I walked into Staples and saw them. Signs plastered everywhere: Back to School Sale. My stomach tightened, my palms sweat and my heart skipped a beat. As much as I or any teacher loves teaching, there is always that inevitable dread that comes as August winds down and September looms. If this is true for we adults, who have been through 1st days of school twenty, maybe thirty or more times (even brand-spanking new teachers have already gone through their own twelve first days plus four in college), just think of how it feels to the little ones we teach. Even the kids who love school, thrive in an academic environment, miss the easily-found social time of recess and lunch, or feel soothed by the structure and predictability of a regular school day feel some level of apprehension facing that very first day all over again. Just think what it is like for the kids who struggle academically, socially or attentionally.
So, what’s a sensitive, caring, emotionally savvy teacher to do? The first and most important step in helping your kids (and, let’s be honest here, yourself) deal with the first day jitters is to acknowledge them. My master teacher lo these many years ago started out the first class meeting the first day of school by saying, “I’ve been through 48 first days of school and you know what? I still couldn’t sleep last night wondering about what it would be like this year.” You could hear the kids sigh their collective relief. You mean this is normal? I’m supposed to feel this way?
I always planned my first week curriculum around these very human fears. The first day, we read aloud Kevin Henke’s wonderfully charming Wemberly Worried. Oy, what a worrier Wemberly is! She’ll make your most anxious student look as calm as the Dalai Lama. And Wemberly’s newest and biggest anxiety of all? School!
The second day, I read Shel Silverstein’s poem, “What if?” which ranges from “Whatif I’m dumb in school?” to “Whatif green hair grows on my chest?” Needless to say, kids (and teachers!) love it.
Lest you (or your administrator) get too worried about “wasting” time on socio-emotional issues rather than “the real” (hah!) curriculum, I have my kids follow up, first by inventing their own What if‘s (connecting self to text, and making a great bulletin board to boot), and then by comparing and contrasting Wemberly Worried and What if? (connecting text to text, venn diagram and all).
Of course, these activities don’t take all the dread away from the beginning of school, and they sure don’t make up for having to get up early again, but they do help kids feel normal, even when their feelings are uncomfortable. And that helps to set up the class for a really great year.