Do you know what one of the worst replies you could hear over the dinner table on the first day of school is? “Nothing.”
Yet time and again at dinner across the country, that is the response that students give their parents when asked what they did in school. The problem with this response isn’t that it’s a sullen student who is disengaged; the problem is that they are probably telling the truth which is unfortunate to say the least.
Every student looks forward to the first day of school. While students have varying reasons for their excitement (seeing friends, wearing new back to school clothing, finally being able to drive to school, or looking forward to a certain class or seeing a favorite teacher), they come in excited for the first day. And then that excitement is squashed. In fact, too many teachers excel at deflating that first day enthusiasm. What that generally looks like is the following: students go through all of their classes and are repeatedly told what they can and can’t do; they learn about classroom policies and procedures; and they read syllabi and sign out textbooks. That bubbly enthusiasm is quickly replaced by exhaustion and boredom well before the end of the day. And so when they are asked at night what they did, they’re likely telling the truth. However, it’s my hope that in the John Champe High School community, your experience on August 29 was different.
Each year I ask teachers new John Champe High School (and new to the Champe way) if they are firestarters or fire extinguishers? I walk them through the above scenario and explain that those teachers are fire extinguishers—and I ask them if that is the kind of class they would want to be in on the first day of school? And so I challenge them to be firestarters because as Sophocles wrote, “Education is not the filling of a vessel, but the kindling of a flame.” The first day of school is a great (best?) opportunity to kindle that flame—to show students why we are passionate about what we do, why we love our subject areas, and why we have made this our life’s work. I encourage them to showcase their best lesson that day or have an activity that will get students excited about their subject matter and want to come back for the second day of class. There is plenty of time to go over rules and procedural stuff (even at some point on the first day—it just doesn’t have to be the focus for the entire period), but there is very little time to get students enthusiastic and engaged, so it is imperative that we lead with something interesting!
This philosophy is a core value at John Champe High School and we honor it by visiting classrooms on the first day of school to see the great things that are happening (and sometimes even get to participate). Moreover, we even have a monthly recognition at faculty meetings for a teacher who best embodies this notion. And that is why on Twitter you might have seen photos of classes where students were highly engaged on the first day of school—such as in Mrs. Kummerer’s class where students determined the density of an unknown solution, Mrs. Zappia’s class where students completed an escape-the-room activity, or Ms. Webb’s class where students participated in an Algebra QR code scavenger hunt. And so I hope that when you spoke with your student about their first day of school that s/he had much more to say than “nothing,” because at John Champe High School, it is Not Business As Usual (NBAU).