There is something perverse about the fact that public school teachers must undergo years of rigorous training, student teaching, and certification in order to take charge of their own classroom and individuals teaching at the college level for the first time are generally given a time, a room, and a roster and told to have at it. If you are lucky, you will get a few days of orientation, an overview of university policy, and a round table discussion with experienced grad student instructors. Hopefully, you’ll also get a faculty mentor, though I’ve heard of some faculty mentors (at other schools, of course) who say ridiculous crap like, “Pedagogy is for high school teachers. I’ll teach you content. You can figure out pedagogy for yourself.” Uh huh.
I actually got pretty fantastic training, not only the summer before my first TA and solo teaching assignments but throughout the semester. That said, I recall that the first couple of days of the August orientation week, in keeping with academic aversion to pragmatism, consisted mostly of high-minded discussions about the value of rhetoric and the philosophy of our writing program. I remember sitting there feeling like I had swallowed a piece of granite thinking, “Fine, fine, fine, but what am I supposed to do NEXT WEDNESDAY?!?” (The fall term starts on a Wednesday here.) The fear of showing up on your first day with nothing to do or say can be overwhelming. I remember how long 50 minutes used to feel, how I used to agonize about how I was going to fill them three times a week. Now, I usually run out of time, so rest assured that that feeling eventually goes away, not that that knowledge really helps you right now.
So, what do you do that first day? The good news is that no one really expects you to do much. Remember the first day of class when you were in college? You went around the table and said your name and major and your favorite food or some nonsense. Basically you’re going to learn names, explain your course policies and reading schedule, demo your class website (if you have one), and just take care of business in general. You are not required to give an inspiring speech unless you really feel moved to. In fact, it’s advisable not to cover any real content on the first day. The composition of your class is inevitably going to change over the next week, and you’ll save some time and trouble catching the new people up if you wait a day.
PRO TIP: Mapping out a course schedule is very difficult until you get a feel how how a semester flows and how much time a class period really is. You don’t necessarily have to pass out a complete schedule on the first day. My first semester teaching on my own, I planned the amount of time we would spend on each unit and scheduled the due dates for major essays, but I handed out the detailed reading schedule and discussion topics at the beginning of each unit. This gave me some flexibility without having too many schedule revisions out there confusing the class.
The first day of class is really about setting a tone, about letting your students know what you expect from them and what they can expect from you. Go over your course policy statement in detail, and give your students a practical sense of how you will enforce them. While this doesn’t have to be a “weed out” exercise, I recommend appearing stricter than you intend to be. That way in you show grace later in the term, you appear benevolent and merciful. If you appear easy to manipulate at the outset, your students will run all over you and resent you when you start enforcing. By the same token, don’t assume that they will read the syllabus on their own. I always give a pop quiz on the syllabus on Day 3 or 4.
You will naturally wind up doing most of the talking on this day, but if you expect to hold lively discussions in your class, it’s a good idea to get them talking too. Do introductions but also consider bringing in some questions or ideas they can throw around. For example, this past year I taught a class on Literature and Religion. Knowing that religion is a sensitive topic, I had the class lay down some general guidelines for discussion on the first day. It was both a tactic to get them talking to one another and prevent land mines from exploding in the class later in the term.
Alternatively, you could have students free-write on a topic for 10 minutes and then share their thoughts or bring in a very short reading (a poem or one page of prose) or image to discuss. The idea is to give them what a typical day in your class might be like without necessarily delving into key material.
Finally, if you are going to assign homework for the second day, make it a handout or something that is accessible online. Because students change their classes so much during the first couple of weeks (and various other reasons), some of them won’t have their textbooks at that point. It will do you no good to get irritated about this fact (or the fact that they won’t read the syllabus on their own). Just deal with it.
Oh, and let your class out on time, if not a few minutes early. New students are trying to figure out where everything is, and giving them a little extra time is kind both to them and to the instructors who have them next. One of my pet peeves is instructors who keep their kids over–making them late for my class–or continue to occupy the room right up until the start of my class (as if I don’t have anything to set up). Get a watch and start making final announcements a good two minutes before the period is over. Take long conversations with students outside or in your office.