The first days of the new school year

A new term usually means meeting new students


First impressions count. Just how much they count might surprise you.

In a 1993 study, social psychologists Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal found that students can make reliable evaluations of teachers within seconds.

They started by showing students three 10-second video clips of teachers. Students judged the teachers on characteristics such as 'likeable', 'supportive', 'confident' and 'warm'. Interestingly, these judgements matched the evaluations made by other students who knew the teachers well.

The researchers then cut the length of the clips from 30 seconds to 15, and then again to only 6 seconds. Amazingly, even with such limited exposure, students could still make reliable evaluations of the teachers they were watching.

Ambady and Rosenthal originally intended to find out if the teachers' physical attractiveness affected students' evaluations. They found it doesn't, but teacher behavior did. The implications of the study: it takes as little as 6 seconds to make a lasting impression on your students.

As you move into a new year with new classes, you may be considering what sort of impression you want to make on the students when you have your first lesson. What exactly should a teacher do in the first few lessons considering that these first impressions are so important?

Strict or fun?

One opinion you'll hear from a lot of experienced teachers: start strict. Teachers taking this view see the opening of the term as a chance to establish authority in the classroom. The idea is to make students understand right at the outset of the term that you are not their friend, and the classroom is a place for learning.

In time, once your authority as a teacher is in place, you can ease your management style and become more friendly. Starting strict means you won't be beset by classroom management problems later in the year, and you can get on with the job of creating learning in the right kind of classroom environment.

There's a lot to be said for the strict first policy, but not everyone agrees with it. While it's undeniable that our work as teachers must involve managing groups and disciplining poor behavior, as English teachers we work within slightly different parameters.

First, since a language classroom must necessarily involve language, creating a tightly controlled environment in which students abide by traditional classroom codes (like being quiet) risks stifling communicative freedom. Second, punitively run classrooms create high levels of anxiety, and the risk-taking behavior necessary for successful language learning is thought to mix poorly with anxiety. Third, language learning is highly experiential in nature - students have to do it it to learn it. That means that the quiet, passive and submissive classrooms which are often associated with 'good behavior' are counter-productive.

Therefore, the beginning of the school term for a language classroom teacher means establishing that language classrooms are different from 'school' classrooms in many ways - talking and taking risks is encouraged.

Who is right? Should we start by laying down the rules and making the students see who's boss, or create a positive and friendly classroom climate where exploration of new language and ways of communication is encouraged?

Making decisions

Unfortunately there's no magic bullet. Both options have problems. Starting strict sets up smooth classroom management, but runs the risk of alienating your class even before you know what they are capable of. Starting fun sets you apart from 'those' teachers and creates an classroom that students look forward to, but then there are boundary problems and students may push things 'too far'.

Additionally, the choice of strict or fun may depend: teaching a class of 50 students will require a different approach to a class of 12, working with grade 3/16 isn't the same as grade 3/1, and the needs of a class of 12 year-olds can't be compared to a group of IT specialists working in a bank.

Also, a teacher styling himself on Colonel Miles Quaritch from the movie Avatar will disagree with a teacher who believes in Stephen Krashen's affective filter hypothesis. Trying to impose a single solution on every classroom across all teachers is simplistic.

Reading around other blogs on this subject I found a lot of support for the 'start strict' approach. It seems that the concern for classroom management is paramount. I have to agree that good classroom management is important, but I must question whether 'being strict' is really the answer. Do we really need the first impression we make on our classes to be one of dictatorial rule-maker? Surely there are better ways of keeping order in the classroom than sacrificing the critical opening lessons with power posturing.

I freely concede that my opposition to the 'start strict' approach is personal. As a student, I took a dim view of teachers who started the year with a "In my classroom you'll do as I say" routine. Yawn. And as a teacher, being rather small and scrawny means I have never been able to instill even the vaguest flicker of fear in any of the classes I've taught.

Breaking the ice

So I argue for a middle path. We need to create a meaningful teacher persona for the classroom, but we also need to create the expectation that the language classroom is a zone where language is explored and learned. To do that, students must participate in activities, communicate with other students, and have fun making meaning.

A useful solution is an ice-breaker. Getting students involved in an activity as the first thing in your first lesson gives students a clear message that you expect action. There are rules too - speak English, complete the task, make meaning. The focus is off the teacher and on the foreign language.

I have different ice-breakers for different contexts: describing favorite pictures, a cocktail party, group guessing games. For large classes I use a classroom map. With 50 students, it's not possible for students to get up and walk around, so I give a large piece of paper to each group of 4 to make a map of the members of the class (in English) according to some specified (or chosen) characteristic like hobbies, family size, or birthdates.

Each group finds out the relevant information from others in the class, and makes an 'information map' of the room. Sometimes the students already know one another well and can 'cheat', sometimes there is shouting across the room, some students get up and walk around, sometimes there's a lot of Thai, sometimes I am put on their map and some brave students come ask me a question too.

At the end each group has something to share with the other groups, and I learn a lot about them in the process. It doesn't always work, and there are frequently problems, but that's the joy of working with people. The idea of the ice-breaker, whatever it is, is that it lets students know I want communication and involvement, and students have a lot of fun with it.

If you haven't done so before, try out an ice-breaker in your first lesson - it creates a busy and active lesson, and helps capitalize on that important first impression.


Steve Louw is the lead trainer of the popular Chichester College TESOL programme in Bangkok.


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