A Thought on First Days

One of the ideas I’ve encountered in my wanderings that has ultimately been most useful to me in shaping my teaching is about the needs of students on day 1. It’s this:

Students come to the first day of class with a number of important questions. They almost never ask you these questions out loud, and they are often at most barely conscious of them. But how you respond to these questions will have a very significant impact on how the class goes.

The questions are things like:

Do you know a lot about this subject?

Can you teach me effectively?

Will I feel safe and supported here?

Do you believe in me?

Different students have different questions, and it often happens that an effective way to respond to one student’s question is an ineffective answer to another’s. Nonetheless, it’s not hopeless to try to figure out something useful about what questions are dominant in a given class and how to respond to them effectively.

I forget where I first heard this idea. I remember thinking about it a lot during my 4th year in the classroom, in conversation with a particular colleague I’ll call Leslie.

In those long-ago days, I taught:

* Algebra I to 9th graders
* Algebra II to 11th and 12th graders
* AP Calculus AB to mostly 12th graders

I struggled a lot with classroom management with the 9th graders. I almost never had any management problems with the 11th or 12th graders. This was not about “strong” vs. “weak” students: on average, the Algebra II kids were the “weakest.” My in-the-trenches conclusion was that 9th graders are just hard.

Leslie was a history teacher. Like me she taught mostly 9th graders and 12th graders. I was extremely surprised when she told me that she got along great with the 9th graders and was in an epic struggle with the 12th graders.

She eventually resolved it, but I remember being extremely confused and curious when she first told me about the difficulty. Twelfth graders, acting like that? I don’t remember what I asked or what she said. But my takeaway was something like this:

“I like math; I know a lot of math; I work very hard to make lessons clear, creative and engaging. I’m curious about kids and excited about their thoughts, and I will spend a lot of extra time with you to try to understand your mind and help you understand the content. On the other hand, I do not like it when students don’t cooperate with my plans or engage with the lesson I worked so hard on, and I wish they would just cooperate and engage.”

“9th graders are developmentally different from adults. Though they are anxious to be seen as grown-up, they still find it difficult to self-regulate their emotions. In this context, a family of questions they have for their teacher on day 1 is, ‘how will you help me stay focused when I find this difficult? how will you help me self-regulate? will you keep us all safe from undue disruption stemming from ourselves’ and each others’ difficult feelings?’

“I have up to now been bad at responding effectively to this suite of questions. I have resented and wished-would-go-away the part of my job that is about helping students stay in control of themselves. I am sure the 9th graders sense the implied power vacuum. They probably find it terrifying. They want to know class will be happy and productive, and they find out the answer is, ‘only if I, and all of my peers, simultaneously, spontaneously stay focused and positive for the whole period.’ Yeah right.

“Meanwhile, Leslie understands and enjoys this part of her job. Her 9th graders relax quickly as they learn what she is willing to do, happily, to make sure they as a community stay their best, most productive selves.

“On the other hand, 12th graders are much closer to being adults. They self-regulate much more easily. They don’t need you to prove to them what you can do to help them with that. On the other hand, they are anxious to know that you are not on a power trip and that their time won’t be wasted.

“In this context, the deal I was subconsciously offering — I know this stuff really well and I’ll work really hard to help you learn it; I won’t condescend to you about how to act, but I need you to cooperate and engage without much structural help from me — actually probably sounded like a great deal to 12th graders. They were ready to do the self-regulating without me, and I probably implicitly answer the questions ‘do you know your sh*t?’ and ‘can you help me learn it?’ very quickly in the affirmative. That explains why their affect was always like, ‘ok, cool, let’s go.’

“On the other hand, from what Leslie is telling me, she did not successfully reassure her 12th graders that she knows her sh*t early on. She does in fact know her sh*t, but somehow they didn’t get that sense at the beginning, and eventually went into open rebellion. Probably sexism was involved; who knows what the whole story is. But, for whatever reason, that question did not get successfully answered, and it led to a big problem.”

I have no idea if any of that is the truth. But it seemed to explain the puzzle to me, to fit my experience and my colleague’s story, and has shaped my thinking about what needs to happen on day 1 ever since.

All of this was at the front of my mind not too long ago when I started a new class in a new context. It was an advanced college level math course, and I had been told that the students had taken a full sequence of prerequisite courses but that their grounding in that content was uneven. Having been told this, it was hard to plan anything and feel confident it would be appropriate. Would it be too easy and they’d feel condescended to? Too hard and they’d be lost? I was really stuck on this.

I reached out to the students for info: “what do you know about X subject?” My first inquiry went unanswered for weeks. I followed up. One of them said, “To answer your question I’d need to look at my previous syllabi.” I asked an administrator for help with this and they turned up several syllabi. A few more days went by with no word, so I followed up again. A second student wrote back: “Every professor has a different idea about these courses. Maybe if you tell us what you want us to know, we can tell you if we know it.” I replied, listing specific topics. Nothing, for a few more days. With the class beginning the next day, I wrote one last time: “Now’s your last chance to tell me something about what you know before we get going. Can you reply to that list I sent before?”

Another student wrote back to the effect of, “Look, we have taken numerous classes before. Nothing on this list is foreign to us. Our mastery over specifics will vary from topic to topic.”

This email told me so much. I mean, it told me almost nothing in terms of their actual background — how that mastery varies from topic to topic was exactly what I had been asking. And yet, it told me just what I needed to know to make the planning decisions that had been tripping me up.

These folks need to know I stand ready to challenge them!

Underneath that, I supposed they might be anxious to know I planned to take their minds seriously. And my attempts to get some orientation for myself could have exacerbated that anxiety! My “are you familiar with X?” questions had all been about content they were supposed to have seen before! If indeed they were concerned I might not think they were up to a challenge, perhaps these questions had fed that concern. (This would at least be a plausible explanation for their slow and unforthcoming responses.)

So, I felt I knew what question I had to answer on day 1. I put together a lecture full of rich, hard content, outlining a grand sweep for the whole semester. I erred on the side of more and grander content. During class itself, I erred on the side of telling them more stuff, rather than probing what they were making of it. I wanted the experience to say, “I know you are not here to play, and neither am I. We are going to go as far as you’re ready to. Maybe farther.”

At the end of class, I mentioned to the student who’d sent the email that I’d enjoyed its tone of “c’mon now, bring it!” He smiled, like, “yeah, you know it.”

The course is behind us now. In fact, that first day was the fastest, most content-packed day of the class. It is not generally my style to construct class in a way that pushes forward without much information about what sense the students are making of the ideas. Once the students became willing to show me what they actually knew and didn’t know, it was possible to properly tailor the course, and we were able to drill down on key points and really get into what they were thinking. To be clear, it didn’t get any easier — I would say it actually got harder and harder over the course of the semester. By the end we were line-by-line in the thick of intricate, pages-long proofs. But we never again zoomed forward at the breakneck pace of that first day.

That said, with hopefully due respect to the fact that I haven’t had this conversation with the students directly, I do believe it was the right choice for day 1. A different first class might have been a little closer to what the rest of the semester would look like minute by minute, but it wouldn’t have spoken to the question I believed then and still believe that my students really needed answered.

By the same token, for different students, it could have been exactly the wrong choice. If my students’ incoming burning question had been, “are you willing to meet me where I am?,” then that first lesson could have come across like, “no, not even a little bit,” and we might have had a real long semester. And I honestly did not know which question my students had! This is why I’m grateful to the one who emailed me to say, “Look, we’ve done a lot.” That told me what I needed to know.

2 thoughts on “A Thought on First Days

  1. I will be teaching a summer course for the first time ever at my college. It’s a basic geometry course, really a high-school level course. And most of the students will be high-school students. I love your 4 questions.

    I think it will be obvious that I know the math. (Although I intend to eventually tell them that, after 4 weeks of working on it, I could not prove that the medians of a triangle are concurrent. Geometry feels much harder than algebra-based courses, to me.)

    I hope they will see that they can learn effectively in my class. I can’t guarantee it.

    I focus on helping students feel safe and supported. I hope these last two are covered.

    I am hoping that I’ve designed the course to be fun as well as challenging, and to focus on the big ideas. I hope my retake policies will help them believe in themselves.

  2. Thanks Ben! This analysis of the first day of your course was very useful. It took me much more time to adjust to a similar group of students. Your 4 questions will be helpful for me going forward: I realized that I usually just explicitly focused on the first two, but need to rethink my approach to the later two. Those two questions haven’t been on my radar, although I’ve thought about what they demand from my teaching practice.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s