Best Advice for the First Day of Class

“In my beginning is my end,” says T.S. Eliot in East Coker, the second poem of the Four Quartets. This is as true of semesters as it is of life. How we do the first day of class speaks volumes about our understanding of our vocation. It sets the tone for the whole semester.

It’s not surprising then that first day advice abounds for new teachers. I’ve received all kinds of it, some of it contradictory: Come in a minute late to make a dramatic entrance. Be there early to avoid any technology blunders or other signs of incompetence. Be at the door to personally greet each student as the walk in.

But there is one bit of advice about the first day of class that I received as a graduate student that I have never swerved from. Above all else, do not drone through the syllabus on the first day. Come up with a good opener, something that sets the tone or vibe of the class, that signals to students your take on the subject and how you’ll teach it. This is the best advice I’ve ever received. It’s also the hardest to follow, and it is deeply vocational.

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“Well begun is half done.”

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Professor Peter Frederick

It was Peter Frederick, retired historian and beloved teaching guru from Wabash College, who introduced me to the significance of the first day of class. His advice was straightforward, almost obvious, the way plain truths often are. And yet, as a new teacher, caught up in my own nervousness, concerned with the syllabus and making a good first impression, I had not fully appreciated how important it was to set a tone and allay student fears during that first meeting at the beginning of a new term.

On the first day, Peter reminds us, students are wondering about three things: the teacher (does the teacher care? are they fair? competent?); the course (is this course for me? will it be useful? relevant? appropriate?); and, finally, about their classmates (who are these other students in the class?). Peter further stresses the importance of getting into the course material on that very first day and has some good strategies for how to do that. Continue reading