Teachers all over the country have already been back in the classroom for a few weeks, but here in Minnesota, the day after Labor Day is the official start of school. Welcome back!
For too many high school students, that means a day of listening to six or seven different teachers review six or seven different lists of rules and expectations. Can you hear Charlie Brown’s teacher’s voice? That’s what we sound like.
How much of it do you think the students will remember tomorrow?
Given that we forget 70% of what we learn very quickly, I think it’s safe to say that by the time they get home, they’ll have forgotten who wants blue pens or black, who gives extra credit and who is giving a quiz tomorrow.
So what should we do with that precious first day? A lot more than we do right now.
According to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink (which cites a 1993 study by Ambady and Rosenthal), students can form a pretty accurate impression of us in just six seconds. By the end of 50 minutes, many will have developed a strong opinion of us — based on what we do, what we say and how we treat them — that will influence their behavior in our classes for months.
Think of the first day of class as a job interview. You have one chance to make a first impression, so what do you want it to be?
Of course you want to project confidence. You want these new students to know you have high expectations, but that you will also be fair. You want them to take your course (and you) seriously, and you want to get the required details out of the way.
But what about engaging them in your content? Selling them on your class? Can you do something the first day that will light a fire, that will make them eager to see you again tomorrow?
It took me at least 10 years of teaching to figure this out. Then I started giving my “Civil Liberties” students a survey on controversial topics. Should Americans be able to burn the flag? Get an abortion? Sentence someone to death? We used the survey to help illustrate the tension between individual liberties and and societal values, and we plunged into a discussion about conformity and libertarianism. All on the first day.
In Macroeconomics, we talk about measuring the economy the way you measure a person’s health. Give them a few basic definitions of GDP growth, inflation and unemployment, and we jump right into data — the U.S. in the ’70s, China in the ’90s, Russia in the ’90s. Before they leave, they have a sense that they already know something important.
In Psychology, we will take a few ridiculous personality tests and talk about the differences between pop psychology and professional psychology. What have 100+ years of psychology research taught us about ourselves, and what are the many mysteries that remain?
A skeptic might say my approach is pandering to the audience, trying to make school entertaining when it should be an appropriately serious venture. Kids need to know the rules, and it is their job to be engaged.
I respectfully disagree. I can sum up the important rules for my class in five bullet points. Then I’m going to use my time to convince them that social studies is the finest hour of the day.
Today may not really be a job interview. My students won’t have the power to fire me. But they will have the power to decide how this year goes, and I want it to be the best.