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Surviving the First Week of School

first day of school activities

I want to tell you a story. Imagine a bright-eyed, can-do, I’m-a-Stereotypical-Gonna-Stand-On-Desks-And-Change-The-World-With-My-Teaching attitude, with fresh ideas and materials, pencils sharpened and books leveled teacher. First day. Parents leave. Just the kids and me. I was born for this. I have wanted to teach since I was 7 years old (some people called me “bossy” and others called me a “leader”…you know what I’m talking about). This day was going to be one to remember. I went through my checklist of “get to know you” activities and icebreakers (thanks to some helpful friends on ProTeacher–remember Proteacher?!) and my notes from student teaching. I had attempted several of the activities and quickly figured out a few were too difficult for this group of 2nd graders. Aaaaand then I looked at the clock in horror. It was only 9:30. After I walked my class out to recess, I FREAKED out. I had nothing else planned. I wanted to bawl my eyes out. I calmly walked across the hall to one of the literacy coaches and told her my situation. She laughed and calmed me down. She brought over some “choice” activities (I had student taught in 4th grade and had never heard of “choice time” until right then) and easy literacy games (dry erase boards, sight word dice, etc.). I was nervous that I’d be in trouble for letting the kids play until I could figure out what other activities to do at lunch (totally oblivious to the fact that I had an old-school principal that was a huge proponent of centers and a more hands-on approach anyway). The kids were fine, and I don’t even remember what I ended up doing the rest of the day. When my mom and former host-teacher came in to visit at the end of the day I burst into tears (I cry very easily…pretty much at any confrontation or ounce of discomfort and tears come to my eyes–super cool when you’re trying to be professional). I remember feeling like I had made the biggest mistake someone could ever make and was in the wrong career because it was SO MUCH HARDER THAN ANYONE CAN IMAGINE. They reminded me that if I still felt like that at the end of the year I could try switching to an intermediate grade if one opened up (it did, and I stayed because, turns out, second grade is actually where my heart is!). I went home with that in mind and trudged through the rest of the fall and things certainly got better.

I can laugh about it now of course, but back then that fear and anxiety and pressure was VERY real.  On my first day, I had a rude awakening. Teaching wasn’t what I thought it would be. It wasn’t even what my student-teaching self thought it would be. I remember thinking, “Gee, when my classes end and all I have to do is teach it will be so much easier.” I was so naive. Soooo naive. If you’re reading this, you are probably a teacher and you likely know what I’m talking about. So, my hope in this post is twofold. 1.) I want to remind myself what it’s like to be a new teacher (which, we basically all are every fall) and 2.) help other teachers prepare for the day they are most likely to go home crying (not parent-teacher conferences, that’s another post for another time). Even if new kids are added to your roster after you’ve labeled and alphabetized it all. You’ll be okay. Promise.

For the first 2 weeks of school, I like to make sure I have PLENTY of activities (see the above story). From the minute they walk in the door, they have something to do. Each desk is ready with a sharpened pencil, first day of school Play doh mat, mini can of Play-doh, and a drawing/writing page (word search on the back). Throughout the day we work on other FUN things–my goal is to get them super excited about the rest of the year.  You can find my First Day of School Activities pack here.

first day of school activities

I keep these conversation dice (is anyone else as obsessed with foam dice like me?!) handy so we can do some pair share, whole group and table group get-to-know-you activities. These natural moments are perfect for setting the stage if you need to practice sitting “EEKK” style, whole body listening, or whatever you know you’ll be working on.

Another thing I make sure to have handy are books. LOTS of them. I am a book hoarder, and something tells me I’m in good company. I collect them like some women collect shoes or purses, and I value them just the same. I keep a tub of back to school books right by my teacher chair where I do my read-alouds and anytime I feel like there’s down time or we just need a break from learning about a new procedure or whatever…I read a book. The beginning of the year is crazy, not just for you either. Kids like listening to stories. It’s that simple. Read to them and you can even teach them your “listening to a book” expectations, whatever they are. Waiting until the end to ask questions? Make a “C” in the air if you make a connection instead of telling me about it while I’m reading? Criss-cross applesauce? Assigned spots on the rug? So much of a successful day can be attributed to early classroom management, which starts on day 1 and is present throughout every single second of your teaching day. So, read some (you can find the complete list of back to school books here) fun back to school books and teach some expectations while you do it. Easy peasy.

back to school read alouds

This one kinda goes with the profession. No matter how long you’ve been teaching, you’ll get to the point where you realize it’s pretty much inevitable that the longer you plan for a lesson plan, the more likely it is to not go as planned (#truth). first day of school activitiesSo, just as I learned on my first day of teaching, you may need to change it up a bit if something you are trying to do isn’t working. I had planned all kinds of games that we played in my 4th grade student teaching year, only to quickly realize that 2nd graders are still very much 1st graders on the first day and it just wasn’t going to work. Time to move on and do something else. This is why #1 is so important (make sure you have other things to do if your plans don’t go as planned!).  Use your gut teacher instinct and….write what you noticed down so you remember it for next year (assuming you’ll be teaching at least the same grade level)–good teachers are always reflective AND actually doing something to make their lessons better. After 7 years of teaching 2nd grade, I still don’t type or write my plans in anything other than pencil, simply because I know something will need to change (it’s very common for me to think something will only take one day and it actually takes two–especially if I’m talking about math!). You can find this weekly planning page here.

Set up your classroom just a bit rather than worry that it’s not completely decorated. You can decide how you want to handle supplies-I prefer to keep them in the backpack until closer to the end of the day when I ask them to put everything they brought into one giant pile so I can sort them into shared table supply tubs and put any extras in the cabinet after they leave–this helps alleviate the awkward, “But my mom labeled each of MY crayons with MY name and I have this pencil box and I want to keep it in my desk so I can get into it when I’m not supposed to” situations….tell me I’m not alone!). It’s also a good idea to leave some bulletin boards empty so you’ll have places to put anchor charts and student work when you’re ready.  You can arrange desks/tables depending on the type of work you want to do those first few days (cooperative, independent, paired) and really, you’ll likely need to change it up as you find out where to place students anyway (a science none of us master until May each year, right?).  I like to create a welcoming environment that isn’t too distracting. I make a giant “U” with student desks on the first day, and then quickly create table groups so we can start working on some of the group projects I plan. Also, I’ve learned that if you’re asking for help with moving furniture (whether it’s your custodian, husband or mom–thanks, Mom!), make sure you are ready for them to actually help so they aren’t stuck sitting around waiting for you to clear an area first. Don’t feel obligated to label everything, because nine times out of ten, you’ll get a new student at the last minute (or five) and have to start over (especially if you alphabetize things like coat hook spots). I made editable desk name tags so it isn’t that much of a big deal to throw another label on a desk if your roster changes. You can get your free desk nameplates delivered right to your inbox by signing up for my newsletter below. You can type student names ahead of time, but I also recommend that you print out some blank extras to have on hand for students that are added throughout the year (you never know!).

Classroom management starts the very first second they arrive. There’s a reason Harry Wong’s book is a staple (did you know you get the Kindle version now?! #allmypaperbooksarenowebooks) in so many classrooms.  Throughout the first day activities, I am using classroom management because it’s really not something separate from your lesson, it’s just part of your instruction. Whether it’s your nonverbal “teacher stare,” shoulder touch, “stoic face” or your direct, “It is respectful to listen quietly while I’m reading,” it’s something you do throughout your day. I intentionally leave out teaching classroom procedures until the 2nd day, which is hard because it’s not easy for me, but my hope is that they go home on the first day with nothing but happy thoughts and are nothing but pumped about the upcoming school year. This editable Classroom Procedures and Routines PowerPoint is great because it keeps you from forgetting talking about anything important.

I use a checklist during the first 2 weeks rather than my teacher planner because different subject areas throughout the day aren’t quite ready for instruction yet (specialists aren’t pulling out/pushing in right away among other things).I added some editable pages to my checklist so you can type your own in. Grab the FREE download in my Resource Library here.

One thing I love about teaching in a PBIS school is that students (after a few years), should already be familiar with the language, expectations and procedures. BUT, that doesn’t mean we can skip review (and if we have students that are new to the school, this is also new to them). We watch the Think Time powerpoint and practice it until I know they’re ready for it and I go over this behavior matrix with the whole class (you can display it on screen or print it out to create a poster display).

And here’s a super awkward video of me going through my own back to school binder:

It’s of course important to look professional on the first day. But, hopefully you don’t have to sacrifice comfort for style! I don’t know about you, but I get up and down a LOT on the first day. I am playing games and doing activities with my students, so I need to be able to sit on the floor without worrying about crossing my legs properly. I also don’t wear heels or shoes that would make my feet hurt even a tiny bit. If you wait to wear your new school shoes until the first day….hello blisters.  Also, every school has a different dress code. Some are super formal, some are a “Jeans Day” sorta school and some (like mine) are pretty relaxed.  I had never heard of “Jeans Day” until I started blogging, but I imagine it would be difficult. I’m at the point that I refuse to even wear “regular” jeans anymore (I’ve had 2 kids, don’t judge). If I could buy stock in Jag Jeans I would. They’re AMAZING. I have them in skinny, bootcut and flare. But, you know what’s better than jeans? Leggings. Or yoga pants that look like dress pants. Or even stretchy ponte knit. I have about 10 pairs of Lularoe leggings (just search on FB for a sales group and you can shop directly in there–my favorite way to shop is on my couch and the shipping is usually $4/pair) and reach for them on a regular basis. Sidenote: leggings aren’t meant to be worn like pants—cover that tushy ladies! So, if you don’t already have one, start a Pinterest board and begin collecting some comfy/professional looks as inspiration (you can follow mine here) or make use of that Amazon Prime free shipping already.

I’m going to be blunt here because this one is actionable TODAY. Lock your door to avoid interruptions during prep. If you share a room with another teacher, have an honest conversation so you aren’t chatting the whole time. This might be something you do all year, but it’s especially important that first week of school. If your goal is to go home at a normal hour, whatever you consider to be fair to yourself, family, etc., then you need to prioritize your time at work and keep in mind that, yes, it is WORK. Of course it’s important to maintain relationships and continue having conversations, but if you find yourself talking more about The Bachelorette at work than your writing workshop, then you likely need to refocus and get some stuff done. My husband doesn’t stay an hour after he’s done getting paid and he constantly reminds me about that (thanks honey!) when I start having “teacher guilt” or feel like I’m getting sideways glares from colleagues as I walk out at 3 p.m. (if you are a person that complains when someone leaves at 3, check your attitude ASAP–we’re on the same team). If someone tries to schedule a meeting after your contract hours (assuming you have them), politely decline and suggest a different time you’re available DURING contract hours. Yes it might be easier for a parent to come to a meeting when they’re off work, but you know what? This is your job and that’s their kid…you aren’t the one that should be making it a priority and rearranging your schedule, they are. And if you know there’s a certain time of day that the copy machine won’t have a line, make sure to make your copies then if you can (or enlist a parent volunteer–they do exist if you really try–to do it for you). If you dedicate your prep time to actually prepping, you’ll likely have a feeling of confidence and not one of resentment for having to stay until dinner time every day.

First impressions are an important life skill, and they’re easier said than done. I try suuuuuper hard to be accommodating, shake hands, be extra smiley and have less RBF on the first day of school over any other day. I think of it as an interview with both kids and parents and I’m the high school cheerleader with a ton of pep and enthusiasm that this year will be grrreeeeeat! They want to know their kid is in good hands and generally happy while they’re at school, and you have to make a point to let them know you can do that. So…smile and be peppy and you’re likely to have made a good first impression that will carry over when someone is upset about some policy or something their kid is accusing you of later (“She said we can’t eat candy at school!” will go over much better if they remember you as smiley vs. stern, I promise).

Another tip is to welcome families on the first day is with a slide showing just that (this can also be used at Open House or Meet the Teacher Night). Simple, but goes a long way. You can find this Free Open House Welcome Slide in the Free Resource Library.

free open house welcome slide

An easy way to rest both kids and parents’ fears about the new school year is to welcome them with a little fun. I like to put “Happy New Year” hats and horns on each desk on the first day (we take a class photo with these that I email to families after school). It’s a fun way to set the tone and assure them that you have a fun side (which, I’m guessing you do). Tip: purchase AFTER New Year’s Eve when they are on sale. If you’re reading this during back to school time, set a reminder on your phone for January 2nd to buy New Year’s decorations (you can also decorate your room with streamers and make a fun doorway). I bought a few extras to keep on hand because inevitably, a few will break and I use them over and over. You can choose to let your students take them home or store them to use year after year, just buy extras if you plan on doing that because you won’t be able to find new ones to replace the few broken ones when you’re prepping your room in August!


I also make sure to take a LOT of photos throughout the first week of school. Parents like to be assured that their child is in good hands. They also like to know what’s going on since most of the time they can’t be there. Photos are the easiest way to cross that bridge and help them feel good about leaving their kid with a complete stranger. As a parent myself, I can attest to how valuable this is. Getting a photo of my kid in school in the middle of the day makes my heart so incredibly happy. You can set up a private photo album online, email photos directly to parents, use the Class Dojo or Remind app for photos, or even print them off if you prefer to do that. You can find the First Day of School Poster in my Free Resource Library to help get you started.

You can also send home a little personal welcome Meet the Teacher letter page–this is an editable version (it comes in a few template choices, each version is available in color and black/white). It’s also a nice gesture to give out magnetic contact cards. Parents are more likely to keep your info on the fridge as a little magnet than a piece of paper with your info on it (which, let’s be honest, will likely be thrown into the trash). You can print directly on magnetic printer paper, so there’s no need to go to a print shop or anything. You can find magnetic printer paper here and the editable Meet the Teacher template here. These match my Editable Open House Powerpoint Slideshow as well.

This is, again, sometimes easier said than done. In most areas of my life, I am a planner. However, I ALMOST ALWAYS FORGET to bring something to eat at lunch (you know, that 30 minute break you usually are prepping during?). Peanut butter and a loaf of bread in the cupboard and jelly in the minifridge are super convenient. So is a can of soup and you can store one of these mugs that microwave it up in a jiffy without the mess. And once you’ve taken care of your food needs, just like we tell our students, make sure you remember to USE THE RESTROOM during your breaks. Lunch is actually a great time to catch up with colleagues, especially if they have the same lunch time as you. Make it a regular thing and you’ll find more of a happy balance between work and relaxing for a few minutes during your breaks. If you put yourself last in every situation throughout the day, you won’t be a better teacher for it, so take care of yourself and your own needs and remember to just BREATHE. This is the hardest job in the world, and you will. rock. it.

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  1. August 14, 2016 / 3:14 am

    Great suggestions! Love the clothing tips! I guess I'll have to do some back to school shopping before returning on Monday ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. August 13, 2017 / 3:34 pm

    I love all of these ideas! When I click on your weekly planning page though, the link goes to your substitute pack?

    • August 13, 2017 / 4:28 pm

      Hi Amanda! Thanks so much for letting me know–the freebie has expired, but I fixed the link to show which resource it comes from.

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