I sat in my blue plastic chair behind my desk. If you’re a teacher, you know the one I’m speaking of. It’s just an adult-sized chair you find in a classroom, and it signified I lacked the experience to either buy my own chair or steal one from an empty class before the start of school. It was the beginning of the third period, and my students were working on some crossword or word search ditto as they sat in rows. The classroom was sterile as I had put little on the walls. You could hear their pencils scribbling across their paper and periodic whispering.
It was the first day of school for these junior high students. It was also my first day of school as I had missed the opportunity to open a class during my student teaching. My day probably began like most students. I dressed up in my back-to-school clothes. For me, these were brown slacks and a creme colored dress shirt. I even wore a tie. However, I think I spent 15 minutes trying to get my tie to be the correct length. I anxiously stood at the door of our apartment as my wife took my picture. I had no idea what to expect. I had no idea I would be writing about this day almost 30 years later.
I shifted in my seat and continued to read my students “All About Me” note cards. This was one of those strategies they taught you in the teachers’ school so you can get to know your kids. It was also the same school that promoted, “Don’t smile until November.” Unfortunately, I wasn’t getting to know my students as much as I was evaluating their writing. Their penmanship was awful. I could hardly read their writing due to the misspelled words and slang. I still didn’t know their names yet, but Royce was badgering Ashley about something, foreshadowing a pattern for the year. “You better deal with this now and show who’s in control,” I thought. I looked up from the cards and placed both hands on the desk. Pushing my chair back as I stood, the scraping sound of metal feet on the newly waxed tile floors stopped the talking, and all students eyes met mine.
I barked, “Hey! Stop talking and finish your work!” The room fell silent, and the eyes of the students quickly fell away to their ditto. I had that sense of power surge through me and thought I had things under control. The first two periods had gone well, and I was not going to let this group get the best of me. I looked down and my desk before I sat down. That’s when I saw it. I could feel that rush of blood leaving my head. It was the third period. My mind screamed, “All morning? How could my zipper be down all morning and I not notice it until now!” I quickly sat down and ever so carefully put my hands in my lap. My left hand grabbed the cloth, and my right hand quickly jerked the zipper up. My mind was racing in my embarrassment. “Did they see? Does anyone know?”
I have no other memories of my first day. The embarrassment overshadowed all else. I told no one until several years ago. I can only wonder what memories my students had of their first day with me. I have no doubt it was unmemorable as well. I look back on this incident with mixed emotions. I laugh at the insecurity and terror I felt. I am also ashamed of my immaturity, as I was focussed on me and not my students. I had no support staff to guide me. No PLN or framework for supporting behavior. It was old school rows, discipline, dittos, quizzes on Friday, and detention for talking back. It was the way it was, but I am still not proud of how I started my career. I also look back at the beginning of my career and wonder who was more nervous that first day.
Today, I see the first day of school through a very different lens. As my colleague John Martinez shares, we smile because it can change everything. We try to make students and parents smile on the first day and every day. I am proud our teachers collaborate around building relationships and implementing Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (PBIS) at our school. You will not see many classrooms (if any) in traditional rows. Nor will you find time-killer word search dittos. The first day of school is one where we welcome students and let them know we are excited by their wonder, their curiosity, and their desire to be so much more. We are excited to find help our students find their voice, to help them grow, and to help them create.
I am grateful the first day of school will be different for our students than it was for my students so many years back. I have learned so much from colleagues and my mistakes over the years. We will smile on the first day. We will engage students’ minds on the first day. We will make it a safe place to learn and connect with others on the first day. In doing so, we strive to make the opening day memorable, so students are excited to return the second day. And if we do this well, from the heart, the adults will feel the same way; eager to return. I just want to remind everyone to check themselves in the mirror before they leave home.