Critical Analysis of the First Meeting with a Class

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The story is told of a trainee who observed an experienced colleague taking a class he would be teaching for the first time the next day on his teaching practice. The experienced teacher talked for a few minutes at the start of his lesson, explaining what he wished the students to do. He then said something like, ‘Right, you know what to do – off you go, then!’, with the result that the students went in an orderly fashion to collect equipment, set it up and perform the experiment. The next day the trainee mimicked the act he had seen the day before, explaining a little about what he wanted the students to do, then saying almost exactly the same phrase as his experienced mentor. The result was chaos – screaming students out of control. Why did this happen?

The answer lies in the fact that students perceive each teacher individually, being quite incapable of transferring the world created by one teacher to another. In other words, it is up to each teacher to create and perform his/her act – and they will respond accordingly. In the above account, the experienced teacher had, over time, worked with the class so that when he said the phrase, ‘Off you go, then!’, this had evolved into the signal for the students to undertake a particular set of actions agreed with the teacher in advance. The exact phrase coming from the trainee meant nothing, because he had not made such an agreement.

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As this story illustrates, the first meeting with a class is often regarded as a critical event. Experienced teachers and inductees vary in their ways of approaching this. Two contrasting episodes from the films ‘Mona Lisa Smile’ and ‘Dead Poets Society’ illustrate this point. Both these films are about educational settings, showing how a teacher impacts upon the students she/he comes into contact with.

In ‘Mona Lisa Smile’, set in 1950s’ America, the young, inexperienced teacher (played by Julia Roberts) is shown giving her first lecture to a class of clever, articulate female students at the all-women college at which she has dreamt about working. The lecturer has strong ideals and beliefs and thinks she has prepared thoroughly. Her first lecture turns out disastrously, as she has seriously underestimated her students’ prior knowledge. They treat her very badly, pouring such scorn on her efforts that she leaves the lecture room in tears. She recovers, of course, by reflecting on where she went wrong, taking the challenge of working with these girls so that in the end she is well respected.

‘Dead Poets Society’ is set in a boys’ boarding school, also in America. Robin Williams plays an experienced English teacher whose first lesson with his students takes them all by surprise. The film opens by showing the first day of term and tiny clips of the spectrum of teachers working in the school. Most follow conventional patterns of behavior, reciting tasks and giving dictation. Robin Williams’s character starts by entering through an unexpected door, whistling through the room and walking out of the other door, astonishing the students. He beckons them to join him in the hallway where he meets them for the first time in front of school memorabilia. A discussion ensues in which he is not only able to discern something about many of students, but also indicates to them what he is expecting.

If you know the films, you will also know that the outcomes for these two teachers and groups of students are very different. We simply use these as examples of meeting a class for the first time. The young lecturer in ‘Mona Lisa Smile’ suffered a major setback after her first lecture, while the English teacher’s first meeting could be said to be a success. What made the difference? On meeting new students, experienced teachers will tell you: to appear clearly in charge; have an activity ready which you know they can do; project a firm image, perhaps of mystery (but don’t overdo it); establish rules for behavior which everyone can adhere to; keep your distance and do not appear too friendly. The lecturer in ‘Mona Lisa Smile’ did not really take charge of her class, but allowed them to dominate her. In contrast, the teacher in ‘Dead Poets Society’ had the confidence to act to create surprise, placing the onus on the students to respond to him and deflecting any plans the students may have had to cause disruption. One of the authors heard of a science teacher who met new year 7 students with a special activity to create a surprise. This involved a kind of chemical ‘feely box’: a black box with various tubes coming out of it into which she poured different liquids to see what would happen. The author does not know the full details, but when a liquid was poured in, another liquid of a different color came out from another place. The students were challenged to think about this as a scientific problem they had to solve, the activity being used to introduce what, for this teacher, science was about.

The basic principles for a first encounter, then, are: to have a very well-prepared script; to have good activities that capture attention; to set expectations for behavior and to reinforce these; to set a professional stance between you and the students, communicating that you are in charge as their teacher, not their friend; to do your best to appear relaxed and in control, however nervous you may feel.

Usually, first lessons go much better than inductees expect. Students are normally very wary of new teachers, so tend to give them the benefit of the doubt until they know otherwise. This is the beginning of what is often called ‘the honeymoon period’, which can be long or short, depending on a range of factors. Therefore, in a way, it is not really the first lesson that counts for the students – they don’t know you, or what your expectations are. The point is to set these out in the first lesson and then to reinforce them in subsequent lessons, establishing a working relationship that creates a solid, peaceful and pleasant environment in which learning can occur. If and when things do go ‘wrong’, then you have to work your way back. In this situation, you will need support, encouragement and advice from colleagues. Here is a story about the experience of one of the authors, when she met the 9th grade science class for the first time in her pedagogical practice, which took place in a comprehensive school in north-west London in the 1980s: “This class had a notorious reputation in the school so perhaps unsurprisingly I felt apprehensive of taking this group for the first time. My first lesson with them was the last lesson on a Thursday in my second week in the school. Quite good experiences earlier in the day teaching for the first time had boosted my confidence. However, the lesson with this class was simply a disaster. The students ended up running around the room making huge amounts of noise and not doing at all what I had planned. I felt completely powerless to stop them and neither could I see what I had done wrong. The Head of Science, their usual teacher, watched the debacle from a discreet position at the back, where he was marking books. He commented afterwards, ‘I hope that is the worst lesson I will ever see you teach’. Towards the end of the lesson, another teacher of the class came into the room. This completed my humiliation, as the moment they saw her the students became completely silent and stood absolutely still. She spoke only a few words and they ended up sat in silence. The next day I talked this over with my tutor. I asked him how she did it. His reply was, ‘One day, you will know’”.

The story does have a happy ending. After taking advice, preparing more thoroughly and working to get to know the students, the situation changed over a period of time, such that after about six weeks the students were working quite well and by the end of the practice about three months later good control had been achieved, so the students seemed very pleasant and hard-working. Most trainees or inductees will at some time have a similar experience to that described above. To resolve this kind of situation there is no substitute for hard work. The secret is to be determined, to work with advice and above all to make science interesting and lively for the students.

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Critical Analysis of the First Meeting with a Class. (2023, March 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 15, 2024, from
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