces, copies, or concentration. Instead, it’s the day to use a tried-and-true, easy activity. If what you’ve been using works, stick with it! I’ve been using the same first day of school activity for the past 7 years. I’m an innovative teacher who likes to mix things up, but I can confidently say I’ll never try a different activity! Why? Because I LOVE my first-day routine, it works well, and it’s easy as can be.
In my classroom, we start the year with an engaging “Investigate the Teacher” Activity. During this activity, students search my classroom (or digital exhibits) and make inferences about my teaching style, personality, expectations, interests, hobbies, etc. It’s such a fun way for students to get to know me while practicing essential ELA skills on Day 1. And did I mention it’s easy?! While students are investigating, I just get to float around my classroom, eavesdrop on my student detectives, and laugh at some of their ridiculous inferences.
- Investigate the Teacher: Frequently Asked Questions
- Investigate the Teacher: What to Include in Your Virtual Exhibits
- Why I Don’t Review the Syllabus on the First Day of School (And What I Do Instead)
2. Focus on building relationships.
When you focus on building classroom community and getting to know each other, the first day of school can give you those “warm and fuzzy” feelings instead of those “stressy and messy” feels. (Yep, I just made that up). In all seriousness, building relationships at the beginning of the year is not only important, but it’s easy and fun (when done right). When you switch your mindset to getting to know your students and being present in the moment on the first day of school, it becomes a lot less overwhelming and more manageable.
I structure my first few days of school so that students get to know me on Day 1 with my Investigate the Teacher, and then I focus on getting to know them through Back to School Learning Stations and an All About Me activity the rest of the first week. (See #3 for an outline of my relationship-focused, student-centered back-to-school plans.)
3. Plan a student-centered lesson on the first day of school.
If you always feel exhausted by the end of the first day of school, you might be doing too much. Are you outlining the syllabus in every single period and stumbling over your words by the end of the day? Are you clicking through a “Get to Know Your Teacher” PowerPoint and bored of talking about yourself by your last class? If so, you’re doing too much. Instead, make the students do the hard work. Again, this is exactly why I love my Investigate the Teacher Activity. It’s also why I love the other activities in my back-to-school lineup:
- Back to School Learning Stations: These stations are my way of sneaking in important information (syllabus, expectations, etc.) while getting to know my students.
- All About Me Activity: After I begin getting to know my students in the stations, this fun slideshow activity is how I get to know my students and build classroom community from the start.
- Personality Test Reflection: Once I’ve learned a bit about my students, I love getting to know them on a deeper level through a personality test and reflection activity! You can read more about why and how I do this HERE.
- Get-to-Know-You Speed Discussion: Can you tell I’m big on relationship building? This engaging activity is another way I make time to get to know my students, but it’s also a great chance for them to get to know each other. You can learn more about this activity and other forms of “speed dating” discussions HERE.
- Digital Icebreakers: Whenever I have spare time during the first few days and weeks of school, I pull out an icebreaker from this collection of activities. Students love it, and I love having backup activities in my pocket!
4. Create some extra space and “breathing room” on the first day.
One of the most challenging parts of the first day of school is just being “on” and in that “go-go-go” mode for a full school day after months of summer break. It’s difficult to turn that teacher switch on, especially if you’re an introvert like me. The solution? Find a way to “create” some extra space in your lesson so both you and your students have some quiet time to breathe. Here’s what that extra margin looks like in my first-day plan:
- Space for me: Once I explain our activity and release students to “investigate” my classroom for clues about me, I can relax, walk around the room, and chat with students. This part is laid-back and much less intimidating for me as a human being. It gives me time to regroup from whole-class instruction and actually get to know my students.
- Space for students: After students have investigated my classroom and consulted with peer detectives, I give them about 5 minutes of quiet work time to summarize their conclusions and reflect. This little pocket of silence is good for everyone. 🙂
If you resonate with this tip, then you’ll love this blog post: 5 Ways to Support Introverted Students
5. Remember that it doesn’t need to be perfect.
I know, I know, the first day sets the tone for the whole year, but it doesn’t need to be perfect. Sure, you want to have an engaging lesson, but beyond that – stop stressing. It’s okay if your classroom isn’t fully “set up.” In fact, I don’t think my classroom has ever been perfectly ready for Day 1. You can finish bulletin boards, displays, and even the rest of your lesson plans later. Your students aren’t going to notice that your bulletin board is missing that cute banner, that you haven’t made your copies for the next week, or that your lesson planner is blank.
Ease back into school one step at a time. Focus on your first day, and then your first week of plans, and then worry about everything else once you’ve got that under your belt. Remember, your time with your students is what matters the most. It is possible to be present in the moment and truly enjoy your first day with your new group of learners! If I can do it, so can you!
I hope these tips help you have a stress-free, peaceful, and fun first day of school!
Have a fabulous first day back, and good luck with the new year. I hope it’s your best one yet!
For more help planning your first few days of school, check out the following posts: