First impressions

Since my second day of teaching when I was in graduate school, I have loved teaching.  I enjoy being in the front of a room and describing mathematical concepts and relationships.  I find the questions that my students ask to be delightful, as  I strive not just to answer the question, but also try to understand the thinking that led to the question.

Despite that, I used to hate the first day of class for the term.  Year after year of teaching,  I dreaded standing in front of a class of 30 – 40 students running down a list of names.  Reading aloud in front of a group has always been frightening to me.  Reading through a list of unfamiliar names is just downright terrifying.  I hated that I’d mispronounce most of the names, a fact that definitely made me uncomfortable and seemed to make my students uncomfortable as well.  That horrific process of taking attendance for the first time was then following by the dry and uninspiring review of the course policies and requirements that were laid out in the syllabus.  After all of those first class sessions, I left relieved that it was over, but somewhat uninspired about the way the term had started.

First impressions are important, or at least that’s an idea that I’ve absorbed as I’ve moved through life.  However, if first impressions are important and long-lasting, I was digging a hole for myself on that first day of class.  Is this the conversation that my students had after leaving my classroom on the first day?

Nicole’s student

Hey, what’s up?

Student’s friend: 

Not much.  What about you?

Nicole’s student

I just got out of my first math class. 

Student’s friend: 

Yeah?  How did that go?

Nicole’s student:

I don’t know.  I know math isn’t super exciting, but she was so boring and she couldn’t even pronounce anyone’s name.  It’s gonna be hard to sit through those classes. 

Student’s friend: 

Wow that sounds rough.  But we all gotta suffer through those math classes.  It’s part of the experience of college. 

Sigh! Not the effect that I really wanted.  I was excited about the start of my term and I really wanted my students to feel that enthusiasm from the first day. So, after many years of teaching, I started to really change the way I do things on the first day of class, and over the course of a few years arrived at the routine that I describe below.

I now start the first day of class by introducing myself.  I’m not talking about a curriculum vitae—I’m talking about an introduction that’s a little less academic.  I tell my students how long I’ve been teaching at Foothill, a little bit about my family, and why I enjoy teaching the class in which they are enrolled.  I also tell my students about training for and riding a 200 mile bike ride.  I assure them that if I could manage such a physical feat, that they will be able to manage the intellectual feats presented to them by the class that they are taking.  I remind them that math is a skill and it’s learned though diligence and hard work. I’m also sure to tell them about all the wonderful support that I had as I trained and I encourage them to establish a similar support system for themselves, starting with getting to know some of the other students in the class.

Following my introduction, I tell my students that I’d really like to get to know them, because I can better support them in the course if I know more about them.  I apologize for not having enough time for all of the students to have the opportunity to introduce themselves to the class.  I’m sure some of them are relieved by this.  Not everyone wants to talk about themselves in front of the class.  I inform my students that instead of introducing themselves, I’d like for them each to take the time to write a letter to me.  I tell them that the letter can be about anything that they’d like for me to know, but some helpful things to include are their current academic goals, their math background, what they are concerned about, what I can do to help, and an interesting fact about themselves.

Notice I haven’t mentioned taking attendance yet.  That’s because I haven’t taken attendance yet. While the students are writing letters to me,  I go to each student and welcome them to the class and hand them a copy of the syllabus.  As each student tells me their name I find it on the roll sheet and I also check to see what they’d prefer to be called during class. I then give each student the opportunity to ask any question that they have at that time.  As I make my way around the room, and they finish writing their letters, the noise level in the room starts to rise as they engage in conversations with those nearby.  Students talking to each other on the first day of class rarely happened before I adopted this routine.

My students won’t believe this, but I’m notoriously bad at remembering names.  I rarely forget a face, but a person can introduce themselves to me and 10 seconds later the name is gone.  But, I don’t want my students to feel anonymous in my classroom, and they will if I don’t know their names. So, I also make a conscientious effort to memorize the students’ names as I go around the room.  I say each students name as I talk with them.  Saying their name as I look at their face helps me remember the name.  I then pause every 3-4 students and review the names of the students that I’ve already visited with, and typically by the end of this activity I have about half to three-quarters of the students names memorized. My goal is to remember all their names by the end of the first week. I’m very goal oriented and usually achieve my goals. 🙂

After all the names are checked off on my roll and the letters are collected, we do a math problem together.  I allow the students to work on it independently and then check in with other students around them.  I circulate around the class and find a student who was talkative when I  checked off students, who seems to be explaining the answer to other around them and has the right answer.  I ask this student to explain the answer to the class.  I then provide two or three wrong answers for the question, and challenge the class to identify the “good thinking” that led to the “wrong answers.”  It’s sometimes difficult to steer the students away from criticizing the answer, but I seem to always manage.  I close the discussion by telling the class that I know that the “wrong answers” that they will provide during the quarter will have “good thinking” behind them and we’ll call those “good wrong answers.” I encourage them to be willing to share their “good wrong answers” because we’ll all learn more if we analyze the thinking behind those answers.

I end the class by asking the students to read the syllabus and bring any questions to the next class. I might also give them an assignment to complete before coming to the next class and let them know the format for future classes.

I now look forward to the first day of class. It’s a real opportunity to get to know my students and set the stage for our learning experience for the quarter. Is this now the conversation that my students have after leaving my classroom on the first day?

Nicole’s student

Hey, what’s up?

Student’s friend: 

Not much.  What about you?

Nicole’s student

I just got out of my first math class. 

Student’s friend: 

Yeah?  How did that go?

Nicole’s student:

I don’t know, but I think it might actually be an interesting class.  The instructor seems like a really cool person, and I think she understands why students get things wrong.

Student’s friend: 

Wow, cool!

Nicole’s student:

I’m actually looking forward to taking this class now.

A girl can dream!

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5 thoughts on “First impressions

  1. Thank you for this one. Learn people’s names. How hard is that? No meaningful relationship is possible without it, and that includes a teacher/student relationship.

    And thank you, too, for the good-thinking/good-wrong-answer pair. It focuses on thinking process and disrupts the common obsession with correct answers.

    Can’t wait for your next post!

  2. I have never thought of another way of beginning the quarter and getting to know the students, but your idea sounds great. I would like to try it out next quarter. I can learn the names of the students for the current quarter, but those names disappear the following quarter. (I wonder if you know about the picture roster that we have access to. It helps in remembering the students’ names from the present quarter and previous quarters.)

    • I also seem to forget most of the names from the previous quarter as I learn the new names. It’s almost as if my brain will only hold so many names and it must forget the previous names in order to learn the new ones.

  3. Thanks for your post, Nicole! I do something similar on the first day in my (English) classes. When I was a student, the classes in which the instructor knew me – at least a little – were the ones I cared the most about attending, regardless of subject matter. I really like the idea of having an activity that uses the “wrong answer, good thinking” analysis right there on the first day. Thanks for sharing this experience and your ideas!
    Katherine

  4. I attended a back-to-basics class on Friday that over-viewed the many different styles of learning that our students bring to the classroom. See, hear, do; action, theory, emotion, etc. You seem to blend nicely many different approaches to teaching. Your techniques are a testament to your years of experience in the classroom. Thank you for sharing.

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