the first day of school


On the first day of school, the first question in students’ minds is, “Who are you?” You will introduce yourself, of course, but you also might talk about yourself a little bit.

Deal with such obvious questions as, “Why are you here?” Sometimes students show surprise when you confide to them that you get great pleasure from seeing them learn. Eyes might widen when you tell them that school should be fun. Don’t beat it to death, but, a few words from the heart are in order.


On the first day of school, the second question in students’ minds is, “Who are they?” If you think the students all know one another, think again.

I used to have secondary teachers hand out a blank seating chart in mid-November and ask students to fill in the first and last names of everyone in the class. Rarely did the number of correct papers exceed 25 percent. Teachers were typically shocked, but most had to admit that they had invested little time in making it otherwise.

Students do better in class both academically and socially when they are comfortable, relaxed, and “at home.” They do not do so well in an impersonal environment.

The question facing the teacher is, “Do you care?” Is it worth your time to make the students feel at home? I strongly suggest that you devote the lion’s share of the first class period of the year to creating comfort. Spend at least a half-hour doing an “icebreaking” activity.

Many teachers feel it is all-important to “set the tone” of the class by getting right into a meaty assignment during the first class period. Although well intentioned, that objective is not aligned with the students’ needs. Think of yourself suddenly thrown together with a group of your peers: some you know and some you don’t; a few are good friends you haven’t seen in months. Some social “settling in” is needed.

If you invest time and energy in producing comfort, you signal to students that you care about them as people. If you do not invest, you signal that they are nothing but warm bodies occupying chairs in your classroom. Do not expect a lot of warmth and consideration coming back to you from students who are treated in that fashion.

Because the objective of breaking the ice is social, have some fun with it. Anything that helps students get to know one another and laugh is golden.


Here are some sample icebreakers that you can use on the first day of school. Customize them to fit your needs. Your colleagues can give you even more.


Scavenger Hunt: Hand out a sheet of paper with ten questions about things students are likely to have in common (the last movie you saw, your favorite sport, your favorite flavor of ice cream, how you get to school, and so on.). To the right of the questions are four columns. Students write the answer to each question in column one. They then must find three students who have the same answer for each question. Those students sign in one of the three remaining columns. Give students a time limit and watch them go. Be a participant yourself. Any activity of this kind will work better when you are part of it.

Name Game: Students form a circle with their desks. Hanging on the front of each desk is a 3-by-5 card with the student’s first name printed on it in big, bold letters that can be read from across the room. The first person begins the game by saying his or her first name along with a rhyme, an adjective, or a nickname describing him or her. This part is always good for laughs. The second person does the same, and then repeats what the first student has said. The third person does the same, and then repeats what the second and first students said. By the time the game has gone around the room, the person who is “it” has a lot of names and nicknames to remember, but the name cards on the front of the desks serve as reminders. Class members are directed to quickly supply missing information if a fellow student gets stuck. As simple as it sounds, this game usually generates a lot of kidding around while helping students associate names with faces. Of course, the teacher goes last and learns students’ names in the process.


Partner Introductions: Students pair up, and then each student interviews his or her partner and introduces the partner to the rest of the class. Structure interviews by providing a list of topics. Interviewers typically get specifics about their partner’s family, pets, hobbies, and special interests.

Group Sharing: Have each student share with the group the best thing he or she did during the summer, his or her biggest fear or biggest hope for the new school year, and so on. You supply the list of topics.


Design a T-shirt: Have each student design a T-shirt press-on that tells about himself or herself. Invite each student to display and explain the design.

Digital Photos: If you have access to a digital camera, take students’ pictures on the first day of school. On the bottom half of a sheet of notebook paper, have each student list five things that describe him or herself. Then, have students read their lists to the group prior to mounting their photos on the top half of the paper. Post the photo sheets around the room. This activity can be extended throughout the first week of school by having each student bring a baby picture. Number the baby pictures and post them on the bulletin board. Have a contest in which points are given for matching current pictures with baby pictures.


Guess Who: Hand out a sheet of paper with ten questions about personal characteristics of the students. Have students answer the questions and hand them in. The teacher reads the first item on a student’s list, and the entire class has to guess who the person is. Additional items on the list are read until the student is identified. The rest of the students follow in turn.

Place in the Family: Have students form groups according to their order in their families (oldest, middle, youngest). Ask students in each group to list the things they have in common and the advantages and disadvantages of their place in the family. Invite each group to share their lists with the class.

Editor’s Note: Check out the Education World Back to School theme page for hundreds more Icebreaker activities.


By the end of the first day of the school year, students will have a well-formed impression of each teacher. They will know if the teacher cares about them. They will know whether the class is a work environment or a place to kick back. They will know whether they have an old pro or a rookie.

Students can always tell what is important just by watching you. Things that are important are worth your time and effort. Students need to know that they are important.

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