One of the things I love most about teaching is the constant sense of renewal, of beginning afresh. College professors get to experience that twice a year—and more often, if they teach on the quarter system or in the summer.
Given the unique opportunity to constantly start over—with new classes and students, updated materials, maybe new classrooms and equipment—it strikes me that the first day of any class is the most important of the semester. It's the meeting that sets the tone for the rest of the term, helping you get the course off to a great start. Or not.
It is, of course, possible to overcome a bad first session. And even if your opening-day performance is brilliant, problems can crop up later on that make for a trying semester. But generally speaking, what happens on Day 1—how you act, what you say, even how you look—will go a long way toward determining your relative success or failure as the instructor of that course.
You may be a brand-new teacher staring down your first-ever Day 1 in a few weeks. Or maybe you're a classroom veteran who hasn't been altogether satisfied with the way your semesters have started. Either way, here are some tips for a successful first day of class:
Be yourself. One of the biggest mistakes that inexperienced (and sometimes even experienced) teachers make is going in on the first day and acting like somebody they're not. Maybe they attempt to sound stricter than they really are, or make jokes they wouldn't normally make, or affect certain behaviors (lifted from their own former professors) that don't come naturally for them.
That is a mistake because most students will see right through you. They'll know immediately and intuitively that you're putting on a show, and their subconscious interpretation will be that you're not altogether comfortable with yourself, that you don't really know who you are, and that you're therefore unreliable as an authority figure and dispenser of knowledge.
As for the students who do buy your act on Day 1—well, they're going to be surprised, confused, maybe even a little angry when they discover down the road that you're not really who you suggested you were. And they will discover it. Nobody can keep up an act for an entire semester.
So don't be afraid to be yourself. If you're the no-nonsense type, then make that clear from Day 1. If you enjoy self-deprecating humor, throw in a joke or two at your own expense. If you get a little cranky at times, then fine, be a little cranky. Students will be glad to know what they're getting themselves into. As long as you're consistent throughout the term, they are likely to tolerate whatever they perceive as your quirks or personality flaws.
Be yourself—but a little bit better. Being a little cranky is one thing. Later on in the semester, you might become a lot cranky, and the students will know to expect that. But try to rein in your inner curmudgeon a bit on the first day.
Likewise, you may fancy yourself a great comedian. OK. By all means, tell a few jokes. But don't try to turn the entire first class session into a stand-up comedy routine. You don't want to leave the impression that you're not serious about the course. Also, spending too much time trying to elicit laughs will probably prevent you from covering some important material.
Dress for success. The same advice applies to the way you dress on that first day: Be yourself, only a little bit better. If you normally teach in khakis and a button-down, try throwing on a tie or a scarf for Day 1. If a tie is the norm, then maybe add a jacket. And if you like to dress up every day—well, I don't think I would recommend taking the next step and showing up in a tuxedo or a cocktail dress. A suit is probably formal enough.
Since I left administration, I've taken to wearing nice jeans (at least my wife says they're nice) and a neatly pressed button-down shirt. That is a comfortable "uniform" that suits my purposes as I roll up my sleeves and circulate among my writing students, often leaning against chair backs or squatting down beside desks to answer questions.
But on the first day of class, I usually wear khakis with my button-down. (I swore a solemn oath, when I returned to the classroom full time, never, ever to wear a tie.) That's being myself, just a slightly better version of myself. And the students aren't exactly shocked when I show up in jeans on Day 2.
What you don't want to do is wear a suit on the first day, then revert to jeans and a golf shirt thereafter. Students find that kind of inconsistency confusing and maybe a little alarming, at least on a subconscious level. Again, don't be afraid to be more or less yourself in the way you dress, even if you do smooth out the rough edges a little.
Strike the right tone. I don't believe this piece of advice contradicts any that I've offered above. Being yourself doesn't necessarily mean winging it. You may still need to work on your presentation.
Edgar Allan Poe argued that there is only one acceptable tone for poetry: "melancholy." There really isn't one acceptable tone for college professors on the first day of class. (And even if there were, it certainly wouldn't be melancholy. We save that for the final exam.)
Different teachers use different tones on Day 1 because our personalities are different. Still, I think there are some basic elements of tone for which you should strive. Try to come across as confident, fair, reasonable, approachable (even if a bit curmudgeonly), and open-minded. And you should do so not because you're putting on an act, but because those are all appropriate professorial attitudes that you either genuinely embrace or are working hard to acquire. Try to avoid sounding pompous, arrogant, or dictatorial.
The Day 1 tone that works well for me, and that fits with my personality, is one I would describe as "amiable but no-nonsense." My objective is to let the students know that, although I take the course seriously, and I take them and their concerns seriously, I don't take myself overly seriously.
Convey key information. Perhaps the most important thing to do on Day 1 is to go over your syllabus and hit all the key points. You don't have to walk students through the entire document—much of it they can read for themselves. And you definitely don't need to project your syllabus up on the screen and read it aloud, word by painful word. You'll have students lining up at the registrar's office to drop before you get to Page 2.
There are three main things that students want to know on the first day of class: what they're going to be expected to do, how their final grades will be determined, and what the instructor's policies are regarding attendance, make-up work, etc. I always try to include a short speech on plagiarism and a little bit of my philosophy on teaching writing, although I generally save most of the latter for Day 2. But whatever else I do, I make sure to cover those three main items on the first day.
It's vitally important if you have your own policies governing classroom conduct to put those policies in writing and then take the time to go over them in detail on Day 1. That is especially important if your policies might be perceived as stricter than those of other professors. Students will appreciate the heads-up even if they don't care much for the policies. More important, should a particular policy come into dispute at some later point in the semester, you have the excellent defense that you not only put the rule in writing but covered it thoroughly on the first day of class.
Following all of those guidelines will not guarantee that you have an awe-inspiring opening day, much less that you will be successful in the rest of the course. But they should at least help you get off on the right foot, and that usually has a positive impact on the rest of the semester.
And even if things don't turn out as well as you might like this term, the beauty of teaching is that you always have the opportunity to make a few adjustments and start all over again next semester.