September 4, 2019
It’s the first day of school. I’ve done my planning, but it never feels like I’m fully ready. Even after 13 years, my palms are sweaty and my heart is beating faster. My students are coming in soon. It’s time for me to transition from my summer self, the self of relaxation and home projects, to the kind of person who can maintain control of a classroom and inspire young people to learn. Sure, I started mentally making this switch about a week ago, but I’m still not ready.
Whether I’m ready or not, any minute now there will be teenagers walking through my classroom door; teens who don’t care that I still want to be sipping lemonade on my back porch. They’ve got their own concerns: “Am I dressed right?” “Does the person I like like me back?” “Will I have a lot of friends this year?” “What did that person just say to me in the hallway?” “Will this class be really hard?”
This is not just true of the first day of school. Every day students come into our classrooms dealing with all kinds of problems at home, problems with friends and relationships, and other concerns that have nothing to do with the subject I’m here to teach them. How do I have the audacity to think that my History class should be the most important thing in this moment to the kid in my class who is struggling with homelessness, or who just broke up with their significant other?
How? This is more than just History class. School is where we learn important skills that will serve us for the rest of our lives. Of course this includes the skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic, but it also includes social skills like how to be in community with other people. By acknowledging that my students are whole people with lives outside of the classroom, I can model for them how to do this with each other. After all, approval from their peers is really what most adolescents crave. So, how do I build a sense of community where students feel welcomed as their whole selves in the classroom?
I definitely don’t have this down, but here are some strategies I’ve used:
- Have students introduce themselves on the first day by making a desk name tag with their name, their pronouns, and a picture. Asking for pronouns is an important lesson in itself on the first day of school. It signals that in this classroom we don’t make assumptions about what other people want to be called, and it signals to students who may be transgender or gender-non-conforming that they are welcome here.
- Encourage students to bring in things they’re interested in. In History class, we often can find connections to events that people they know are connected to. In Current Issues, I ask them what they’d like to spend time studying. I don’t humor pointless digressions, but I do work to make connections between what we’re studying and what students are interested in.
- Have Monday and/or Friday check-ins. I like to take a little bit of time to check in with students about how they’re doing. This is a great opportunity for them to practice listening to each other. I learned a strategy for this from a recent student teacher I had. It can work well by shoving desks to the side and sitting in a circle of chairs. Students take turns sharing with only one person speaking at a time.
- Have students work in small groups where there are specified roles. This helps students to learn to work together and to be responsible for other people.
These are just some ideas. The most important thing I’ve found is for students to feel seen and listened to. They may have a lot of other things going on, but if they feel safe and welcomed in my classroom, I find they’re much more able to learn the content and, more important, the life skills I’m trying to teach.
Randall Furash-Stewart is a high school history teacher in western Massachusetts. He has taught for 13 years, including six at the middle school level. He is passionate about always working to make his classroom more inclusive. He also enjoys running with his dogs and traveling with his family.
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