First Day, First Class: What do good teachers actually do?

Of all the practices that impact learning engagement, few could be more important than the ‘first day, first class’ signals teachers give their students about the learning culture desired in their classrooms. Yet of all the issues impacting learning engagement, no issue seems to be so lacking in empirical evidence about how effective teachers actually do this. In other words, we have not found a single well-documented and published study into the way capable teachers initiate the routines that will enable and sustain their students’ learning. The 2017 Brisbane Grammar School Project that Peter Taylor and I conducted breaks new ground in the research literature on teaching and learning by investigating how highly effective teachers establish enabling pedagogical routines with a new class of students. Here is our first set of findings from the project.

In identifying the gap in the literature, we do acknowledge that ‘first day, first class’ is a topic much commented upon within and outside the teaching profession. However, that commentary is characterised by anecdote, advice and admonition, rather than any findings from rigorous research. Moreover, the focus of that commentary is generally on the entry and exit points of formal education – early years or tertiary – rather than on the middle and secondary sectors. The trend in the early years commentary is increasingly inclusive of parents,[1] while much of the tertiary-focused commentary is directed towards assisting US-college academics (many of whom may not be trained teachers) seeking ‘buy-in’ from a new class of students.[2]

A further limitation of its ‘tips and tricks’ advocacy is that much of it targets a subset of teachers – neophyte teachers in the main[3] – whose are presumed to be underprepared, anxious beginners in need of ‘survival’ techniques. Sue Cowley’s How to survive your first year in teaching, for example, offers “to guide you right from the start of day one, lesson one, [when]… your stomach feels like lead and your mouth feels as dry as the Sahara desert”.[4]  Such levels of anxiety are not, we suggest, unique to beginning teachers, nor are they experienced by all new teachers. Our interest in this paper is how effective teachers engage their students notwithstanding their levels of anxiety or years of professional service.

It follows, if we have no substantive studies of ‘first day, first class’ teacher practice, that the ‘first day’ classroom is framed as a site for the application of disciplinary and/or experience-based knowledge, not a site for interrogating practice. Rather than drawing on studies of ‘first day practice’, how-to books and websites pull in ideas from a wide range of fields – child development, organisational psychology, behaviour management and so on – to argue their relevance for the work of the ‘first day, first class’ teacher.

Project antecedents

Getting through the classroom door has been fraught with difficulty for would-be researchers of ‘day one, class one’ teaching practice, and with good reason. If there was ever a time when teachers would want to ensure against any distraction in their classrooms, or feel most vulnerable in their practice, it would be the first time they teach a new class. It follows that it took a long and strong on-site relationship between our research team and the School to lay the basis of mutual trust on which this study is built. This relationship was enriched by school leaders with the capacity to foresee the value of the research findings within the School and beyond. Without such a special relationship and such leaderly vision, this research into ‘day one, class one’ practice could never have become a reality.

The study was underpinned by the following assumptions the authors/researchers made as both experienced teachers and long-term observers of classroom teaching in Australia and elsewhere:

  • That highly effective teachers have pedagogical repertoires that rely on well-established routines of behaviour and engagement in their classrooms;
  • That such teachers understand and/or intuit the difference between ‘good constraints’ and ‘impediments’ when they establish the routines they want students to practise routinely from lesson one, day one;
  • That while these routines are likely to be nuanced by a range of factors (year level, discipline, classroom ecology) they are crucial to building a classroom learning culture in a systematic and sustainable way.

Before conducting the in-classroom research, we anticipated that some generic practices would be identified, alongside some more idiosyncratic ‘choreographies’ specific to individuals, Year levels and disciplines. These would have implications not only for site-specific professional learning at the School but more broadly for the larger project of improving teaching practices.


In order to collect sufficient data to characterise differences and similarities, we approached the Headmaster with a list of possible teachers to invite into the study. With his recommendation of an additional list of possibilities, we emailed 18 teachers in the week before the start of classes in January 2017, of whom 17 accepted the invitation to participate.  Group and/or individual meetings were held with all teachers prior to the start of the school year, in order to address any concerns they might have regarding the process and to seek their advice on which of their classes we should observe.


The approach to data collection uses whole-of-lesson video recording.  Where possible we, as researchers, made those recordings from the back of the room. The technology is deliberately simple so as to minimise potential disruption of the actual teaching. When in the room we do not take notes – feedback from earlier use of this approach suggested that note taking was far more distracting to teachers than is video recording. The IT staff at the School were also contacted for assistance in placing cameras in particular classrooms when more than two relevant ‘first day’ classes were being conducted in the same timeslot[5].


The collaborating teachers identified classes of students with whom they were mostly unfamiliar, given the aim of the project to understand how teachers established routines with students whom they had not taught previously, and these were the classes that were then video-taped with the teachers’ and the School’s permission. We videoed/observed the participant teachers in lesson one, and for at least 3 of their following lessons with the new class over the first fortnight of the School year, where possible. This tracking schedule allowed us to investigate how these teachers communicate, initiate, reinforce and normalise the routine behaviours that drive student engagement and learning in their classrooms. These practices are conceptualised as four overlapping phases rather than being discrete stages that are completed once and for all – even ‘normalised’ routines may need later reinforcement.



We wanted to know:

  • How do effective teachers communicate their reasons for requiring particular practice(s) in their classrooms? Do they justify or explain the reasoning?
  • How do they mobilise the student behaviour at the outset? What do they do or say that initiates their students engaging in the required behaviours/practices?
  • What do they do to reinforce the new behaviours in the first few lessons?
  • What evidence is there that the new behaviours are ‘normal’ in the classroom? How long does it take when does it become evident? What factors contribute to the speed of normalisation?


At the time of writing, as we near the completion of the initial data collection phase but are yet to do the formal analysis, we are nevertheless able to reflect on some of the highly effective ways teachers work to establish and sustain the routines that will be the bedrock behaviours for them and their students – their classroom culture.


A ‘for instance’


At the start of Teacher Z’s first lesson with a Year 11 Language class, she drew the attention of students to markers she had placed on each table to indicate that the students who sat there were being expected to work as a team (of four). The teacher acknowledged that not all students would welcome a ‘team’ approach’, and then explained her reasons for insisting on it, alluding to what we now know about the relationship between improved performance and collaboration.


Once the students were grouped, they were introduced to the idea that each individual had a ‘shoulder partner’ and a ‘face partner’ with whom they would collaborate on sub-tasks as directed by the teacher. As a foursome, they would work as a mutually supportive team, each member having a specific role within the group.


The ‘formula’ for asking of questions by students once engaged in group work was presented as a formula ‘C3B4ME’ (Consult the three others in your team before you ask me a question). This ‘formula’ was reiterated as the way to elicit a response from her as teacher. This behaviour was reinforced in Lesson 2 in the teacher’s response to an individual student who raised his hand when the class was engaged in group work:


T: Is this a team question?

S: I don’t think they could answer it.

T: Have you asked them?


The student then asked the others in the team, after which all put their hands up, and the teacher engaged with their ‘team’ question. This behaviour was observed by other students who then copied it when they wanted the teacher’s help. This is an indication that class is already beginning to ‘normalise’ team-generated questioning. In other words, the teacher’s responses to individual students demonstrate her insistence that team-based discussion of questions is the means of clarifying whether they need/want to ask the teacher assistance.


Early activities undertaken by the students were grounded in a team approach. The set of tasks under the heading ‘A-B Each Teach’ involved:


  • Working as ‘shoulder pairs’ to interpret a piece of text
  • Pairs discussing their half of the text
  • Each pair explaining their findings to the other team pair
  • Whole teams write a joint 5 point summary
  • Team reporters signalling to the teacher when this was complete


The lesson ends with each student telling the teacher a newly learnt word/term/concept as they leave the room.




The study probes the precise pedagogical moves used by teachers to introduce new students to a desired classroom culture and a discipline and this is unprecedented in the research literature. What the study is already revealing at this early stage is that effective teachers plan for, and then successfully enact, pedagogical strategies that support and sustain student engagement with learning. This flies in the face of a key proposition on the Education World website that “On the first day of school, the secret to success is in the planning, not the pedagogy(our emphasis)[6]. We would argue, based on the observations to date, that ‘first day, first class success’ derives from planning for the pedagogy. Planning and pedagogy are not discrete domains of teaching but are inextricably linked. Clearly planning is crucial, but merely planning for curriculum ‘coverage’ – we will have finished Topic One by the end of Week 4 – frames the ‘how to’ of student engagement as little more than a decorative frill, “the icing on the cake [rather than]… the cake itself”,[7] and this is sub-optimal for building deep and sustained learner engagement, or effective thinking cultures.


It is not always easy for teachers to imagine that their students may not become as excited as they are by the subject they love. For many of us teachers with a passion for our disciplines, it is too easy to proceed with the presumption that elaboration of the ‘content’ will be enough to engage students. Or, if and when this fails, that frequent reminders about pending assessments will be enough to round up the outliers and non-believers.


Where to from here?


Our plan is to return to the relevant classes towards the end of Term 1 to review the status of the initial routines, and related messaging.  We also intend to interview both teachers and students to inform and review the analytic framework to be developed on the basis of the lessons recorded in weeks 1-2. The completion of the data collection phase of the study and the in-depth analysis of the wide range of strategies will, when taken together, make explicit the complex skills of effective teachers at the most formative time of the ‘effective thinking’ year.













[1] See for example Neilsen-Hewett, C. (2015). The first day of school sets the tone for academic achievement, The Conversation, 30 January, 1-3.

[2] See for example;, accessed 28 Jan, 2017;…/preparing-firstclass, accessed 30 Jan, 2017.

[3] Examples include Moran, C. (2014) Keys to the Elementary Classroom [electronic resource] : A New Teacher’s Guide to the First Month of School New York : Skyhorse Publishing.; Thompson, J. G. (2013)  The first-year teacher’s survival guide : ready-to-use strategies, tools & activities for meeting the challenges of each school day. San Francisco, CA : Jossey-Bass. Cowley, S. (2013) How to survive your first year in teaching. London, Bloomsbury.

[4] Cowley, S. (2013) How to survive your first year in teaching, Covernotes.

[5] In these instances the IT team member places the camera, starts the recording, and then leaves the room.  They return at the end of the lesson to stop the recording, and remove the camera.

[6] Education World: Planning for Your First Day at School, accessed 25 Jan, 2017.

[7] Doubet, K. & Hockett, J. (2016) The Icing or the Cake? Educational Leadership, October, p.20.

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