It’s been a while since I’ve felt the first-day butterflies. Whether because I’ve been teaching the same classes over and over, or teaching online, or teaching adults who are a little less nerve-wracking, the first teaching day of a semester has morphed into being just another day of work.
But not last week.
Last week, as I hung chart paper around a new classroom with desks packed just a little too tightly together and with a white board just a little too messy, I noticed: My heart rate, a few beats faster than normal. My palms, a little sweatier than usual. My thoughts, a little more racing than I’m used to, shuffling through the plan I had in front of me to double-check that I wasn’t missing some crucial detail or expectation or step.
The jitters. I had the first-day jitters. I’d forgotten what they felt like.
But then the students started trickling in, talking to each other and not me, a few side eyes at this unknown teacher-person, heads down on desks while they got ready to endure whatever was about to come at them. Their usual social studies teacher started taking attendance and prattling on about behavior and expectations and all I could do was beam an eye smile (because masks) that tried to assure these girls, I am not him. This is not what you think it is going to be. Please give me a chance.
And then my performance started.
That’s the thing about first days: they are a performance. They are a performance meant to establish who you are, what your space is like, and how you hope to be in relationship with your students. There are teachers who do this with a performance of Authority, scaring their students with rules and sharp expectations on Day 1 so that the students Know Who They Are Dealing With. There are other teachers who do this with a performance of Fun, passing out candy and jokes and winks in the hopes of becoming The One The Students Like. There are still others who do this with a performance of Genius, diving right into whatever their content is at such a high and inspiring level right off the bat so that the students think they are in Dead Poet’s Society and have a Most Inspiring Teacher on their hands. There are also those who try to eschew the idea of the First Day Performance all together, trying to build Team and Community in that first instant in the hopes that students come away believing The Kids Are In Charge Here.
At various points in my teaching career, I have performed each of these roles, sometimes with great success and other times as a flaming ball of failure. After 21 years as an educator and a student-scholar-researcher of education, I know this: My first day performance needs to convey openness, honesty, humility, curiosity, and care. It needs to move students towards a willingness to be in relationship with me, as both learners and community members. It needs to invite them into our learning journey so that we can move beyond performance to authenticity.
These were my goals on Day 1 of the local history workshop I am facilitating. Once a week, I am teaching an exploratory and experiential social studies course to high school girls in danger of not graduating; the workshop offers them credits that will keep them on track to high school graduation. Some of them have never passed a social studies class in their high school career. Others had life happen—a pandemic interrupted schooling and demanded they attend to more urgent matters: Jobs. Quarantining. Caregiving. Health. They are here with me because they have to be, but my hope after our first session together is that they start to want to be here with me. Not because I’m 'cool' but because they see an opportunity for something in our time together, an opportunity to co-create something meaningful together.
As their teacher finished taking attendance, I sprung into action, entering Stage Right to perform my opening monologue. I smiled with my words and eyes as I introduced myself; I beamed photos of my family and my city to show them that I am a human first, teacher second. I gestured to the heavy World History textbooks sitting on desks as I vowed (hand over heart to personify my promise) that we were embarking on a very different way of thinking about history. How were we going to tell the story of OUR Milwaukee? I moved around the room, talking to the group and individual girls all at once, as I told them about all the ways we could contribute—really—to the public history of Milwaukee. Podcasts, news pieces, oral histories, micro-documentaries, walking tours, public art. We could make any and all of these things, and real people out in the world will read them and listen to them and participate in them. We are already historians, I said, and no textbooks are needed. Unless we want to rewrite a textbook on Milwaukee in which case, we could do that, too.
Their eyes were mostly on me now. My performance was engaging. I was doing more talking than I usually like when teaching, but this was the first day. On the first day, I’m trying to pique curiosity, extend an invitation to trust and work with me, and to generate excitement for our time together. They don’t know me; I don’t know them. But I want them to stick around, not just physically but intellectually and relationally. I shared about myself in the hopes of convincing them. I shared details I thought they might relate to: I am a first-generation college graduate and master’s graduate and doctoral graduate. I hated social studies at their age, too. I would rather be exploring than sitting in a stuffy classroom.
Then I released them. First to peer interviews (which I meta-narrated as oral history in the making) and then to a carousel discussion where they got to tell me what they wanted from me and our time together. Just because I wasn’t bouncing around the front of the room, however, didn’t mean that the performance was over. Now, it was more personal.
Like with Sameera, who had her headphones in. Her teacher, it was clear, was ready to charge over and demand their removal. Me, I sidled over to engage her: What was she drawing? What was she listening to? What was she interested in learning about Milwaukee? In this interaction, I wanted to convey that I was interested in her and that we didn’t have to be in conflict; I wanted to show her that I understood I have no automatic claims to her attention or headspace, but that I hope I earn her attention sooner rather than later.
Or with Natalia and Jamila, two boisterous seniors. They wanted to talk about the best food in Milwaukee and the field trips we might go on and why drivers in Milwaukee are just.so.bad. We laughed, we chatted, and together, we quieted down when it was time to listen to someone else.
In some ways, these were just regular classroom moments. But on the first day of a new class, regular classroom moments are fraught with expectations, anticipation, and skepticism. Who are we going to be in this space together? What kind of students will they be, and what kind of teacher will I be? The first day has a butterfly effect. Every word I utter, movement I make, and resource I use communicates something to my students. I am a set designer, prop master, director, and actor all at once, inviting them into a space where they can suspend their usual disbelief about school to maybe try out some new way of being and learning together.
And that’s nerve-wracking. Hence the jitters.
But just like back when I used to perform in plays, the jitters subside as I fully occupy the role. But unlike in the theatre, I don’t get applause at the end. I just get to see if they show up for Week 2.
While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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