What to Do on the First Day of School: Advice for New Teachers

If you’re a new teacher starting out, you may be wondering a very simple question: What do I actually DO on the first day of school? Read these tips. 

By Jennifer Hartmann Teacher Trainer | Aug 11, 2022
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Today's post is from Jennifer Hartmann, Social Emotional Learning Specialist at Momentous Institute.


I remember my first year of teaching so clearly. I had done all my courses and student teaching and kind of had an idea of what I wanted my classroom to be like and how I wanted to teach. But I also remember asking another teacher in the school, “What do I do on the first day?” I really wanted to know, specifically – literally – what is the first thing I’m supposed to do?

If you’re a new teacher starting out, you may have already started setting up your classroom and making name cards for desks. But if you’re like me starting out, you may be wondering what you’ll do that first day when you look out and all those students are looking back at you.

Now that I’ve taught several grade levels in a variety of settings and coached countless educators on social emotional learning practices, here are my tips for a successful first day of school.

Focus on creating the environment you want children to experience.

Kids won’t necessarily remember what they learn, or even what they do on the first day of school. What they’ll take with them at the end of the first day is what the experience felt like. So, worry less about the actual lessons or material you want to impart to them and focus more on the environment. This means being warm and personable. Spend your time getting to know each other, creating opportunities for connection and team building. Make it fun! Kids want to know that school will be a fun and joyful place for learning.

Greet each child at the door.

On the first day, greet each child as they enter the classroom. You may not know their names yet, so a greeting plus eye contact and a warm smile will help them feel welcome. The first day of school can be hectic and greeting students depends on how your school chooses to send students to your classroom. Start by standing at the door and have very specific instructions for what students should do until all the students have arrived. After the first day, create a routine for how you will greet students. I’ve seen teachers have a “menu” of greeting options and the student can point to their preferred greeting, which is a great way to include student voice! Greet each student either with a handshake, fist bump, hug, wave, or other greeting.

Learn and practice names.

You’ve probably already started placing students’ names all over the classroom or created folders for each student. But the first day of school is when you start to pair a face to the name. Don’t worry if you don’t get them all on the first day! Here are a few tried and true games to make learning names fun and playful.

  • Gather students on the carpet in a circle. Start the game by saying, “My name is ______ and I like to ________.” As each student says their hobby, they should act out a movement to reflect that hobby. For example, if the hobby is swimming, they might move their arms around like they are swimming. Continue until each student has a chance to say their name and hobby. With younger students, you get a lot of enthusiasm with this game when they share a hobby with another friend. Instruct them to give a thumbs up if another friend says an activity they also enjoy.
  • Gather students in a large circle and hold a ball in your hands. Point to yourself and say your name, then toss the ball to a student. The student who catches the ball has to say your name, toss the ball to another student, and that student says the name of the student who threw the ball to them. Continue until everyone has had a chance to hold the ball. Add an extra challenge by repeating the game as quickly as you can. This version is fun but keep in mind that it can fill some students with energy. If you choose to do this name game quickly, try pairing it with a breathing activity to refocus for your next activities.
  •  Gather the students on the carpet and sit in a circle. Using a large ball of yarn, hold onto the open end of the yarn, and say your name. While still holding onto the yarn, roll the ball to a student and say their name. The student should hold on to the string and then roll to another person sitting across from them and say their name. After a few students, you will start to see a web forming.  When the last person’s name has been said, you begin to unwind the web by saying the name of the person who said your name. So, the last person will say the person’s name that rolled the ball to them and rolls it back. Make sure that each person rewinds the ball of yarn before rolling it to their person. (You may end up having a tangled ball of yarn but the point is to be silly and have fun. These types of games also build an environment of playfulness and trust.)

Walk around the classroom.

The classroom will be students’ home away from home for the next nine months. They should know all about it! You’ve likely been intentional about the way you set up your space, so this is your chance to show it all to your students. Show them how each zone of the classroom is set up and what will be done in each section. For example, you may have a rug area where you’ll do whole group work, a teacher desk where a small group will work with you, desks where they’ll work independently, centers or other stations around the room for various activities, a calm down space, a quiet reading space. Show them the various items and explain how to use them. Who can go to each area and when? What are the expectations for each section? Be sure to highlight any areas that will be part of their regular routine, such as where they store their backpacks and jackets, where they get supplies or where they charge their devices. For older students this can be made into a scavenger hunt with a list of areas for them to discover. After completed, talk about how each space is used.

Tour the school.

When I taught Kindergarten, I used the first day of school to introduce students to the school. Even if some are returning students, for younger grades it never hurts to reiterate the key aspects of school. Think about it – if you went to a new job or new home, you’d want to get a general layout of the area, not just be in one room without knowing what else was out there… especially if you’ll be moving around the space throughout the day.

I have done school scavenger hunts where, as a class, we tried to find answers to clues and toured the school together. This is just a cute way to   help young students become acquainted with the school environment. You can create riddles for students to solve or just put a picture of the teacher or space you want to introduce in an envelope and have students open it as you are touring the school. This activity also helps you set expectations and practice walking through the halls. Identify key places – and people – for students to meet on the tour, including: the nearest restroom, the front desk, the nurse’s office, the playground, the music room, art room, gym, receptionist, principal, counselor, etc. If you can, try to time this activity with recess and finish the scavenger hunt by finding the playground.

Older students may not need to do a full tour, but it’s always a good idea to show the key aspects of the school that they’ll need to know, and even practice walking to them as a group, such as the cafeteria, the playground/outdoor space, the nearest restroom, and the nurse’s office.

Talk about expectations. But remember, you’ll have to do that more than once.

Anything you teach on the first day likely won’t stick, so talking about expectations is not a one-and-done activity. When I taught fourth grade, I did an activity where I talked about the values of our school and had students put them into action. (Our school had identified core values, but if you don’t have any set by your school, you can make some up!) I gave students the word and had them identify how it would play out in the classroom. For example, some of our values are collaboration, integrity, and respect. I gave each word and its definition, and then had students work as a table group either draw a picture, do a skit, or find some other way to demonstrate how that life skill would look in our classroom throughout the year. Students had 30-40 minutes to work and then we gathered on the carpet and students presented their work. Then we wrote class expectations and I had all the students (and myself) sign them as our class values. As the week progressed, I would identify students putting the values into action and take photos. Students often called attention to other students who were demonstrating the values as well. I had students say things like, “I just saw John being respectful” and I could go over and take a photo of John as an example of respect.

Remember that expectations have to be repeated often but spending a big chunk of time on the first day, adding visuals, and including students in the creation of an expectation document, helps make them more tangible than just running through a list of expectations for a few minutes.

Be flexible and roll with the punches.

Spoiler alert: things will not go as planned. So being too rigid with plans will set you up for frustration, which will definitely leak out into the classroom environment. Know that whatever doesn’t get accomplished on the first day can just happen tomorrow. In fact, pretty much everything you do on the first day has to be repeated anyway to make it stick, so don’t worry too much if it doesn’t go the way you hoped or you ran out of time.

Have fun!

I always love the first day of school, once I got past those first-day jitters. It’s such a great day before the academic work starts and the school year hits its normal routines.  Remember to incorporate games, actually play with students at recess, laugh at students’ jokes, just have fun and enjoy your students.