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Starting the School Year Part 1: Getting Off on the Right Foot

Introduce Yourself

On the first day of school, the first question in the students’ minds is, “Who are you?” You will introduce yourself, of course, but you might also talk about yourself a little bit.

Deal with obvious questions like, “Why are you here?” Sometimes students show surprise when you confide to them that you get great pleasure from seeing them learn. Eyes may widen when you tell them that school should be fun. Don’t beat it to death. But, a few words from the heart are in order.


On the first day of school, the second question in the students’ minds is, “Who are they?” If you think that the students all know each other, think again.

I used to have secondary teachers hand out a blank seating chart in mid-November and ask the students to fill in the first and last names of everyone in the class. Rarely did the number of correct papers exceed 25 percent. Teachers were typically shocked, but most had to admit that they had invested little time in making it otherwise.

Students do better in class both academically and socially when they are comfortable, relaxed, and “at home.” They do not do so well in an impersonal environment.

The question facing the teacher is, “Do you care?” Is it worth your time in order to make the students feel at home? I would strongly suggest that you devote the lion’s share of the first class period of the year to creating comfort. Spend at least a half-hour doing an “icebreaking” activity.

Many teachers feel that it is all-important to “set the tone” of the class by getting right into a meaty assignment during the first class period. While well intentioned, this objective is not aligned with the students’ needs.

Think of yourself suddenly thrown together with a group of your peers, some you know and some you don’t, plus a few good friends that you haven’t seen in months. Some social “settling in” is needed.

If you invest time and energy in producing comfort, you signal to the students that you care about them as people. If you do not invest, you signal that they are nothing but warm bodies occupying a chair in your class. Do not expect a lot of warmth and consideration coming back to you from students who are treated in this fashion.

Since the objective of breaking the ice is social, have some fun with it. Anything that helps the students get to know each other and laugh is golden.

Sample Icebreakers

Here are some sample icebreakers that you can use on the first day of school. Customize them to fit your needs. Your colleagues can give you even more.


  • Scavenger Hunt: Hand out a sheet of paper with ten questions about things the students are likely to have in common (the last movie you saw, your favorite sport, your favorite flavor of ice cream, how you get to school, etc.). To the right of the questions are four columns. Students write the answer to each question in column one. They must then find three students who have the same answer for each question. These students sign the sheet in one of the three remaining columns. Give the students a time limit and watch them go. Be a participant yourself. Any activity of this kind will work better when you are part of it.

  • Name Game: In the name game, students form a circle with their desks and hang a 3-by-5 card on the front of the desk with their first name printed on it. Pass out magic markers so the names can be written in big, bold letters that can be read from across the room. The first person begins the game by giving his or her first name plus a rhyme, an adjective, or a nickname that describes him or her. This part is always good for laughs. The second person does the same, and then repeats what the first student said. The third person does the same, and then repeats what the second and first students said. By the time the game has gone around the room, the person who is “it” has a lot of names and nicknames to remember, but the name cards on the front of the desks serve as reminders. Class members are directed to quickly supply missing information if a fellow student gets stuck. As simple as it sounds, this game usually generates a lot of kidding around while it helps students associate names with faces. Of course, the teacher goes last and learns the students’ names in the process.

Class Introductions

  • Partner Introductions: Students pair up and introduce their partners. Structure the interview by providing a list of topics. Interviewers typically get specifics about their partner’s family, pets, hobbies, and special interests. Go around the room and have each student introduce his or her partner to the class.

  • Group Sharing: Have each student share with the group the best thing they did over the summer, their biggest fear, their biggest hope for the new school year, and so on. You supply the list of topics.

Art and Graphics

  • Design a T-shirt: Have each student design a T-shirt press-on that tells about him or herself. Each student then stands up to display and explain the design.

  • Digital Photos: If you have access to a digital camera, take the students’ pictures on the first day of school. Have the students list five things that describe themselves on the bottom half of a sheet of notebook paper. Then, have the students read their lists to the group prior to your mounting their photos on the top half of the paper. Post the photo sheets around the room. This activity can be extended throughout the first week of school by having each student bring a baby picture. Number the baby pictures and post them on the bulletin board. Have a contest in which points are given for matching current pictures with baby pictures.

Personal Characteristics

  • Guess Who: Hand out a sheet with ten questions about personal characteristics of the students. Have the students answer the questions and hand them in. The teacher reads the first item on a student’s list, and the entire class has to guess who the person is. Additional items on the list are read until the student is identified. The rest of the students follow in turn.

  • Place in the Family: Have students form groups according to their place in the family (oldest, middle, youngest). The students in each group list the things they have in common and the advantages and disadvantages of their place in the family. Each group makes a list and shares it with the class.

First Impressions

Students will have a well-formed impression of each teacher by the end of the first day of the school year. They will know if the teacher cares about them. They will know whether this class is a work environment or a place to kick back. They will know whether they have an old pro or a rookie.

The students can always tell what is important just by watching you. Things that are important are worth your time and effort. The students need to know that they are important.

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