Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Final First Impressions

So you wrap up those first days of class by going over your contract, so to speak, with your students. Much of this will be by way of your syllabus, and much of the contract may be dictated by your school or district.

Your syllabus should contain all the necessary information without being overwhelming. If it turns into a 10-page detailed rendering of an entire course that hasn’t happened yet, your students will find it offputting and intimidating. A sparse, half-page document, on the other hand, makes them think you’re not very serious about the course and haven’t given it a great deal of thought.

It never hurts to begin a syllabus with a rationale for the class, as well as your goals and objectives for it. It’ll be good for you to think about these things long enough to write them down.

Be clear about policies, requirements, consequences, grades and, when possible, due dates. “If you do such and such, you can expect this or that.” “The exam in October will cover X; the one in December will cover Y.” Don’t set down rules that will be difficult to enforce unless those rules are dictated by the school. Unfortunately, it may take you a few semesters to identify these.

When you’re laying out the ground rules, use flexible language such as “you should expect” as opposed to more binding language (“All late papers will be penalized,” etc.). Only the students who are going to grow up to be lawyers will notice it isn’t binding anyway, so it will sound like you’ve laid down the law when in reality you’ve allowed room for exceptions.

The truth is, sometimes students’ excuses are valid. Sometimes these kids are overwhelmed, either from school work or social issues or family problems or all of the above. While you’re busy putting Martin Luther’s 95 theses on the board, they may be learning via text that their boyfriend or girlfriend is cheating on them or their mom’s leaving their dad and consequently they’ll be moving to Buffalo tomorrow.

We are not privy to all these things. Granted, students can lie to us, but come on. Most of them don’t. Could you write a thorough analysis of the great prose-poem that ends Great Gatsby if you’d just lost your favorite pet of 12 years? Teachers have to allow room for occasional acts of grace. We can be fair without always following the letter of the law.

When kindness (read “humanness”) dictates that you let a student take a test tomorrow instead of today, you can always give that individual a slightly different version so student chatter about it won’t give them much of an advantage. (You’ll save yourself a great deal of time if you compose the make-up version the same day you finish the original.)

And about students lying to you in order to turn in work late: If you work hard to develop a relationship of trust with them, they are less likely to do this. Make it hard for them to lie to you. If you must always be the King or Queen, always have the last word, always be right about everything, then they’ll love to pull one over on you periodically.

The syllabus should also convey the tone of the course (as should your entire first day of class). If you tend towards irony and humor, allow those qualities to shine through on the syllabus. If you’re strictly business, keep the jokes and humorous asides to yourself. As a new teacher, you probably don’t know the system – the whole big picture – well enough to justify a draconian or school-marmish or dictatorial approach. My own preferred tone is something I like to call “don’t worry, it’s gonna be okay, there’ll be a good bit of work, and if you goof off you won’t do well, but there can be joy in learning, and anyway you’re among friends.” There must be a word for that.

At the end of the first class, you should have conveyed the following: In this class, we’ll be learning this kind of stuff. The nature of the subject matter combined with my teaching style means we’ll learn it in this way. It can be done and it can be enjoyable for both of us. Success is likely. I often say, “Trust me. You’re going to like this class. It’ll be fun. Really.”

You also want to convey this message: We will be a learning community. We’ll know each others’ names. We may not always like each other, but we’ll learn tolerance. We’ll be civil. We’ll respect other opinions even if we don’t share them. We won’t ridicule or belittle.

I want students to leave my classroom on the first day excited to come back (I’m not sure that’s likely to happen in the Drill-Instructor paradigm). And, not to be mean, I want their next class of the day to be an unendurable drag by comparison.

Having said all of this, I have to admit that I can only remember one first day of class from high school: I was a junior and I had enrolled in a Spanish class because someone told me I’d need a foreign language if I wanted to get into college and therefore avoid going directly to Vietnam after high school. We were greeted by Miss Whitman, a lovely young woman in her first year of teaching. By “lovely,” I mean the guys were constantly staring at her or very consciously not staring at her. She stood in front of her desk and, when we had all taken our seats, she greeted us in Spanish.

I didn’t know any Spanish and it never occurred to me that I would learn some of it while I was in there. She assigned us all Spanish names and had us introduce ourselves to each other. My name became Ramon, and that made no sense to me at all. In fact, it troubled me. Anyway, I flubbed my introduction pretty badly and I found it unbearable to fail in front of a tall beautiful woman, so 10 minutes into class I’d already decided to drop the course and never ever be Ramon again.

I think Miss Whitman pretty much did all that a teacher should do on the first day, and as a result I sprinted to the guidance counselor’s office for a change-of-course form. So perhaps there’s another goal for the first day: Make it enough of a microcosm of the course that the students can see if it’s for them. Some of the “don’t smile until Christmas” gang try to keep their enrollment down by scaring students off with unrealistic demands on the first day. The stunning Miss Whitman scared me off just by showing me how things were going to be in her class.

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