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New academic year – The first lesson (part 1)

As the start of the new academic year approaches, there seem to be more and more talk on Twitter about what the first lesson should look like. My feed is busy with posts from many newly qualified teachers asking for advice and tips on introduction lessons, the best start and practice with new classes. In response to these tweets more experienced teachers keen to help are providing advice and ideas in abundance. 

I think it is important to remember that starting with new classes is not just something which concerns teachers new to the profession. A clear start and effective routines from the onset which ensure a calm and studious environment where learning can happen, are the key for all of us. However, being able to see how this is done by experienced teachers could be powerful for ECTs. 

Many of us, over the years in the profession go through a transformation. Thinking about my NQT year and my very first lessons, I have to admit – they definitely were not brilliant! I was too relaxed, keen to make sure that my students liked me, so often let them make decisions thinking that by me being ‘nice’ they will be ‘nice’ too and follow my instructions and they will be all engaged and learning. 

In hindsight, I was really rather naïve and getting the control back was an uphill struggle! 

On one of these days in my early teaching years, after a dreadful year 9 class, I was sitting in the staffroom and was feeling really deflated and out of ideas as what to do! The days I had this class, were the days when my stomach would cramp and it felt like the lesson lasted forever. Even after I had one of our AHT that I got on really well on my request sitting at the back of my classroom for 2 weeks so I could break the cycle and teach (as you can guess, whilst he was there the lessons were fine, I was praised how engaging they were and told there wasn’t anything wrong  with my teaching) there was only a small improvement when I was left with the class on my own again!

I was also very lucky to have a teacher in our department who was humble and extremely respected by all students even the most ‘tough’ and challenging ones (I was teaching in a state comprehensive school in a deprived area with many disadvantaged students). When it came to classroom management, she was the one everybody always recommended to go and see teach. She was an older teacher, very calm, you never heard her shout, but if she was walking in the busy corridor, students would make a way for her – she had the ‘it’ factor, so I approached her and asked if I could come and see her teach my challenging year 9 class French…

In retrospect, what I observed whilst watching her teach, is what we now call evidence-informed practice of high expectations and routines, something that during my teacher training we were not taught explicitly and I never really thought about in depth. Over my first year we had many discussions about teaching  and from her I have learnt how important it is to get it ‘right’ from the very first lesson. This was not instant and took a few years of refining and tweaking. I am hoping that this post will help and provide some ideas to you, if you are nervous and anxious about starting with new classes.

I will split this post into 2 parts. 

In the first part, I will talk about how I structure ‘my’ first lesson. It is my personal belief, that even as an experienced teacher having a strong start from the very first encounter with a new class is absolutely crucial.

In the second part, I will talk about strong routines and expectations. In my experience as an ITE mentor who regularly has Associate teachers and at the moment also has an ECT, strong and well established routines can make or break lessons. 

These are my reflections and tips that have been working well for me and in my school context. We teach in variety of schools, so school specific context and policies are necessary to bear in mind and apply as appropriate.

What does my first lesson look like …

First of all, I use my class lists to create my seating plans (my desks are in the rows with clear pathways so I can move around the classroom efficiently), for this I check the SEND register/IEPs to see whether there are any students that will need to be seated in specific place i.e at front of the class due to their specific needs. If I am aware of any students with challenging behaviour, I speak to their key workers, read their support plans and allocate their seats strategically. I prefer to have them seated close to me at the front of the classroom, so I can track them easily with the most challenging character close to the door for an easy exit in case the student needs to be removed from the lesson. This minimises any ‘drama’ that could disrupt the teaching and learning process. I also like to have a boy and a girl sitting together, but this is just my preference. My students know that the seating plan is not fixed and students can be moved when necessary based on the teacher’s decision. I print off my seating plans and keep them on my desk (this is important if you need to set a cover lesson, so the colleague covering for you knows where students sit).

Before I meet my students, I place new exercise books and any hand-outs such as classroom expectations (key 5), KO, phonics sheet and work booklets with Sentence Builders (SB) on each desk. Normally, for every lesson there would also be MWBs and marker pens on the desk. I explicitly model what I want students to write at the front of their exercise book by drawing and writing it on the board as well as where I want them to glue in the hand-outs.

Due to Covid all students were expected to have all their equipment. Last year my students were well organised bringing it to school, so this will be my expectations for this year too. 

Just as the bell is about to ring, I meet the class outside the classroom and have them line up in silence. I explain how I expect them to line up, that lateness won’t be tolerated, their uniform needs to be spot on (shirts tucked in, ties pushed up, no hoodies etc.) then I greet all of my students and they greet me back in target language (TL) and enter my classroom in silence. If they are talking, I send them out to line up again (I have never had to attempt it 3 times). I don’t accept a ‘weak’ greeting or no eye contact (caveat: be aware of any students with SEND/autism who might not be able to make an eye contact and adapt appropriately/know your students). This provides a great opportunity to demonstrate to your class that you are in charge and you expect your instructions to be followed explicitly. 

On the first day, I ask students to line up at the back of the classroom, so I can allocate them their seat. I then read out students’ names and point them to their seat. At this point I ask my students to remain standing behind the chairs and once all seats are allocated, I model how we will greet each other every lesson in TL. Once I have asked them to sit down (in TL), they can sit down and follow the instructions on the board (time limit is given) – in consecutive lessons, students would then write the date, title and start their retrieval task without me needing to instruct them, so I can take the register. 

When taking the register for the first time, I make a note on my seating plan of what each student would like to be called in my class and ensure that I have pronounced their name correctly. This might be a small thing, but it helps to build relationships, shows that we care about our students and that we respect them as individuals.

Once the time is up and students sorted out their exercise books, I direct them to put ‘pens down and eyes on me’ (we will use this in TL) and explain that this phrase means stop what you are doing (hands are empty, no talking, looking at the teacher).

I then introduce myself again, explain my expectations, share with students what we are going to learn today, ‘unfreeze’ my board so it shows the title of the lesson, date and a ‘retrieval’ task and off we go.

For the first lesson, I use a quiz on last year’s work. I make sure everybody can have a go – asking questions that are less difficult but also some more challenging ones as well. If learners can’t complete some of them, I emphasise with  them that forgetting is normal during the learning process. The natural cause of action is then to reteach the concept students struggled with (this is a good teaching practice generally and is not just specific for the first lesson only), this would be the case for all my lessons. I believe it is important to talk to our students about how we learn, so I use this lesson to talk to them about metacognition and about how we learn. 

If I have new year 7 class who have not studied the language yet, my quiz would have questions about the countries where it is spoken, but also some linguistic questions such as examples of cognates to see whether students can work out the meanings.

Whilst students are working, I am tracking them and circulating the classroom, checking they are on task, discretely correcting any off task behaviour and supporting anyone who needs it. I show my students from onset that I am the person in charge of the classroom ensuring they have calm, studious environment where teaching and learning can take place, that I care about them as individuals and about their education.

I am afraid, I do not waste time with a game or on ‘ an ice-breaker’ activity and neither do I waste time on students blindly copying lists of rules in their best handwriting. I am not ‘Coco the Friendly Teacher’ as mentioned in Tom Bennett’s Not quite a teacher (if you are an ECT, I would definitely recommend this book). 👇

‘If you meet a new class and you give them any indication whatsoever that you’re Coco the Friendly Teacher, then they will mug you like a drunk in Soho. I mean it. Even the nice kids like a bit of sport.’

I am warm and strict. Most importantly, I am the one who ‘runs the room’. (Tom Bennett, Running the room)

 More on routines and expectations in part 2.



Nov 28, 2023

Thank you so much for publishing this. Fantastic read. I'll be incorporating your advice into my lessons next week! I'm going into my second year at the same school. Do you have any advice about teaching the same class, but setting up a more a more "tightly run classroom" in comparison to the previous year? Will the students "see through" the newly gained assertiveness?

Replying to

I see every new academic year as a new start and from my experience most students too, so if you want to adjust your expectations, I would say it is the best time to do. I believe in consistency, so what ever you expect them to do / what ever the behaviour needs to be like, you need to insist on it and be consistent. Good luck!💪


Nov 28, 2023

Thank you, this is very useful. I was an NQT last year but feel apprehensive about September again. This post was very clear and reminded me of the need to be firm yet fair. I look forward to reading Part 2.


Nov 28, 2023

Thank you! This was something worrying me since we broke up in July. My first year as an NQT was "intense"in what regards behaviour management and I know I need to get this right from day one this year. This was extremely helpful and I can't wait for part II.

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