Start as you mean to go on with every class

Fake CCTV, Julie Andrews and power tools – our expert teachers share 21 ways to make the right impression with a new group
22nd August 2014, 1:00am


Start as you mean to go on with every class

First impressions count. Dates, job interviews, book covers: people make judgements quickly and changing initial perceptions can be tough.

Indeed, even when our first impression is proved wrong, it can still frame our relationship with that person. Research led by Professor Bertram Gawronski of the University of Texas at Austin in the US finds that we can become bound to our first impressions (bit.lyFirstGawronski). As a result, when they are contradicted by a new experience, we still see the new perception in the context of the old.

With the start of term approaching, this is not what teachers want to hear as they prepare to meet new students. To ease their worries, we asked colleagues from around the globe what their tactics were for getting off to a successful start with a new class. Here are 21 of the best:

1. “I `organise’ the room into total chaos. The children walk into the `problem’ and I ask them how we will solve it. Within minutes, a team spirit develops and children take ownership of their classroom, setting a wonderful tone for the year.”

Suzanne Wynn-Jones is a junior school teacher at the Illawarra Grammar School in New South Wales, Australia

2. “I ask students to take a seat anywhere in the class. I then ask some of them quite sternly, “Why did you sit there?” This leads to some interesting discussions concerning their behaviour and preconceptions. Why did they sit at the back - not interested? Near the door - keen to escape?”

Mike Lamb is a biology and psychology teacher at Hurstpierpoint College in West Sussex

3. “I start the year by having new students read out letters written by my previous pupils. The new group gets reliable advice about how to succeed in my class from people who have experienced it.”

Cara Littlefield teaches at High Tech Middle Media Arts, part of High Tech High, in San Diego, US

4. “When students enter my room on the first day, they notice familiar storybooks on the tables and Disney music coming through the speakers. These familiar things help five-year-olds to feel comfortable transitioning to school.”

Heatherle Chambers teaches kindergarten at Marysville School in Portland, Oregon, US

5. “You need to set the tone in the first lesson of the year: purposeful, strong, well-paced, good-humoured but no-nonsense. You can set out your expectations of the class simply by owning the classroom - make eye contact with everyone, engage everyone, get them involved.”

Dr Helen Wright has worked as a headteacher in both England and Australia

6. “On Day 1, we dive right in to a hands-on laboratory activity. The students have fun and get a good first impression - and so do their parents. I save the rules, expectations and introductory discussions for Day 2 or 3.”

Seth Robey is a science teacher at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School in Oak Park, Illinois, US

7. “I like to play Getting to Know You by Julie Andrews as the class walks in, which throws off any wannabe disruptive types.”

Caroline Corker teaches at Oaklands School in Hampshire

8. “I start the year by encouraging a little healthy paranoia. Casting knowing glances in the direction of those mysterious motion sensors in the corner of the room, I whisper: `The headteacher is watching us on CCTV. She sees everything we do.’”

Steve Eddison teaches at Arbourthorne Community Primary School in Sheffield

9. “I want my new learners to fall in love with my subject. So I smile lots and exude enthusiasm. I tell them that this is going to be their favourite lesson and that although it will be difficult (I teach A-level philosophy), they are going to be inspired and motivated to exceed their expectations of themselves. Basically, I set up what I hope will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Hayley Ryan is head of humanities at Totton College in Southampton

10. “I sit all the pupils down (in places I’ve chosen for them) and go around the class asking them all to tell me one thing they think I should know about them.”

Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher in the Midlands

11. “I have always started by setting ground rules and explaining my expectations. Children need to know where they stand. I also go through why the rules are important. Then I snap into an upbeat lesson, referring back to the rules if there are any issues. Children soon learn what is expected of them. If they understand the boundaries and, importantly, why these have been set, they are more likely to participate productively.”

Gillian Harvey is a teacher based in France

12. “The first five minutes look like this: after greeting the students at the door, I ensure they walk quietly into the classroom and sit on the carpet. We introduce ourselves, and from the way they talk I quickly assess who is nervous or upset. In order to dispel any fear or awkwardness, I show them a short, funny video because children enjoy watching television a lot. This sets the mood for the rest of the day.”

Naini Singh teaches at the Aga Khan Academy in Hyderabad, India

13. “I do a `two truths and a lie’ activity in which students have to work out which is the lie. I start with my own, which are: 1) I have won the lottery, 2) I have hung out with a former Australian prime minister at his house and 3) my mother saw Hitler as a young child.

The last one is the lie, although she saw [Nazi Field Marshal Erwin] Rommel parade through occupied Rotterdam.

I did win A$132 (pound;73) on the lottery and I interviewed Bob Hawke [prime minister from 1983 to 1991] in 2011.

This activity makes for an interesting discussion about what constitutes a good lie and how some claims appear to be more appealing than the reality. Which is very useful for developing discernment as a historian.”

David Van Tol is a history teacher at the Fukuoka International School in Japan

14. “I tend to start by introducing the course content; providing the bigger picture reassures pupils from the start and removes a lot of anxieties. I also use this introduction to have a bit of banter with the pupils, tell a few jokes and tease a few Manchester United fans.”

David Fallis teaches at Springwell Community School in Barnsley, South Yorkshire

15. “I abide by some set rules. Exude confidence (fake it, if necessary). Speak clearly and concisely, taking a central position in the classroom. Always speak with the expectation that you will be listened to and your instructions followed.”

Robin Launder teaches at a pupil referral unit in Hertfordshire

16. “The strangest new-class approach I ever heard involved the teacher strolling casually into the classroom, drilling a hole in the wall and proceeding to hang their coat on a newly inserted screw. As my prowess with tools leaves a lot to be desired, I prefer to start by asking students to note all their expectations of me. Inevitably, the length of their list rivals the Dartford Tunnel, with suggestions such as no homework, no reading and writing, no seating plans. Showing no mercy, I then strike every item from the list leaving only sound teaching, accurate assessment and effective behaviour management. I might start smiling some time after autumn half-term.”

Jon King teaches English in Cambridgeshire

17. “Beware of sabotage from colleagues. I learned the hard way to check the hidden side of my rolling board. After once telling a new and challenging group to copy down - in absolute silence - my (hastily made-up) classroom rules, I then pulled the board down to find `I’m going to kill you, Mr Petty’ in large Gothic lettering. It was supposedly signed by `Baxter’, a quietly terrifying man whom a colleague and I once met on a stag weekend. Any illusion of being the firm disciplinarian crumbled as I hastily explained that it was `just Mr Anderson’s little joke’.”

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams’s School in Thame, Oxfordshire

18. “One of the first things I do when I meet a new group is to set a quiz of 16 questions. This divides students into leaders, planners, team players and listeners. The activity was shared by a friend who is a human resources director.”

Maggie Miranda is head of creative arts at the Aga Khan Academy in Nairobi, Kenya

19. “I smile, welcome the pupils into my room and put them in a boy-girl seating plan. We then play a game to learn names. Each person picks an alliterative adjective that describes their personality or something that they like. We then join them together. For example: Silly Sarah; Silly Sarah, Exciting Elizabeth; Silly Sarah, Exciting Elizabeth, Bonkers Boris and so on. Months later I still remember the descriptions as well as their names.”

Corinne Wolfe teaches at a British International School in Jakarta, Indonesia

20. “I welcome parents into the classroom to settle the children in. This is a good opportunity to start building relationships with the mums and dads, which are helpful when you need to talk to them later on in the term. Welcoming activities such as Lego, Play-Doh, colouring and jigsaws are laid out on the tables. Once the child is happily settled at an activity, the parents can say their goodbyes - this generally prevents any first-day tears. When all the children are settled, I start with a getting-to-know-you circle time. We play some fun games before sharing holiday news.”

Alice Edgington teaches at St Stephen’s Infant School in Canterbury, Kent

21. “I tend to have a general discussion about the point of studying all these old, dead writers - whether we might hope to learn anything from it or if it’s simply a sadistic conspiracy. Then we play some games and get everyone on their feet, asking all sorts of questions from `What’s your favourite hobby?’ to `What would be your superpower if you could choose?’ and `Which animal would you be and why?’

Next I get students to guess who gave which answers. It’s useful to keep the information you gather, especially for tougher pupils, because nothing helps more than a quick chat about how their Motocross day went at the weekend.”

Nelson Thornberry is a pseudonym. He teaches in an international school in Asia

What else?

Try TES behaviour expert Tom Bennett’s tips on making a good first impression with pupils.


Find out more about your new students with these welcoming worksheets.


First impressions linger in a new school, so be prepared.


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