Godzilla or Spock? The First Day of Class

It was with great interest that I read Michael Griffin’s excellent blog post called “Scaring Students on the First Day” with its picture of the famous Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (the most ironic name ever – you can’t beat Kubrick) from Full Metal Jacket screaming at the film’s protagonist, Private Joker.  In his post, Mike wonders about the best way to approach the first day of class as a teacher. He mentions a colleague who prefers to talk to the students in a stern voice and lay down the law.  The rationale for this is to ensure that students understand that the expectations are different from what they were used to in high school. Mike goes on to say that he can see some benefits from doing this to avoid appearing overly friendly, which can be a distraction or annoyance.  These points are all good and I’d like to share my own ideas about the following:  (1)  Is the first day important?  Does it deserve some special approach?  (2)  What should that approach be?

Is The First Day Important?

I can still clearly remember my very first day of navy boot camp over 20 years ago.  The first twenty four hours of military life consisted of being shuffled from one building to another in an endless haze of paperwork, medical checks, and getting various pieces of kit.  In between and throughout all this, we were constantly harangued and loudly berated by our drill instructors.  At one point, my feelings of shocked bewilderment and seething indignation gave way to obedience in the face of relentless harassment for the smallest of mistakes – imagined or real. By the end of that day, I had learned a valuable lesson about how to behave in boot camp.  In order to avoid unpleasant experiences, I needed to listen carefully and do as I was told.

It was years later when I finally looked back on that experience to sort out the reasons for the intense verbal abuse and harassment that was meted out on the first day.  It helps to minimize the potential problems that might occur further down the line when you (terrifyingly) hand a fresh-faced kid an automatic rifle with live ammunition.  The shock treatment from day one helped to drive home the point in a way that was accessible to all of us.  Not everyone is bright enough to take in a 25-minute well-reasoned treatise with charts and illustrations to show why you should be careful not to point the shooty end of a gun at your buddies but everyone can understand someone constantly screaming in your face from an inch away for not paying attention to what you’re doing.  Those lessons from the first day about being careful then carry over to when you actually have a rifle in your hands. It worked pretty well too because we all got through that experience unharmed.

Just to be clear, I’m definitely not encouraging my fellow English teachers to pop a blood vessel in their forehead, scream at their students, and make them do push-ups on the first day of school.  You will likely get fired.  What’s more, the stakes are nowhere near as high in an English class as they are in the military. The reason I talked about my boot camp experience is to help illustrate that first days are important and that they are rightfully treated as special by many organizations that are involved in training and education.  I suspect the reason for this is partly because of the disorientation that goes with being in a new environment and the need for people to be given a clear way of “being” (thinking, behaving, and doing) when faced with a new situation.  I’d like you to think for a moment about your first day of work at a new job and the uncertainty and self-doubt you most likely felt about, well, everything.  The foremost question we have in our mind is usually something like, “What should I do?  What should I say? How should I act towards this person or that request?”

What I’m getting at here is that the first day of doing anything is very special because it’s a time when we are trying to find “a way of being” in relation to a new situation.  The uncertainty that comes out of having new information and new people and places all around us sparks a mini crisis within all of us, whether we recognize it or not.  Unless we have someone to help guide us through the birthing pains of the situation, we can set ourselves up for trouble later down the line.  I look around at my students of the same age on the first day of university – masking their apprehension in so many ways that I can see it so clearly after years of teaching.  Some students deal with the fear of the first day with meek obedience, others with phony tough-guy acts or snide remarks out of the teacher’s earshot, while others bury themselves in their phone screens, and a few even literally put on disguises by wearing a flu mask.  A teacher on the first day of class can help to alleviate these feelings in their students by providing a clear way of being.  This also sets the trend for how things will go in the future.

The Approach

Without some guidance from the teacher, students will tend to either take their behavioral cues from their peers or default to behavior that has worked for them in past similar situations (high school English class). On the surface, a university instructor might mistakenly believe that a student who does this is being disrespectful.  I think this applies to the teacher that Michael Griffin mentioned in his blog post. If a teacher knows he is bound to be bothered by certain behavior (regardless of the reason for it) then he is right in trying to address that issue on the first day.  However,  I suspect it’s probably unnecessary to use a stern voice to “drive home” these rules.  Most  students, by gaining admission to a university, have already demonstrated a work ethic and a willingness to do what their teachers ask of them. Does being stern help to “drive home” the point to students who might not understand a teacher’s intention to conduct a serious class?  From my own experience, displays of emotion seldom work to compensate for a language barrier or cultural differences between the students and teacher.  If anything, they seem to further complicate matters.

On the other hand, I don’t think a clinical Mr. Spock-like approach works well either. From what I’ve seen, dry presentations of rules and expectations do little to contend with the apprehension that each student faces on their first day of class. I always think it’s best to fight fire with fire and use some emotion to help get through to the tiny helpless lost little human that resides inside all of us. Jokes, anecdotes, pictures, and examples can help to do this. I think this is also, by the way, the reason that just handing out a syllabus and expecting students to sit down and make sense of it just doesn’t work most of the time and if you want to read more great stuff about that, let me point you back to Michael Griffin’s blog once more.  In any case, it is not enough to merely tell the rules but also to somehow make an impression so that they are absorbed. I often find that explaining the reason why I run the class a certain way helps to keep everyone on board.

I still haven’t found the perfect approach to the first day and I don’t think I ever will. I try my best to follow two guiding principles: (1) “be clear and unambiguous about what you want from the students” and (2) “be friendly but not a friend”.

Thanks for reading.  Now drop and give me 50!