The first day of school. Just that phrase alone conjures up reactions spanning the emotional gamut from happiness and excitement, to fear and dread and just about every other emotional state in between.
Until this year, my entire lifetime of first days of school came from the first person perspective. It was my first day of school, my new teacher, my new friends, my new classes, etc. I even remember laying awake in bed the night before fifth grade was about to begin, just as I had done on so many other Back-to-School eves, wondering, Will I like my new teacher? Will I make new friends? And the most important question of all, are my back-to-school clothes cool enough?
Butterflies in Stomach
This year was different. I once again had that familiar feeling of going back to school, but this time I was going back to school not as a student, like every other year, but as a teacher,* which surprisingly, still produced the same sensation of butterflies in my stomach that I remember feeling when I was a kid.
Why the nerves? Because I, just like every student who gets nervous for the first day of school, implicitly understand that a good first start can set the tone and mood for the rest of the year. Knowing this, I wanted to make sure that I could make the day as great as possible for the kindergartners that would be walking through the door on that early August morning. Additionally, I also wanted to make a good first impression with the students, their parents, and my colleagues.
Let the Games Begin!
As the morning bell rang there was no time for anxious worry because bursting through the classroom door was a swarm of five-year olds excited to begin their elementary school career! The children’s uncontainable skipping carried their curious minds to the various learning tools that were placed in every nook and cranny of the classroom. The tables and shelves were stocked with toys, puzzles, games, and books all designed to foster their natural curiosity. Some students gravitated towards the math center, while others stopped at the science exploration center. Then there was the writing center, dramatic play area, blocks corner and reading center where there were books, books and more books! Here was a fully rounded environment designed to facilitate learning through exploration, play and inquiry for all types of learners.
First Things First
While the young students were eager to learn and get started, I too, as a new teacher, was equally eager to start teaching! But I immediately remembered what I learned in orientation the week before. We were told that the first days of school are all about making sure each student feel emotionally connected and secure. More important than jumping into the curriculum, is the need to make real one-on-one connections with each student and to help them form connections and friendships with their fellow classmates.
Breaking the Ice
It was clear that some students were already making friends, as they clutched onto each other’s hands and explored the classroom together, while other students were shy and reluctant to interact with their peers, and instead, seemed more focused on taking in the classroom setting itself. Kindergartners, like adults, need certain “ice-breakers” to help them warm-up and feel comfortable in a group setting. One way to do this is to encourage them to share some personal facts about themselves in a safe and encouraging environment.
A dialogue is started to spark a naturally curious mind to want to know more about the person sitting opposite him or her in circle time. Questions are asked to promote conversations such as; Does anyone have an older brother? What is your favorite food? Is anyone else’s favorite food sushi? These questions immediately show students that they have something in common with their classmates and help to enhance the newly formed social relationships that are being forged. This in turn enhances student motivation because only when a child feels emotionally secure and happy in the classroom is the soil ready to start planting the seeds of learning.
By the end of the day, even the shy students had already made new friends. It was encouraging to see them pairing-up as they set out to explore the classroom together. Watching them decide amongst themselves who would go first, and what they would do next, was almost as gratifying as seeing the smiles on their little faces. It reminded me that even with all our new research and insight into how children learn that more than two thousand years ago, Aristotle had it right all along when he said: “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”
*Actually I am a teacher in training at an internship program at The International School of Manila.