Some things I did and didn’t do in my first week of classes

I have always dreamed of thought about writing a sexy listicle post about the 6.36 things you absolutely need to do in the first class as a teacher, or at least an English teacher, or at least as an EFL teacher in Korea, or as a university instructor in Korea, or something. Alas, I never quite managed to do it and this post will not be it. I intended to do it before the term and to have my post be the go-to post for every teacher starting a course ever. I’d then receive much fanfare and praise and hits. Delicious hits. But again, I never wrote the post. So here I am a week after my term started simply sharing some things I did last week. I fear much of what I am sharing is standard stuff that most teachers might just do naturally but I am also hopeful there might be something interesting or different for teachers to think about. Anyway, most listicles are crap anyway, aren’t they? My other concern is that perhaps much of what I am talking about here is too contextualized to my teaching situation(s) and might not offer much for readers. If that is the case, please accept my apology along with my invitation to share some different ideas and perspectives. So, yeah, what follows are some things I did in my first classes last week along with some associated thoughts.

I did…

  1. make sure students knew what they needed and wanted to know about the course and schedule
    “It’s in the syllabus” is a common refrain and lament from teachers but the fact it is there doesn’t always mean the info finds its way into the minds of students. While trying my best to avoid lengthy teacher fronted explanations of things in the syllabus I also tried to address any questions students had about the course and how it will run. Students knowing these things obviously makes things run more smoothly, right?

    One specific thing I did in one class was give students a card and ask them to write down what questions they had about a) the course and b) me. I prepared my answers to these questions while students were doing something else and delivered short speeches where these were addressed.
    One thing I have done in the past is to make a little quiz (scored and included on the final score!) based on the information in the syllabus. This can help make sure everyone reads it.
  2. share something about myself
    I remember one training course a while back where my colleague and I thought we did a spectacular job setting up the first day of a long course with a variety of activities. I still think we did well but I know we forgot one small but important detail. We didn’t have any chances to let the participants know about us. As they day was winding down this seemed to be an issue for a few participants. They really wanted to know who we were and felt that knowing info beyond our names would help break the ice. I think this is probably important to students everywhere but I also have this feeling it is more important in Korea. I think students want to know who the human that will be teaching them is. I think many teachers, quite rightly, feel the concern about talking at length about themselves but I do also think it can be important and helpful to carve out a time for this.Above I already mentioned answering questions students asked in a short speech. Something else I did in another class to list a bunch of questions related to what we might want to know about someone in the first meeting and then inviting students to ask me any of these they wished.
  3. use students’ names as much as possible
    This is mostly just for me, for practicing and learning.In every class I made a chart with all the names and looked at as necessary when I talked to students. I also studied the chart and quizzed myself when student were doing other things.
  4. have students talk to more than 2 classmates
    This was to help the group dynamics develop and also to keep things a bit fresh(er).Some of the activities included a built in info-gap in that each side of the room had different information. This required a new partner to share things with and gave more chances to talk to people they might not otherwise have talked to much that day (whether they knew that person well or not.)
  5. have students express their personal goals for the course and reasons for being there
    “Why are you here?” can sound like an overly philosophical question but the answers can be elucidating. From my view, it can be nice to know who is taking the course out of interest and who is taking the course because they have to. I think it is also instructive to see how well students’ personal goals match with the stated goals of the course.I used some (I guess relatively) standard needs assessment forms and questions. Something else I did was have students complete a checklist on how comfortable they feel doing certain things in English. This provided a nice chance to hear about their comfort levels but hopefully gave the idea, “Hey, it is ok not to be comfortable with all these things at the start.”Another thing I did was ensure that these “Why are you here?” and “What are your expectations?” questions were included in the activities on the first day (whether in group or pair work or short introductions from students to the rest of the group or through writing.)  Through seeing and hearing responses to these I was able to get a clearer idea of the students, which should help me in future decisions.
  6. address students’ goals and expectations
    Collecting students’ expectation and goals is important but I also think we want to address them in some way. I am not saying this has to happen in the first class. Sometimes students’ expectations don’t match those of the course. I think it is important to deal with these early on so that the surprise and disappointment factors are lowered. At the same time, I think it is nice to let students know they are in the right place for certain things, too.I took a few minutes to highlight both  what I saw as the connections and disconnections between what students expressed as their expectations for the course as how I saw the course. If some things were simply not part of the course or were unrelated I made sure to mention it. I also mentioned some things weren’t part of my original thinking but that we could potentially find room for some things. I also thanked students for sharing (what seemed to be) their candid expectations in the hope that this would keep the lines of communication as open as possible throughout the course. 
  7. create chances to see students’ abilities in the areas we will be focusing on
    This might sound like a no-brainer but I wanted to mention it here because I thought it was super helpful. I was able to gather some information about the students and their backgrounds and goals and everything else in other ways but I also wanted to see them performing in situations similar to what I’ll be expecting in the course.  So, by setting up activities related to the focus of the course I could get a much better and clearer sense of the students’ abilities and the range of abilities in the group.
  8. flex my language muscles
    This could also read, “Flex my grammar muscles.” I did my best to show my new students that I know my shit. I also did my best to show there are plenty of tricky points my extremely high level students will need to work on and think about throughout the course. Of course my mission was not to introduce defeatism but to show there are very real gaps that will be addressed in this class. Of course I also tried to convey a sense of confidence and knowledge in English points. I think in Korea there is a widespread belief that all “native” teachers only know the language but don’t know the finer points of it and don’t know anything about grammar. I do my best to dispossess my students of this myth in the first week.One way I flexed my grammar muscles was to have a worksheet filled with common confusions their predecessors had experienced and then create some chances to think and talk about corrections and reasons behind them. I think my explanations help create the illusion idea I know what I am talking about when it comes to English language.
  9. try to make the first lesson worthwhile time from an English learning standpoint
    This might seem related to the above point and it might even be. I think point 8  is about the image of the teacher and this one is about the takeaway for the students. I think it is important to give students something they might not have known about or thought about previously in the first class. I believe this sets things up well for future classes and helps encourage “buy in.”
  10. give a taste of what a regular class will look like
    I think spending the whole class time on logistics or on setting up the course without giving students a chance to see what the class will be like is not ideal. I like to give students a chance to catch a glimpse of how the usual class will go, for both their peace of mind but also to help the decision making process on keeping or dropping the course (when this is possible). I think students might feel resentful if the first class is very different from the rest of the classes and they were in some ways fooled into taking it.It is a completely separate point but I have heard of some teachers in colleges making the first day of class as challenging as possible so as to weed out a certain type of student. This is not something I have seriously considered but I think there might be something to it, especially when student evaluations are weighted very heavily. Perhaps it might not be a bad thing to help a few students make up their mind about the course and not take it.
  11. finish class earlier than the full time allotted
    For me this is about fitting the expectations (and custom?) in Korea. I still remember my first college class in Korea many years ago. I had 3 hours of things to get through in a 1.5 hour class and students were shocked and burned out by this first lesson. I have now learned to ease into thing and not take the full time in the first lesson. There might be some folks out there that would call this lazy or a dereliction of duty but for me it is a nice way to start the term. (Note: One class with another instructor immediately before mine went right down to the wire and nearly over in week 1. I might need to re-examine my thoughts on this issue.)At the start of class I said, “I have good news and I have bad news. Which do you want to hear first?” Regardless of what students said I told them the class would not take the full 3 hours and said it in the appropriately excited or apologetic tone. Then, when I was asked for the opposite news I said the same thing with a different tone.

I didn’t do…  

  1. group norms activities
    This is maybe interesting or hypocritical as I have suggested this is very important before but in my particular context(s) it didn’t feel like something I needed or wanted to spend time on in the first day. Small classes and what feels like a general lack of issues on these areas is what stopped me from doing it last week.
  2. name learning activities
    The reasons for this are mostly small classes and students already knowing each other’s names. I didn’t see the point in spending much time on something that would mostly be useful for me (and something I can get my head around through other ways). I think in other contexts it is hugely important.

Please note that the “Didn’t Do” section here refers to things that I’d sometimes do or might like to do but didn’t do this time. There are plenty of other things I’d generally choose not to do. Primary among these includes reading the syllabus aloud or giving students a task-free time to read the syllabus on their own.

Looking at the lists above, what would you not do? What else do you try to do in the first class? What other things do you keep in mind for first lessons with a new group?

Updates/Links 

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19 comments

    • mikecorea

      Hi Svetlana,
      Thanks very much for reading and commenting. I am glad you thought it was a good idea for a post.
      (I wonder if you might consider doing something similar?) I am also hoping you got something out of the post.
      I think you make a great point about the perception that students wouldn’t be interested in the teacher’s personality and background. I think maybe part of that is the fear of teachers going on and on and on about their personal lives and not giving students and a chance to talk (which I have surely seen and maybe done a little). But I think it is good to keep in mind that it can be helpful to break the ice. Thanks again for reading and commenting.

    • mikecorea

      Thank you sir. I appreciate the feedback. To be very honest, I was thinking quite a lot about the audience this post and worried that the type of people that would read it might be the type of people that would not get much out of it. And the type of people (thinking more beginning teachers for example) who might benefit might not have my blog or blogs like it on their radar. As I consider you to be among my intended audience I am very happy to see my instincts were wrong. So thanks very much for the comments. It was very helpful for me.

  1. Bryan

    I like your idea of having students write down questions they have about you; I think I’ll use it next semester.
    Also, I’ve been giving an open book quiz on the syllabus to all my classes for a couple years now. Doing so has, I think, cut down on the kinds of questions that used to annoy me so much (e.g. into the second week of classes, “I went to buy the book, but I forgot what it is. Could you let me know what it is again?”).

    • mikecorea

      Wow, Geoff, thanks so much. I really appreciate it. This is a very motivating comment, especially coming from you! I hope your year is off to a nice start.

  2. David Harbinson

    #2 – YES. The amount of times I have forgotten to introduce myself at the beginning of a class (perhaps thinking the student already knew who I was) only for me to ask “Any questions” at the end of an activity and be met with, “Yes, what’s your name?” (N.B. I teach different students every day, and have no regular schedule).

    #5 – YES again. For me, working at a private academy, I take it that most of my students are their of their own accord. Asking not only what are your goals here, but what are your goals in life helps me to help them more effectively.

    #8 “I think in Korea there is a widespread belief that all “native” teachers only know the language but don’t know the finer points of it and don’t know anything about grammar.” <<This. On more than one occasion, I've had a student ask me a 'tough' grammar question, only to be surprised when I was able to answer it. I once had a student ask me about syntax (I'd just finished reading Radford's Minimalist Syntax – you know, for fun), at the end of her question she told me that her (Korean) professor had told them to ask their foreign teachers as he bet that they (=we) wouldn't know what they (=the students) were on about. Although in fairness, I have had my fair share of 'stumped' moments: I'm not too hot on semantics truth be told.

  3. Zhenya

    Mike, thank you for such a simple but powerful checklist on starting a course. I love the balance of learning about the students and letting them learn about you and the course. My favorite is 8, and for me it would be the word ‘subject’ instead of ‘language’ (depending on what the course is about) You mentioned that ‘perhaps much of what I am talking about here is too contextualized to my teaching situation(s) and might not offer much for readers’ – I would say that the list 1-11 would work for me as a more general guide (and depending on the context I am in the specific activities can be chosen, etc.) I was about to add something like ‘breaking the ice’-type of tasks, but then re-read your post and now see the whole list as ‘ice-melting’ process during the first week. Love your idea of letting them go a little earlier (so much happening on that first week when most teachers are trying to accomplish almost the same objectives in all those different subjects 🙂

    • mikecorea

      Hello Zhenya,
      Your comments really got me thinking! Thank you. I was thinking I should have been more specific to mention ice-breaking activities, which I had in mind but didn’t state explicitly. I think that is a key point. To be honest for some of my courses it was a challenge/issue for me because my students all know each other very well (after a year of intensive study together) but they don’t know each other in my class they way I run it, and I don’t know them. I think there is some balance to strike there.

      I am glad you mentioned “subject knowledge” as I think this is important. I think in a teacher training situation it might be worthwhile to show participants some skills early on to build up some credibility and buy in. I’d hate to sound artificial but I do think it is important.

      I am a believer in a nice grammar focused lesson just to show I can do it (especially if I’ll not end up doing many super explicit grammar lessons).
      Thanks for the comments and the chances to think about this a bit more!

  4. Thomas

    “a worksheet filled with common confusions their predecessors had experienced”

    Why I love this idea and do it often: you get to seem really informed and very specifically helping them with just their kind of problems, while your actual role is just curator (collect the wrong stuff from last semester) and facilitator (plan out some classroom interaction) while they do all the actual thinking and speaking about grammar and language.

    Like much of effective teaching, it is a subtle and graceful scam! I am certain that your students say you are “a real grammar expert” while you fool then into taking that role. 🙂

    • mikecorea

      Hello Thomas,
      I appreciate the comments here. I liked the “graceful scam” turn of phrase. I also liked the way you explained how simple it can be to seem informed and get Ss talking and thinking about language. I am now thinking of different formats/ways of setting up interactions based on collections of confusions/mistakes/errors of the past. That might make a decent blog post. Speaking of posts, should you ever feel the urge to do a guest post here please let me know.

  5. ALiCe__M

    Why a “scam” ? do you mean there is some kind of “cheating” in teaching ? I don’t think so. I don’t try to “fool”anyone. I know more than my students do, but only in French, and I’m certainly no expert, and don’t act as if I were one, since as soon as I have any doubt about a grammar point, I look it up or just say I don’t know, then rush home or on the Internet to find an answer to give the students the next morning.

    • mikecorea

      Hi Alice,
      (thanks for commenting) I think the scam is that students do the work (and the learning) but it looks like the teacher did it and they walk away thinking the teacher did the work (and is the expert). That is how I took it. I don’t think it is about pretending that we know something we don’t but rather helping students see that they know a lot.

  6. Pingback: AnthonyTeacher.com » What I Did on My First Day of School
  7. ven_vve

    Great list! Re #7: as I teach writing skills, I usually try to include 10 minutes for freewriting so that I can see what students can do without any help, i.e. reference materials. I find this gives me a more complete idea of what level they’re at than just the placement test and also shows who really seems to enjoy writing – although they’re usually very open about whether they like it or not.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks very much for reading and commenting, Vedrana! I really like your idea here about seeing what students can do with an activity like free-writing. I think placement tests can tell us some things but I also like to get/see/hear something in class. Thanks for making me think of this good way to see writing ability in an easy way!

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