The First Day of Class

As you are preparing your course materials, it is important to think about what kind of environment you want to begin creating on the first day of class. How do you plan to introduce yourself? What do you want the students to start thinking about, in terms of the course material? What expectations will you set? How do you want them to engage with you, and with each other? Building rapport and thinking about classroom contracts are important considerations for inclusive teaching as you lay the foundation for a great term.

Building Rapport

Building rapport and creating a positive learning environment is one of the most crucial elements of your success as a teacher.

If students know you and believe that you care about their learning, they are more likely to forgive you for any missteps.  Getting to know your students also enhances your ability to create a successful learning environment. In the process of getting to know them, you are communicating that you care about them and their success. Additionally, knowing about their backgrounds and interests allows you to tailor your approach. For example, if you find there is a great discrepancy among the class in background knowledge, you may be able to arrange students into groups to help each other. If you know your students’ interests and backgrounds, you’ll be better able to choose examples that resonate with them.

Remember, there are so many ways for students to access content. They can read, watch a video, go to a museum. So, why is it that they should come to your class to learn? What is it that you are offering that is essential to their learning and growing in your field? To start, you need to create a positive environment. How do you do that?

First, introduce yourself. What is your background? What are your credentials? What do you find genuinely interesting about the course, and what are some of your other interests? The more students are able to connect with you, the easier your job will be. Similarly, the more you know about them, the better. So, get to know your students. Ask your students to share with you why they are taking the course and what they hope to get out of it. Find out what their previous experience with the subject is. Learn their names. Encourage office hours by making one visit mandatory in the first month. Knowing more about your students will make it easier for you to teach them. Remember that you may be nervous as a teacher, but the students may also be nervous about a new class, new teacher, and potentially very new material. Breaking the tension right away can help to put everyone at ease.

Build rapport among the group.  Give your students opportunities to work with each other. Ask them to move around and work with different partners throughout a session. This is especially important for discussion classes, or sessions that require a lot of participation. Be sure to start with icebreakers to get things comfortable. It can be as simple as having students introduce themselves to a partner and then introduce their partner to the larger group.

Classroom Contracts

How do you set expectations in the classroom? Communicating them well helps to build rapport and set the tone for the class. It is also one of the most inclusive moves that you can make as a teacher.

First, think about what students really need to know to understand how to be successful in your course. Convey your expectations and the expectations of the course as a whole, by addressing questions like these:

  • What approach does the course take to the subject?
  • What kind of preparation is expected?
  • In what ways will students be expected to participate?
  • How can they best listen to and speak with each other and with you?
  • How much time and effort will the course require?
  • How will their work be graded?

When you hold up your side of what you promise, students are more likely to respect you as well as to do their best work for your course.

Much of setting expectations is about being explicit. Be careful not to assume that your approach is obvious to everyone. Provide a rationale for what you are doing. As much as possible, students should understand the goals of specific activities and parts of your course. You can state goals explicitly or debrief afterwards. Why did we just do that activity? What did we learn? Ways of settling expectations can be thought of as a classroom contract. Every classroom has contracts in place – some are explicit and some are implicit. Think about how much of what you are expecting of students has been explicitly stated, and how much may be implied.

Explicit contracts are usually found in the syllabus: what the course is about, what has to be read by when, what and when papers or exams are due, what the grading criteria are.

But there are also many implicit contracts at work: who gets to speak, for how long, how do they get to speak, who sets the agenda, and what kind of learning is expected, and how is success measured. Some of these implicit contracts are also based on the norms of your discipline. As much as you can make these sometimes "hidden" features of a class explicit, it can help the students be more successful. You can’t expect someone to do well at a game if they don’t know the rules. The way the teacher behaves is part of the implicit contract as well; teachers should be models of what they hope to see. Students coming into a class are all trying to figure out and understand both the explicit and the implicit contracts. If teachers think carefully about it in advance, we can be more open about what we are looking for in classroom dynamics and expectations, and work to make the implicit more explicit.