Starting Off Strong: The First Day of School

By Justin Lim on August 9, 2009
  • Grades: 9–12

Veteran teachers know that the first few days of school are critical, so here are a few strategies that I use to set my class up for success!

1. Set the Tone


Veteran teachers know that the first few days of school are critical, so here are a few strategies that I use to set my class up for success!

1. Set the Tone

For most of our students, the classroom is the only professional environment that they're exposed to. Because of this, some of my strategies may seem rigid, but remember that the first few days set the tone for the entire year. Also, it’s easy to start out firm and relax later, according to the classroom dynamic.

•    Wear professional attire — Taking extra care to dress up during the first few weeks of school will give you an edge when you’re explaining rules and procedures. It sends a message of confidence and authority. For those who like to dress more casually to relate to the kids, remember that it’s always easier to get more relaxed as the year progresses than the other way around.

•    Create order from the very beginning — On my very first day teaching, I took over a class midway through the year that had a reputation for unruliness. Instead of allowing students to straddle into class and carry on conversations until the bell, I asked them to wait outside. As soon as the bell rang I opened the door, greeted them with a smile and explained how I wanted them to enter the class. Students came in, found their numbered mailboxes and sat in newly assigned seats. At the end of the year they told me that it felt like a new first day of school. They mentioned that they could just feel that the class was going to be organized.

•    Prepare seamless transitions — Have student contracts and handouts already placed on desks, but have them turned over and ask students not to review them until you say to. Make sure that rules and procedures are already posted so that you don’t have to write them on the board as you go over them. Most teachers know that long transitions result in side conversations - something that you don't want on the first day.

•    Explain the reasoning behind your rules — Many teachers tell students what the rules are without explaining how they apply outside of school. Go into depth about what would happen to an employee who is constantly late for work or who disrespects others. Students need to know that we give them rules not because we hate them, but because we care about them. Create a sense of “we're in this together” and let them know that like good parents, you're firm because you care.

2. Create Routines Immediately

Educational experts estimate that new classes take roughly a week to internalize routines and procedures in the beginning of the year, but up to three weeks in the middle of the year. Focus on teaching students how your class works before teaching them content.

•    Teach your procedures — Good teachers differentiate and assess for understanding of content right? Then why don’t we do the same thing for foundational classroom procedures? In my Read 180 classroom, students rotate in three separate groups. When I first teach them how to rotate, we actually practice as a class until it can be done quickly and seamlessly. It may seem childish, but at least a few students always forget what to do or end up forgetting to bring the correct materials. By practicing and internalizing the routines immediately, it helps me to focus on content rather than management during the rest of the year.

•    Have a daily routine posted — A good class should be able to get started with minimal or no instruction from the teacher. For instance, after a week my goal is to have students come in, get their materials and begin working on their own. I’ve actually had substitutes tell me that the class runs itself. It’s not because I’ve always had perfectly behaved students (far from it), but rather because they always knew what the regular routine was.


•    Make a student friendly whiteboard — Use electric tape to section off portions of your whiteboard for dedicated purposes. That way, students always know where to look to see the daily learning goal, homework, agenda and important notes.

Lastly, be ready to learn and adapt. No two classes are alike, so be ready to try out new procedures and get rid of ones that don’t work. What worked last year might not this year and what didn’t work before might be your key to success.

There’s so much to talk about that can't hope to fit it all in a single post, but hopefully you’ve found some of these tips helpful! Comments and feedback are welcome, so please share your thoughts so that we can all grow as educators!

Warmest regards,

Justin Lim

Rosemead High School

El Monte Union High School District


Loved the idea of sectioning off the board with tape. I am going to use that idea this year. I present my classroom commandments each year. I teachat a Christian school, so it helps set a Christian atmosphere. Thanks for all of the suggestions.

I loved your ideas. My only change, and I used this in 2nd grade, 4th grade, and now middle school, is I let the KIDS come up with the rules. They brainstorm important rules independently, then they meet with small groups to choose the most important, condense the rules, and change negatives to positives. (Don't talk back, Don't push or shove, Don't take someone's pencil--"Treat EVERYONE with respect.") As a whole group, I then take their suggestions and write them at the board, further condensing and making positive, as necessary, and discussing why each should be kept or eliminated. I lead them toward the 5 or so that are the most important (I have a list in mind beforehand.) and that becomes the class rules. In middle school, I tell them I will combine each class's lists to create one great list. This way, the students "own" the rules, and know the reasons for them.

Hi Justin, I also learned a lot from the 5 years that I taught Read 180, especially that routines are so important. Last year, I actually made my routines into a book with my students with severe behavior problems. We started with getting off the bus and then continued until they got back on the bus. No part of the day was deemed insignificant. We wrote what each behavior should look like and sound like --with student input for the final product. Then, we had the booklet already done for new students. We did modify during the year as the need arose, and I plan to do the same thing this year --going to a new school with student who exhibit the most severe behavior in the district.

Hi Justin,

It's reaffirming to see that teachers of the higher grades continue to set the level of expectations in their classroom. Thank you for yur tips!


It doesn't matter what grade you teach...establishing a routine is key to good clasroom management. Thanks for sharing!

[Edit: Response]

Hi Amy!

I couldn't agree with you more!

Warm regards,


Hi Justin,

It looks like setting the tone is important at all grade levels. We spend a lot of time in September establishing class routines and setting the tone.

Hope you have a super school year.

Best, Jeremy


Thanks Jeremy!

I hope that you have an awesome year too!

Warm regards,


Hi Justin,

Really appreciate all the practical tips including: greeting everyone outside, modeling your own reading process & establishing expectations.

You have a lot to offer - so glad you are in this position for the school year.

Thanks so much.

You inspired me with your video Justin! I am a first year English teacher with two questions for you. 1) Exactly how did you put together the idea for getting your students to read more via the classroom library you mentioned in the video? I'd like to do the same with my class. 2) Will you share with me the plan you used to pull all the elements together? Thank you! Doug

[EDIT: Response]

Hi Doug,

Thanks for the encouraging words!

Here are some things to consider when motivating students to read:

Research indicates that when students read on their own, if the text is too easy or too difficult reading comprehension growth suffers greatly. It's KEY that you assess the reading levels of your students when planning a reading program. Also, students are much more likely to want to read texts that they choose (no surprise here). Thus, the best way to get students to cultivate a love for reading is to have a classroom library with high-interests texts at various difficulty levels.

I actually don't have a world map theme when I have students do independent reading (maybe you're thinking of another one of the mentor teachers?), however I have found a lot of success with the following method:

1) I assess what reading level my students are at. I use the SRI (Scholastic Reading Inventory) to assess the reading lexile that my students are at. I give them the assessment at the beginning, middle, and end of the year. If you don't have access to this then you can adapt using whatever reading assessment your school site uses.

2) I assign levels to my students based on their lexile score.

3) I sent my TAs and some of my students to the school book depository and had them get a whole bunch of books that they thought would be interesting. Then I had my TAs look up the books using this site:

4) I had them divide up the books into 4 levels: Level 1 below 500. Level 2 500-700. Level 3 700-850. Level 4 850 and up. If they couldn't find the book I had them remove it.

5) Students are allowed to choose their own books and they are assigned nightly reading. I only assign 5 pages, but most of the students end up reading more.

6) I have an incentive chart on the wall that I use to record reading. I award stamps according to the length and difficulty of the book. The minimum amount of stamps that I give is 3, even if the book is really short. Take a look here: for a better explanation of the incentive chart.

7) I have a small "special library" that I keep behind my desk (about 40-50 books). I use this to personally recommend books to students who are having difficulty finding books that they like. For some reason the exclusivity of "Mr. Lim's special library" seems to get kids going (I know right?). I'm constantly getting kids asking if I can help them choose a book from behind my desk (I don't accomodate them all because it takes too much time).

8) Lastly, I share with my students about books that I've read. Sometimes I'll read interesting portions from books in the library or sometimes I just talk about a book that I'm reading. Of course, I emphasize things that I like about the particular book. If we have silent reading time in class, I'll actually sit on my stool (I try not to sit behind my desk) and read a book, just to model. I smile and make facial gestures when I do so.... yes... I know... but it works... If I'm not doing this, then I'll patrol and ask students about their books.

Setting up the system is tough (it's an ongoing process), but it pays off. My students read A LOT. Also, keep in mind that these are mostly students who are reading at least 2 grade levels below their peers. Almost all of my kids end up reading more books during the year than ever before. I've had students finish 10-15 novels (this is all on their own time). Even if you have to slowly set up your system through the year it's worth it for later on. I'm actually right now trying to think of a system of student book recommendations. It's always a process.

Hope that this helps!

Warmest regards,

Justin Lim

Great post, Justin! Starting the year off on the right foot is certainly essential to having a productive year. High schoolers have to develop the study skills and professionalism that will prepare them for success in college. A great tool that can promote organization, while broadening technological skill sets, is Office Live Workspace. Your students can create, save and share 5GB online for free. It's excellent for collaborative learning as well as task management. Check out how students use it at

Cheers, Kate MSFT Office Live Outreach Team

Hi Justin,

These are such practical and great tips. I instantly see how following these guidelines would set a teacher -- and class -- up for success. Boy, I wish I had access to your experience when I started out in the classroom.

Best, Amy

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