There is something magical and exciting about starting fresh each fall with a new group of students. The first day of class is always exciting and nerve-wracking. I have yet to sleep soundly the night before I meet my new students. First impressions matter. I am not talking about the impressions that they will make on me. I am an adult, so I know better than to take any of their potentially challenging behaviors to heart. I realize that by the time they arrive in my care, they already have dozens of preconceived ideas, feelings, emotions and behaviors in relation to school. For all the anxiety I feel, I can only imagine what some of them are going through.
For all of these reasons and more, I greet my students with an open-hearted smile and make eye contact with each and every one of them as they choose a seat. Once they are seated and I have their attention, I begin my introductory speech, “Welcome to grade three! I can only imagine how each of you is feeling. Many of you are excited; others are nervous. Some of you love school and are thrilled to be back, others may not be very happy about being here. I can understand that. My ultimate mission is to make each and every one of you feel excited about school. Absolutely everybody has a special gift or talent to share with the world.
“Now, there may be someone here thinking, ‘She doesn’t mean me, though.’ Yes, I do! Everyone, especially you! You may not have discovered your gift yet, but I promise you, you have one, if not several. This year, each day will be filled with new opportunities to discover our strengths and our talents. School is not always easy, but the challenges can be fun if we choose to look at them that way. You must always feel safe to ask your questions. You are in a space that tolerates nothing less than 100% respect, kindness, and open-mindedness. It is by being a risk-taker that each of you will grow in your learning.
“I’m sure you know of teachers who believe in being very serious with their students. They don’t smile or tell jokes for at least the first month or two of the school year. I suppose they believe this is the best way to show the students who is in charge. Maybe that works for them but I do not see things that way. To me, every day is a gift for which we ought to be grateful. We will be spending five days a week together, morning until afternoon. As far as I’m concerned that makes us a family, and when I’m with my family, I like to feel happy, joyful and relaxed. I will greet you every day with a smile. I will exercise patience and I will use humor to help guide you in your learning. I wish I could say I never lose my patience. I wish I could say I never raise my voice. The fact is, I’m human and I have emotions, too, just like you. No matter what though, I promise you to always be my best, even if my best is not always the same from one day to the next, and I ask the same of you. When I make a mistake, I will apologize for it. Pobody’s nerfect, right? (pause) Get it? PO-body’s NER-fect?”
I always give them a moment for the play on words to sink in. Eventually, as comprehension dawns on a handful of children, they spontaneously volunteer their understanding to the rest of the group. “Ooooooh, Nobody’s perfect! Hahaha!” I love this moment so much. The joke may not be that funny, but the intention is understood. As laughter and smiles spread throughout the room, the positive energy that is connecting us to one another is palpable. This talk sets a precedence and a standard for the year. My message is clear: I care about being a caring teacher, and I care about them feeling comfortable in this space. Moreover, they see that laughter is not only welcome in our class, it’s a must.
To wrap everything up before moving on to our next activity, I tell them, “I am so looking forward to getting to know each and every one of you. I sincerely believe that each of you has been brought into my life for a reason. In fact, we are all in each other’s lives for a reason. We will all have things to learn from one another this year, of that I am certain. I see it as a privilege to be given the chance to be your teacher and I promise I will teach you to the best of my ability. All I ask in return is that you promise to be your best as learners, which means showing up to class with an open mind. I am really excited about this year!”
In case you haven’t noticed, I am really proud of this speech and I think I have good reason to be. For one, it has taken me years to refine the balance between being caring and having a loving approach, and being firm and setting high expectations for both myself and the students. I am 100% convinced that this is the healthiest route to take with children. We should not be waiting for children to show us respect before they gain it from us. We ought to offer and demonstrate respect to them so that they have a proper example of what it looks like. We need to stop assuming that children should know better. Maybe they don’t. Certainly, we are all able to conjure up images of adults being rude and even mean to children. If the majority of the adults in a child’s life have been better at preaching than teaching (i.e. do as I say, not as I do), then be grateful that you have the opportunity to be the best role model yet for this child. What an amazing privilege. Consider the place you will hold in that child’s heart knowing that you may have been the first adult to truly connect with him in a kind, loving, and respectful way.
One of the most effective ways to nip problems in the bud is to not really expect any in the first place. Instead, we must focus our energy on letting the children know what kind of behavior is expected. The beauty lies in the fact that whatever we expect of them is exactly what they can expect of us. As we set limits for ourselves, we simultaneously set them for all the other people involved in this ten month journey.
I will leave you with this parting thought:
The more we resist the child who stands before us, the more likely we will struggle indefinitely with her, whereas the better we become at accepting a child as he is, the more likely we will be able to effect positive change in his life.