First Day

My classroom was downstairs in the corner, but I was too excited about the first day of school to stay in it and wait for my students to come to me. So I stood in the upstairs hallway with Jane, the math teacher, a former nun, watching the kids enter the building.

Jane used this time to point out all of the bad kids to me.

“Watch out for that one,” she whispered, pointing to a blonde, blue-eyed boy wearing a red hoodie (on a hot August day in a building with no air conditioning.) “He’s a terror.”

“Oh, and that one!” She pointed to another boy who was leaping up to try to rip down the Welcome Back to School sign hanging from the ceiling. “Nobody can do anything with him. And be sure you don’t get on his parents’ bad side. His mom is even worse than he is.”

She warned me about kid after kid.

“Maybe it’s just the senior class,” she speculated. “They did run off two English teachers last year.”

“Two English teachers quit last year?”

Why hadn’t anyone told me this before?

My first period? Senior English. And it seemed like every kid Jane pointed out to me was on that first period roster.

I went back to my classroom before the first bell, feeling deflated.

The late bell rang and it looked like only half the kids on my roster were in their seats. Most of the rest of them sauntered in late, staring me down hard as they entered. I didn’t know what to do, so I didn’t do anything.

One of the last to stroll in was Mike, the boy in the red hoodie.

I took a breath and launched into my lesson plan. First on the agenda was an interest survey, which several books on classroom management had assured me was just the thing to get to know the students and break the ice on the first day. There was nothing very personal on this survey–just questions about what kinds of movies and music they liked, what they enjoyed doing in their spare time, what their favorite and least favorite subjects in school were.

Most of the students looked bored, a couple rolled their eyes, and they were all slow to get going on it, but they did play along.

And then there was Mike.

Mike snatched the paper from me and started reading the questions aloud. His voice got louder and more aggrieved as he went through the list.

“I’m not telling you that!” He said loudly and scratched through one question.

“That one is not any of your business.” He crossed out another question.

Several kids looked uncomfortable, but more looked amused. I could feel the blood rushing to my face.

“Who do you think you are, asking all these nosy questions?” Mike demanded. “I don’t know you. I’m not telling you any of this.”

“Fine,” I said. “If you object to any of the questions, don’t fill them in.”

He read off another question, laughed scornfully, and crossed it off. It was as if I hadn’t spoken.

I moved closer to his desk.

“I just told you not to answer any questions you find offensive. But you can not answer them silently.”

He rattled off one more question out loud.

I clenched my teeth and hissed “Be quiet” at him.

I was clearly about to lose it, not ten minutes into my first day as a high school teacher. Mike looked pretty pleased with himself, and no wonder. He had achieved his objective.

My hands were shaking as I collected papers at the end of the short 20-minute period. Mike wrote his name at the top of his interest survey and turned it in with a smile. Each question had been heavily blacked out.

And that was that.

Except it wasn’t.

At the end of the first day schedule was a one-hour block where teachers would meet for a second time with their first period class, this time to read through the student handbook together and go over all the school rules.

I might have been inexperienced, but I knew that was a set-up to disaster.

I spent the whole day nervously anticipating what Mike would bring to our second meeting. He sauntered in, skipped the desk, and stretched himself out on the reading rug in the corner. He clasped his hands behind his head, crossed his ankles, and glared at me.

I decided to ignore him.

The rest of the students seemed relieved when I told them that I wasn’t going to read the student handbook to them or go over the school rules.

“You’re seniors,” I said. “You know all that stuff already.”

“Damn straight,” Mike said. “We make the rules around here.”

“Oh shut up, Mike,” Larissa said.

I had also been warned about Larissa, but if she wanted to direct her irritation towards Mike, that was fine with me.

I spent the hour visiting with different students, making sure I knew their names, and chatting about the things they’d written on their Interest Surveys.  I did my best to ignore Mike.

A couple of students started talking about how many new teachers they had this year. This was a school with a high turnover of faculty and staff, which was not lost on students.

“What advice do you wish you could give to new teachers?” I asked. I was curious about what they would say.

I didn’t even think Mike was listening at this point. He and another couple of kids were relaxing on the rug and talking.

But he was listening, and he was the first to call out an answer.

“New teachers need to get to know us,” he said. “That’s what I wish they would do.”

I looked at him.

“Are you kidding me?” I demanded.

Now everybody was paying attention.

“What happened when I tried to get to know you this morning?” I asked.

He had the grace to look sheepish, but he didn’t say anything.

“Anybody else remember what happened when I tried to get to know Mike this morning?”

“He said it wasn’t any of your business,” someone volunteered.

“He said it wasn’t any of my business,” I agreed. “And he made quite a scene out of saying it was none of my business.”

“She got you there, Mike,” someone else said.

Mike laughed.

“You got me there,” he said.

And I’m still not sure why he did what he did next. He got up and asked if I had another copy of that Interest Survey because he wanted to fill it out after all.

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3 thoughts on “First Day

  1. What a great story! You handled that like a pro! Gosh, those kids are tough, aren’t they?? But getting to know them makes a HUGE difference!!! So how did things with Mike end up (not sure the story is current or past account?)? Good luck this year, regardless!

    • It’s actually a 10 yr old story! Mike ended up becoming one of my favorite students that year. He was one of a handful of students who taught me that the most important thing you can do with the most challenging students is find a way for them to become your favorites! It’s easy to like and enjoy working with the students who want to like and work with you. Much harder to find a way to like the students who refuse to learn from you. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment!

      • Great advice. I have found the same thing as well. It takes some effort to really see the positive. But when I’ve started to interact with them in a friendly way rather than a combative one, the tide turned a bit. I’ve had those experience where kids who drove me crazy ended up being favorites as well. Definitely a jewel in a taxing career! Lots of prayer helps too! 🙂

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