Making a Good First Impression

by Karen Owen & Cynthia Scott

Introduction

By now you're probably wondering how to make a positive first impression on your students.  The rapport established with students in those critical first moments together can:

  • create a learning environment that is relaxed but orderly

  • cultivate in students an excitement to learn

  • encourage confidence to participate fully in the learning experience.  

If you feel a twinge of apprehension on the first day of class, don't worry; you're not alone. Even veteran teachers experience the first-day jitters. Just remember, what you feel as nervousness will probably be perceived as energy and enthusiasm by your students. So take your nervousness and translate it into high spirits.  

Six Rules for Making a Good First Impression

Rule 1: Get To Know Your Students and Their Needs

Let your students know, from the beginning, that youíre interested in them as individuals and their progress in the class. Students tend to work harder and respond more positively if they believe the instructor is genuinely interested in their personal learning goals and success. Once your students realize that you care about them as people, you are well on your way to a rewarding class.

Create a sense of community in your class. People learn best when they are engaged and their intellectual curiosity has been sparked. Make sure that your first lesson has an exercise that gets students to talk to each other or engaged in a problem-solving activity.

Students will probably come to class with questions about you and the class content. In your opening remarks, address their concerns about prerequisites, the workload and expectations, the appropriateness of the class to their learning needs, and your abilities as a teacher.

Here are simple, effective teaching techniques that let your students know you care about them. These techniques will help you set the tone for the rest of the semester.

  • Greet the students as they enter the room. Think of yourself as the host and the students as the guests. Creating a friendly and inviting atmosphere gives you and your students a sense of belonging.

  • Take attendance. This is a prime opportunity to make eye contact, check name pronunciation, and let your students know you recognize them as individuals. Address your students by their preferred names. You will be amazed at how much difference it makes to speak to your students by name. To help yourself learn names, you can play name games as icebreakers at the beginning of class. For example, give the students a few minutes to interview the student to their left. Each student then introduces his or her colleague. Another is to have each student say his or her own name--the twist is that each student has to repeat ALL the names before theirs. Let people take notes, of course, and make it as much fun as possible. Other choices are to create name cards, seat maps or any memory prompt that will help you recall names.

  • Open your class with survey questions. Simple questions can help you gauge the students, lets them tell you something about themselves and starts to create camaraderie for the group. For example, at the beginning of a class on Web design, a teacher might ask, "How many of you can use a word processor?" or "How many of you have taken photographs before?" By reminding students of previous, relevant experience, you'll help them feel confident about learning new skills. Equally important, those few minutes of interaction at the beginning of the class helps to set a tone of mutual attention and respect.

  • Hand out and address the course syllabus. One activity is to break into groups, read the syllabus, and then have each group pose two or three questions about the course or the instructor. This can help the students get to know each other, the expectations of the class, and you.

  • Finally, personalize the class material. Once you know a little about your students, through introductions and name games, use what you know to create examples and stories that have relevance to their lives. For example, use geographic locations, occupations, hobbies or activities that might be familiar to class members.

Top Ten Icebreakers from Coach U:
http://www.topten.org/content/tt.AU20.htm

Learning to Learn - memory games and more:
http://snow.utoronto.ca/Learn2/mod3/index.html

Rule 2: Introduce Yourself and Your Material in a Positive Way

If you start off your first classroom presentation by declaring that you won't be very good, you've just shot yourself in the foot and set that expectation in your students' minds.   It is surprising how some people belittle themselves and get off to a bad start. Take a look at these videos and see if youíve ever heard these openings before.

"This is my first lecture after the New Year, ... "

(Following another speaker) "Iím not as good as MaryÖ"

(In response to a question) "I should know the answer to that, but I donít. I just got this class last week."

"I don't really know much about the subject. You probably know more about it than I do."

Letís see how these responses can be improved by simply rephrasing the statements to make a better first impression.

"Iím excited to be back with you after a long and refreshing breakÖ"

"Mary, that was an excellent presentation. Thank you. Now letís take a look atÖ"

"Thatís a really good question. Let me research that and get back to you next week."   Or "I havenít had any direct experience. Can someone in the class address this?"  Or " I was reading about that on the Internet just the other day.  Letís take the last five minutes of class and look at this together."

"This area of content is changing every day.  There is always something new to learn."

Remember, if  you donít have confidence in yourself, your students wonít either.

Rule 3: Help your Students Establish Learning Strategies

One of the true pleasures of teaching at the community college level is the diversity of experience and knowledge you will find in your classroom.  Many of your students will be adults who bring experience, motivation and diverse backgrounds to your class.  Use these and other characteristics of community college students to turn this valuable classroom asset into an opportunity to partner with your students to create a richer, more stimulating learning environment.  

Although much of our knowledge about pedagogy comes from the experience of teaching children, or of being a child ourselves in a classroom, teaching adults is a very different experience.  Andragogy, initially defined as "the art and science of helping adults learn," has now come to mean learner-focused education for people of all ages. Understanding your students' general characteristics as well as their learning styles can pave the way for a rich, multi-layered classroom experience.  

Finally, do yourself a big favor and read through The Thirty Things We Know For Sure About Adult Learning. You will probably recognize yourself and your own preferences in the list. Your students will have similar needs.  Once you have a grasp on adult learning theory, you can help your students learn more effectively by helping them grasp the scope of the class and develop their own learning strategies. Some standard techniques are:

  • Discuss the objectives of the course. Be specific about goals and topics.

  • Ask the students to write down their personal goals for taking the course. Some teachers use contracts to help students clarify and commit to their learning objectives.

  • Give your students ideas about how to study, where to find help outside of class (learning labs, tutoring, etc.), and strategies on how to approach the material.

  • Present and work though a real world problem to illustrate how the course content will be applied.

  • To help students measure their preparedness for the course, give a short pre-test.

  • Move straight into course content by giving a short assignment due the next class session. This will show that you are well organized, that you respect the studentsí time and learning goals, and that the course is worthwhile.

Rule 4: Use Technology to Address Different Learning Styles

Imagine teaching a geology class. As you describe a trip to the Chocolate Mountains in the California desert, you show a Virtual Reality image of an alluvial fan. Your students will get a rich, interactive 360-degree panorama of your trip.

Or letís say youíre teaching a language class. You can create presentations with images, printed words and clickable sound files of native speakers pronouncing the words you want your students to learn.

Adding multimedia to your classroom is easy. With a few simple and inexpensive tools you can add the visual, kinesthetic and sound elements to your classes that address multiple learning styles and bring multi-layered richness to your classroom. Ask your dean or department chair if there is a Learning Resources Lab or New Media Lab on your campus to help you create multimedia presentation materials.     You'll find examples of the media available for classroom use at:

New Media Centers Organization
http://www.newmediacenters.org/main.html

Public Broadcasting System - Adult Learning
http://www.pbs.org/als/

Rule 5: Apply the Seven PísóProper Prior Preparation Prevents Pathetically Poor Performance

Just as in Scouting, in teaching there is nothing like preparation. Here are suggestions that have proved useful for teachers in the past.

  • Visit your classroom before the first meeting to become comfortable in the environment. Check your keys and security code to ensure that they work. Check the lights, the windows, and the sound of your voice in the space. Make sure you know how to use the equipment (overhead projector, PC, SmartBoard, digital cameras, VCRs, digital microscopes, etc.) and who to ask for spare bulbs and help when things go wrong. Also, check that your handwriting can be read from the back of the room.

  • Prepare your opening remarks. Rehearse with a friend, a spouse or even in front of the mirror. Try to get into your classroom in advance and practice in front of empty seats. Hold the marker, write on the whiteboard, do whatever you will do that first day. It's good to practice in your mind, but talking out loud and holding your props will help prepare you for that first day with an audience. Some new teachers feel awkward introducing themselves and describing their credentials and experience. Donít be shy or overly modest. Your students need to know about your background, knowledge and expertise. Your experience will inspire confidence.

  • Pack up your books and supplies by following a Checklist for the First Day of Class of everything you'll need. Download the checklist and personalize it for your own needs. Some teachers use plastic filing boxes, others use rolling travel bags to cart their supplies in and out of classrooms. Another good tip is to use small plastic food containers with pop on lids to keep track of small items like pencils and pens, batteries for microphones, sticky notes etc. Many teachers carry their offices from room to roomómake it as easy and portable for yourself as you can.

  • Prepare for technological inconsistencies. For example, if you will be using Internet sites in your lecture, bring a copy of the site on a CD or on a Zip disk. If your Internet connection fails during your talk, you can access the CD to finish your presentation. This kind of protection is called ďredundancyĒ and it will save you.

Rule 6: Take Control of Your Class Through Classroom Management Techniques

    • Know campus rules and regulations before your first class. Let's say students press you about adding or dropping a class--if you know the policies you'll keep your composure even during first day confusion.

    • Write your name, the course name and number on the board. Students will feel confident that they are in the right room. Or, if they are in the wrong room they can gracefully leave.

    • Learn a few key phrases for gaining your students' attention. At the beginning of class and after break-out sessions, you'll need to bring focus back to the front of the room and it can be daunting to gain facilitative control. Some effective examples of phrases are:
                       "Let's come together now."
                       "Can I have your attention up here now."
                       "Thank you, now let's move on."

    • Take a few minutes to review campus and class policies with your students regarding academic honesty, use of the Internet and technology, breaks, where the bathrooms are, food and drink policies in the classroom, turning cell phones and pagers to vibrate, etc.

    • Review safety precautions and emergency procedures. Let students know what to do during earthquake, fire, evacuations and other emergencies. Make note of exits. Inform students to stay together and move quickly and quietly to the campus emergency assembly areas. Be sure to take your roll book. Each campus will have a set of procedures to follow in emergencies. Be sure you are thoroughly familiar with your responsibilities during an emergency.

Remember to use these strategies and you'll help develop a good rapport with your students and make a positive impression on that all-important first day of class.