Note from Dave: Interactions with teachers this summer — especially those early in their careers — have convicted me to put together a School Year Starter Kit, available at the solid price of Pay What You Want. For as little as $1, you both support this blog and snag my new smorgasbord of practical videos, documents, and slideshows, all of which are available in downloadable and online formats. New to this Starter Kit is its inclusion of a private Facebook group where you’ll have Q&A access to myself and others.
And yes — all that bang for as little as a buck. It’s up to you. Click here to learn more.
Every August, I feel it: the pressure to make this school year perfect, and, therefore, the pressure to make the first day of school perfect. Because, as we all know, that first day determines the whole year. Right?
Let’s think through that.
1. The first day is a first step in a journey; it is not year-determining.
In his ubiquitous book The First Days of School, Harry Wong says a lot of helpful things for teachers, but early on in my career, I can remember the book stressing me out. I no longer have a copy, but somewhere within its pages I got the distinct impression that the first day determines the entire rest of the year.
Dun, dun, duuuuuuuun! <–Insert foreboding music.
I now know this is not the case; far greater determining factors than simply the first day of school are questions like these:
- How will I leverage consistency and relationships to manage my classroom all year long, and how will I begin to establish that management on the first day? 
- How will I provide students with dozens of opportunities to read, write, and speak all year long, and how can the first day be a start to at least some of those things?
- What kinds of intellectual and life skills will suffuse my instruction, and how will I begin to hint at that with first day and first week activities?
The common thread in all of those questions? It’s this: What is your vision for the entire school year, and how does the first day begin — just barely — that journey?
Often when we’re struggling with first day stress, what we’re really struggling with is our vision for the entire school year. Every day of instruction flows from that vision.
2. With that said, it does help to be stepping in the right direction.
But, Dave, c’mon — the first day of school has got to be more important than, say, the 17th day — right?
Yes, I think so. I do think there’s power in first impressions and first steps; I know that, as a student, first days feel unique, exciting, nerve-y. The best marathoners are hugely intentional about how they start; mountaineers certainly don’t begin their ascents willy nilly. Starts do count in a special way, yes.
But there is only so much we can accomplish on the first day of school. Here, then, are the goals I have on that day:
- Teach my simple classroom management policy;
- Engage students in developing purpose while they create a key tool I’ll use all year long: an index card for every student;
- Introduce my students to argument;
- Hand out the syllabus for my students’ reading tonight, as well as two letters home to parents. 
3. “Start slow, finish fast” is true for some things, but not for everything
I used to think that it was okay to sideline my curriculum until Week 2, using the entirety of Week 1 to do team-building/relational/vision casting stuff with the kids. Now, I think differently about that — every day and minute in the classroom is an investment, and I want to invest as well as I can in the long-term flourishing of my students.
Here, then, are some things I do and I don’t take slowly in the first days of school.
What I do take slowly
I do want to make sure students understand the routines we’ll use in class and the learning techniques and habits they’ll need to be successful this year. And so I do take however many repetitions are necessary to teach routines like Bell is Boss  and basic learning techniques like taking effective notes and developing an after-school study habit. Often, I find myself re-teaching or going deeper on these kinds of things well into the fall and winter.
What I don’t take slowly
I no longer wait to get my students immersed in my curricula; instead, I think it’s critical that we start doing curriculum-based thinking, reading, writing, speaking, and character work as quickly as possible.
To be practical, this means that, by the end of Day 1, I want to be closing class with some sort of introduction to our first unit. Day 2, I’m starting to teach curriculum while simultaneously teaching those “take slowly” things from above.
But there are no longer any extended first-week-of-school projects; we’re not using 10 or 20 or 30 minutes to make posters or classroom norms. We’re hitting the ground running so that we can do as much literacy and life work as possible before the last bell rings on the last day.
4. The nerves are a good thing
I’m constantly battling my nerves as a teacher and speaker. I know that too much anxiety is bad: for my health, for my soul. It means that, somewhere internally, I’m betting my identity on how well I perform. This isn’t a place from which you attain optimal performance.
But there is a place for nerves — especially for one-time events, like first dates or first days of school or speaking engagements. Some level of nervousness keeps me humble, keeps me sharp, keeps me in the place where I can get that rush from getting through the nervous thing and realizing I didn’t die.
I’ll end with this, then: don’t get nervous about feeling nervous about the first day, but do keep it in perspective. Growth mindset isn’t just for the kids; it’s for us, too.
- In the School Year Starter Kit, I talk through my classroom management policy and how I introduce it on Day 1.
- Those letters — one introducing my classroom management policy and one introducing the DonorsChoose permission slip I need them to sign — are in the Starter Kit. Also, when sending home my syllabus, I know there are some students who will and some students who won’t read it tonight. I know there are many factors at play when assigning homework; I also know that I want my students to have as many opportunities to read as possible; while many of these happen in class, some have to happen at home.
- Three of my favorite routines — Reset, Call to Attention, and Bell is Boss — are featured in the Starter Kit.
Thank you to my brother Adam Sinclair, who didn’t know when we went to Arches National Park that he’d become a blog post image for me 🙂 Also, thank you to the many mentors in my life, inside and outside of education, who have given me the courage to analyze anxiety and work at its conquering.