Well, It’s about to be here and I’m still gushing, really gushing.
The first day is about to be here. First impressions are about to be here. I love it. I’m going on a blind date with over 160 students. It has an air of expectancy, of thrill, of fun, of enjoyment, of vitality, of opportunity, of excitement, of adventure, of discovery, of newness, and a “growing” for it. No “ho-hum” routine about it for me. Not a cold “just another day, another dollar” for me. Nothing back-breaking for me, just ground breaking. Not just an administrative hand out the stuff day for me. For me, this day is to give each student a starting hand. Not a “I’d rather be in another place” place for me. For me, it’s the best place to be. Not a mournful “yuk.” For me, it’s a shouting and exhuberant “yes!” It’s a singing and dancing “wow!” It’s and exciting and jubilant “let’s go!” My juices will be roaring at a Level 5 rapid rate in a few days.
Hey, it’s TGITFDOC: THANK GOD IT’S THE FIRST DAY OF CLASS.
And, talking about blind dates, actually two things are just about here. Monday is the first class of the Fall Semester and Thursday my angelic Susan and I will be toasting our 37th anniversary with 37 pieces of french fries by Wendys. Actually, I personally prefer to celebrate the anniversary of that all important first date, almost thirteen months earlier to the day, that literally last minute blind date with a teenage sophomore which I, a graduate student with nothing but my impending doctoral orals on my mind, did not want to go on. On that day next month, alone, by the fish pond, I will, as I always do, raise a glass of wine, with glassy eyes, deeply thank the good Lord for whatever I inadvertently did on that first date and whatever first impression I made that caught Susan’s eye and got her to agree to a coffee clutch the next night an hour before her dorm curfew, and the night after that, and the night after that, for eight weeks until I asked her to marry me. That first date set the tone for all our years of dating and courting that have since followed.
I bring this up not only because it’s on my heart and mind, but because as part of the ritual of getting my juices going, I’ve been going over and over the student journals from the previous semester. As I read those lines, I noticed once again something very interesting in the first entries, many intermittent entries, the final entries: the lasting impact of the first day of class, the first blind date the students and I had with each other. That first day of class is almost almost mentioned in the confidential letters the students from one semester write to the student of the incoming semester. And like that blind date I had with Susan, the first day in class I start the process of breaking barriers, building bridges, creating relationships.
That first day of class! How do I feel? What do I do? What do I say? Until about a decade ago, I was a talker and chalker. I used to be a hander outer and a getter outer. I spoke and they wrote. I wrote my name and office hours on the blackboard, preached an oral syllabus, told them name of the textbook, told them how many reports and exams they were going to have, gave them “you got to” and “you’re responsible for” speech, and sent them on their way. Every now and then, more now than then, I presented my first lecture. I it a homer administratively and struck out with them personally.
I’m not sure when I first learned how often that first day of class is so often a critical “what a day” of missed opportunities. How often the riches of that first day are left buried to lay around like an overlooked, undiscovered, unopened treasure chest. They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. That may be true, but it’s the cover that attracts us and makes us want to look inside. It’s the same with people. We can’t tell what a person is really like by looking on the outside but it’s the outside that makes us want to look inside. As I read those journals and recall the open sharing of the letters and think of that blind date thirty-eight years ago, I know that there is absolutely no one who can say they don’t make assumptions about someone based on those first impressions, whether we like someone from the start, whether or not we trust a salesperson, whether we want to purchase a particular car, whether or not we like the house a realtor is showing us, and whether or not we get a particular job, whether or not we feel we can trust a particular teacher.
And so, beginnings are important and do so influence the continuations. First impressions on that first day, can truly have lasting impressions. You seldom have a second chance to make that all important first impression. That first day, then, is a crucial day. It sets the mood. That first day is when you get the momentum moving and the juices flowing. That first day, with just a little bit of initial effort, can completely change students perspective and expectations. And when their perspective changes, when their expectations changes, when you help them wipe the cloudy haze from their eyes, when you’ve got them, the whole world looks new, different, and full of promising possibilities to them that they never dared dream about.
Those first impressions. They obvious decided whether Susan would say yes or no to my call the next day. It is a shame that that first day of class is so often consumed solely by cold administrative details. I don’t devote that first day handing out syllabus, answering questions about the course, giving sermon-like speeches, lecturing, making first written or reading assignments, and/or dismissing the class early. I struggle to create excitement. After all, almost all students come into that first day of class wanting to know more about me than about what I know or how the class operates. On that first day of class, students are looking me over. They’re browing my book cover. They are in the “take in” mode. They looking for clues. They’re picking up signals. They’re giving me their undivided attention as they’re trying to size me up. What students want to know most is who I am as a person. They want to know if I will be reasonable and fair with them, if I care about them as individuals, and if I care about the course itself. They want to feel that they are human beings and not simply names and ID numbers on a registration roll. They want to know if the class is going to be a boring and laborious gulag or a relaxed, friendly, fun place. In other words, they have four questions on their mind. At the top of the list are: Does he/she care about me? Does he/she respect me? Can I trust him/her? Way at the bottom of the list is: Does he/she know his/her stuff?
For me, then, that first day of class is the day, more than any other day, I am looking at me through the students’ eyes. This is especially true of first year students. They’ve had a heck of a few days. Everywhere they’ve turned, they’ve experienced culture shock. They’re already scarred by nips of reality. They’ve found out as they’ve unloaded cars, carried boxes, found a stranger in their room, had their first taste of collegiate “food,” wandered about in a strange place among strangers, that they’re not in Kansas and that this place isn’t the idyll college of recruiting brochures. They’re no longer being are reminding by Mom’s notes on the refrigerator, told to be in by eleven by Dad, they’re suddenly on their own to make their own choices. They’re so unsettled as they struggled to settle in. In the very short time of little less a few days they’ve had a time dealing with traumatic change. They have that look of having shed their old hard and protective shells, they’re exposed and vulnerable in their new soft shells. They’re confused, afraid, dazed by the molting process. They’re looking for clarity, stability, friendship, assurances, support, encouragement. You can see it in their tense, zombied eyes. You can see it in their hesitating and stiff movements. You can hear it in their silence. As I pretend I am walking into the classroom for the very first time, I am very conscious of my responsibility to start breaking their trance and calming their nerves by answering those first two questions in deed and word by establishing a connection with each student and generating an interest, a curiosity, an expectation, and an excitement.
For me, that first day of class is when I have a choice. I maintain an atomistic group composed of isolated and anonymous strangers or I can start transforming them into an organic, mutually supporting, encouraging, and cooperating community of friends. To do that, I feel I must involve students immediately, almost before they set a foot in the classroom, with me and each other. My goal is to start smashing those separating barriers, building those bridges, creating community. I work to start welcome each of them and establish a rapport each of them between me and them, and among each other. I reveal whatever they want to know about me. I generate the climate of the class. I build a sense of community. I convey my excitement and enthusiasm. I commit myself to helping them help themselves start becoming the persons they are capable of becoming, but so often, far too often, never dared dream they could become.
How do I do that? First, I get myself comfortable. No suit and ties for me. My attire is as laid back as my outlook on life. In this wet, torrid weather, I’ll probably go to class in my shorts, Tommy Hilfer pullover shirt, walkers. I’ll carry my blaring boombox through the halls into the classroom. It will be playing an inviting Barry White or a booming Aretha Franklin or the soothing sound track from Crouching Tigers or a rap to make the students feel comfortable. When they’re comfortable, they will relax, be more at ease, be more attentive, be more receptive.
On the first day of class, after I’ve meditated and prepared myself, I arrive early so I can greet each student as he or she comes in. I start with what I call a light golden touch of welcome combined with a lot of humor and shining smiles. I shake their hands, greeting them with a “Welcome. I’m Louis Schmier. Who are you…Glad to have you here.” I continue with a light golden touch. I introduce them to another student whom he or she doesn’t know, “Do you know? Well now you do. Why don’t you all go over there and talk to each other about whatever?” And so, I send them off to move the chairs, face each other, and talk about “stuff.” Lots of noise. Lots of laughter. Lots of movement. Lots of facing each other. Lots of getting to know each other. Even after all the students have gone through this ritual, I let the noise and movement continue. I add to it by moving about among the clusters, sitting on desks, sometimes climbing over them, and small talking with students.
On that first day of class, on the blackboard I will write the first of my daily “words of the day.” It will be the underlying and pervading theme of whatever goes on in class: “Be a voice, not an Echo.”
On that first day of class, I hand–well, actually I throw them as if I was back in my youth pitching baseball cards–each student a sealed, confidential letter written by students from the previous semester classes about me, the class, the projects, whatever. They read the letters, read them to each other, and some volunteer to read the letter to the class. They get the real lowdown on me from their peers who have gone through the fires of whatever. More noise and movement, more laughter, more breaking barriers and building bridges, more creating community.
On that first day of class, as they will each day, to help get them into a positive mood, I ask both the students and myself to write on the blackboard what they have found exciting that day–even at 8:00 a.m. Still more noise and movement, more breaking barriers and building bridges, more creating community. That’s me.
On that first day, as I usually do, I’ll sit cross-legged on the table, talking roll by the familiarity of their first name, asking each of them how he or she wishes to be called. If I have students with the same names, as I always do, I assign them a number: Jessica one, Jessica two, Jessica three. And it their “name” henceforth and forever more. I tell them they can call me whatever they wish. That’s me.
On that first day of class, I ask the students stand up and go on a “treasure hunt” for ten treasures, people in the class–including me–whom they do not know, introduce themselves, shake hands, and tell each other why each is a treasure. And still more light golden touches, more noise and movement, more laughter, more breaking barriers and building bridges, more creating community.
On that first day of class, I let the students form their own three-person Communities of Mutual Support and Encouragement according to three rules:
a. everyone must be a stranger to each other
b. the Communities must be gender mixed
c. the Communities must be racially mixed
The noise and movement continues, the breaking of barriers and building of bridges continues, and the creating of community continues.
On that first day of class, I lay down the two inviolable rules of behavior for the entire semester: (1) no one says anything without first introducing him/herself; (2) no one looks at the back of anyone else’s head.
On that first day of class, I sit in the center of the room for an open “what do you want to know about me” session. I have found that my willingness to reveal myself helps break down the barriers and builds the bridges between me and the students. Their questions can be personal or professional. Many are prompted by the contents of the letters they received from their peers. They ask, I answer. I have long ago decided that there are very few self-revelations that aren’t are acceptable, that there isn’t for me many subjects about which I don’t find easy to talk with them about: my family, my painted finger nail, my epiphany, why I don’t lecture, why I don’t use grades, why…., whatever. But, that’s me.
Then, I give them first community building assignment for the following class. Normally, I ask them to bring in an object to tell us how that object symbolizes what they want us to know about them. I’m going to try some new, off-the-wall stuff this semester.
Be comfortable. Be real. Have fun. Get to know each other. And if it takes a second day or a third day, take it. The first day stuff, the “getting to know ya” classroom community building stuff, usually takes us a couple of day. It’s followed by “the rules of the road” exercises that take a few more day. Then, we put the pedal to the metal, the rubber hits the road, as we start getting down to the meaty “crayon, markers, and other things” learning projects.
Breaking barriers, building bridges, creating community, I find it all is well worth the time.
Gotta go order 37 daisies. Have a great first day, and….
Make it a good day.