Set the Class Tone on the First Day

This year I will have the exciting opportunity of teaching an introductory physics class to students on vocational tracks.  For those not understanding ed-speak, this means that I will be taking a class of kids who have probably already failed in 8th grade, have poor test scores and may have already given up on school.  We used to call these types of classes (and kids) “low track”.  


 I hate that word and avoid using it.  Vocational tracks have changed a lot since I was in school and many of these students will go on to trade school and learn skills that are always in demand (plumbing, carpentry, welding).  New names include career track, vocational tracks, noncollege tracks…you get the idea.  

 The challenge for teaching this class is to motivate the students and provide them basics of science that will help them outside of school and with career and trade school training.    In fact, I’ve designed the physics class with a focus on real world applications, where design and experiment are major themes.

What About Classroom Management?

What causes many new teachers the most stress is the class management side of a course like this.  I won’t sugar coat it here.  Many of these students are unruly, have been in trouble in the past, may have been suspended or truant.    To me, it doesn’t matter what their home life is like, or how rough a night they had, these are things I cannot change.  I can only control what occurs in my classroom and how they behave when they are with me that hour of the day.   I also maintain that many of these kids have been unsuccessful because they just don’t know what simple behaviors can improve their chances of success.  Let me illustrate further…

I walk into my Advance Placement Biology class and I’m a couple minutes late because the principal stopped me outside the door to discuss the science fair.   When I finally open the door and walk in, the students have their notebooks out and are comparing their homework assignments to check for the right answers, some are even writing down tonight’s assignment.

The same situation occurs, but instead I walk in late to an intro physics class.   You can probably imagine a scene quite different.  Students are tossing around someone’s backpack, many of them aren’t ready to work; a few of them ambush me at the door because they’ve forgotten something very important in their locker or desperately need to go to the bathroom.   You try to get everyone settled, but a few of them don’t have pencils or paper, only one of them has their homework finished and most of the others didn’t even know there was homework.   If you’re a veteran teacher,  this scene is probably familiar to you.

If you’re a new teacher fresh out of college you might read this and think I am misguided.  You might recall how your college professors told you that every child can learn and its all about how the teacher motivates the student and what expectations the teacher has.  You might have heard some parable about a new teacher who came into a room full of kids who she thought was an advanced class. She taught them calculus and they were the brightest most intelligent kids she could have imagined.  At the end of the story she found out that they’d mixed up the class label and these were actually the low-track kids who were supposed to learn basic math. The moral is supposed to be that kids will do what is expected of them.  If you have high expectations, you will get better results than if you have low expectations.   This is true, expectations matter, even if the story itself is only a fable.

I absolutely have high expectations for every class I teach, but I don’t expect my basic math students to whip out calculus in 3 weeks.   If I did that, not only would I set my students up for failure, but I may set myself up for a nervous breakdown.  My point here is that for many students, they just don’t know what an honor student has figured out.  They don’t get the connection between  having a notebook and pen out and getting focused and ready to learn.  

I had  a  student who constantly lay his head down on the desk, and I would say “John, sit up and listen” and he’d respond “but I am listening”.    Honor students know the difference. Honor students have learned good habits which have enabled them to be successful in school.  Notice I didn’t even say honor students are smarter, because that may not be the case.  Entire books have been written about habits and success, it may have even been required reading: “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”  (though I prefer the teen version).

To that end, with an intro level class it is important to set the tone right off the bat and begin establishing good habits.   If that first day, you assign them seats and then tell them they can visit with their friends the rest of the time , well then you’ve basically given them the idea that “visiting friends” is an activity they can expect for the rest of the year.   You are really better off keeping them busy, even if it’s something not even related to the subject you teach.  I’ve compiled a list of First Day Activities if you need some inspiration.

The other thing I enact with classes that need to improve their habits is a daily grade based on habits and class participation.   I use a type of grid with names and a check system.  Each student starts with 10 pts per day and then gets deductions based on bad habits, such as forgetting a pencil or not paying attention.

The only drawback of this method is potential grade inflation, so their participation grade only counts for 15% of their overall grade (computer system does those calculations).   This also has the benefit of students knowing exactly what they should be doing and there is an immediate specific consequence for doing the wrong thing.   Unfortunately, this method can be unwieldy, and requires a commitment from the instructor to keep accurate behavior notes the entire class period every day.  

As you can see in the sample above, some students may have more checks than others, but many kids will earn the entire 10 pts every day with no incident.  If you are going to adopt a system similar to this, always keep in mind that the end goal is to change the habits of the student, not necessarily use grades to punish the students.  Grades are used because for high school students, it’s the only currency they really have – they just aren’t motivated by those gold stars any more.  It’s also important that you convert this to a small percentage of their grade, a student’s grade should be based in the end on how much they understand the concepts of the course, not on whether they behaved all semester.