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First Day Of School: Scared Is Scared

While I look forward to teaching every summer, I still have THOSE nightmares. The ones where I can’t find my classroom. The ones where I’m talking, but no one is paying attention. Unfortunately,I let my nightmares control my teaching for seventeen of the my last twenty-one years of teaching.

The year before I started teaching I subbed often for my best-friends’ dad. He was a nice guy, but could be a super hard-donkey at the drop of the hat. He made kids do push-ups in class. He made us do push-ups at his house. I still remember my brother crying as he tried to do enough push-ups to please our friends’ dad.



Now I understand where he was coming from. He had nine kids. He not only taught, but he coached, taught drivers education, and did anything he could to make some extra money for his family. He did not have time for messing around at school, or at home. He also taught in a “rough” school, so he met fire with bigger fire. He constantly told me:

“David, your job isn’t to be your students’ friend, it’s to be their teacher.”

Of course I ignored his advice my first year of teaching. My educational classes in my teaching credential told us all about the wonders of a democratic classroom, and group work, and magic fairy dust that turned love into results.

So while I was tough occasionally I was also pretty “chill.” That didn’t go so well my first year of teaching. So the next year I unleashed “Mr. Scary-O.” I was a complete jerk my first few days of teaching, so everyone knew who was boss, and what would happen if they stepped out of line. Here’s how my first four days usually went.

  • Day One: MC test (either practice AP, or CSU entrance test, or a vocational test) No talking. No fun.
  • Day Two: Essay (practice AP or an equally challenging topic)
  • Day Three: Interest Inventory
  • Day Four: Hand back horrible grades and let them know they were in for a tough year.
  • Day Five: Smile for the first time and start teaching and connecting. Have the students share something about themselves like a favorite object: a modified show and tell.

Word eventually got around that this was my “baptism by fire” an academic hell week, if you will, and that if you survived it, you would start to see “Chill Theriault.” You just had to get past the first few days. Of course there were consequences to this method. Kids who didn’t want to work dropped my class. I convinced myself that that was a good thing. Kids who were super nice and didn’t like mean people dropped my class. In my heart, I knew that was a bad thing, and if I heard about it I told them to hang in there, nice Theriault was around the corner.

But that was still messed up. I even got mad at one of my favorite students of all time, when, as a 10th grader, she had the nerve to talk to a classmate in the back of the room on the first day of school. I moved her desk on the spot. I can’t believe she stuck around. I’m lucky to this day she did.

So what made me change?

Well… being online and seeing so many teachers who seemed successful doing something different, helped shift my perspective for sure, but it was really my wife who sealed the deal. I was spending time with her, just talking on a warm summer evening, when she said:

“You’re not a jerk. Why do you act like a jerk on the first day of school?”

I should have said “Because I’m scared to try anything different.” I could have said “Because my nightmares control my teaching philosophy.” But instead, I did what I always do when my wife is dead right,as she often is…

I sat there in silence… I thought about her words… I took her love for me and used it as a shield against my fears, my nightmares.


It rained on our wedding: the saying is true. I’ve been lucky ever since. 

So two years ago my students did an activity that involved them listening to music, answering questions, drawing, and putting everything together on Instagram and ThingLink.

click on each image to view a larger version

It was cool, but it was pretty involved with new technology stuff and the tech kinda overshadowed the student’s thinking and responses.

Last year I had students watch a video. A really cool video and then do a Question Formulation Technique with a question focus of “Your Online Persona.” It was cool, but it still wasn’t perfect. I knew I wanted to use the video again, but I still needed to tweak the first day. And there was another problem.

For the first time since I started teaching, we started on a Thursday. Thursday… we would start with a two day week. I hated that, because I like my class to get up in front of the class and share something on that first Friday. How could I have them experience something, open their minds, do something, share that something by Friday, without having them do homework on Thursday night?

I was struggling until Amy Burvall shared a special video online. Then I sat down with my student teacher, Ryan Haley, and we went back and forth in a Google Doc until we came up with my favorite first two days ever. Here’s what we did:

Day ONE: The first day of school at Fountain Valley High School, room 130

Written on the whiteboard

  • Mr. Theriault Room 130
  • “Take out lined paper and pen”
  • Let’s be quiet together when the bell rings
  • Get ready!

Students who were early to class made sure everyone had two pieces of blank computer paper and a colored marker ready to go.

Hi. Thank you for being quiet together. Being quiet together is a special moment for me. It’s a transition between what happened before and what might happen next. It’s a space of possibilities. It’s one of the few times when a class of thirty-seven can all do the same thing at the same time. It gives us space to synchronize our hearts and minds. 

Please take your blank paper and fold it in half- hamburger style. Now rip the paper in half. Using just half of the paper please fold it so that you have six boxes… all the same size. Now fold the paper so that only three of the boxes are showing.  (I find that having students fold paper really gets them engaged. They don’t do that very often in high school and it makes them curious about what we are going to do next)

Now please draw three things you are scared of. It can be an actual object, person, animal or it can be a state of being, an event, or something else. Draw one thing per box. 

After the students are done I have the following video ready to go:



Then I tell the students that they will be “creating themselves on a piece of paper.” We will use the other full sheet of blank computer paper. Please turn the paper to landscape (sideways) before starting your drawing. 

Please draw a picture of yourself doing something. It can be you sleeping, standing, running, driving a car, driving a boat, diving in the ocean, flying a rocket ship, climbing a mountain. The key is that the picture is of YOU and you are doing something. (Take Roll while they are doing this)

While they are finishing up. Get ready to show them the second video. This is the video that Amy Burvall shared on Google+ that I just happened to see while I was thinking about my opening day lesson.


Ryan wasn’t sure how the students would respond to the video. I wasn’t sure how they would respond, but they responded exactly how we hoped they would. They loved the video. It made them laugh. It made them think. It put them in a mood. Then I said:

Now below the three boxes of things that you were scared of draw three things that you love, that make you happy, that keep you going, that you like, that would make the scared… scared. Put one in each of the boxes. (While they are doing this start having them fill out the seating chart.)

Now I want you to create a visual story with all of the drawings you created. The primary drawing will be the large drawing of yourself. Use the three fears or three things you are scared of as the villains or obstacles in your story. They can become a part of a creature, or being individuals or creatures. They can be the heads of creepy people. They can be peeking in a window or behind an object. They can be real or imagined. From the past, the future or the far beyond. If you only want to use one or two of the fears or likes because it makes a better story, you can do that. 

Then use the three things you love or care about to help you defeat the three things you are scared of or fear. You can add other drawings or design elements to your drawing as needed.

Once you are done I want you to use your original lined paper, the one where you wrote the answers to your questions to write down the short story of your drawing. (We didn’t have time to do this in some classes so they just wrote the story in their head)

Please put your name and period on your drawing and your story when you are finished. If you need to grab other colored markers to complete your drawing, you may do so. If you want to take the drawing home to add onto it, you can, or you can leave it on my desk and I’ll pass them out tomorrow. 

That should be it for the first day. They have each watched two videos that put them in the right mind-set for creating, risk-taking, and sharing themselves and their creations in my class. I need them to have this mindset. Ryan had a little more time and did a cool wrap-up talking about the fears that the students share and what it says about them and us. He’s always +1ing me.

I asked students to bring their Chromebooks on day two, we are a 1:1 district.

Day TWO: Room 130

I used this slidedeck to introduce myself to my students. I took my time. They all want to know more about me so I had their attention. Once I was done I had them go into our Canvas LMS and go to the activity for the day and then click on a link that created their own copy of that slidedeck and then I wanted them to edit it and change it by filling it out with their own information. I told them that no one would see the slides but me. They worked on this the rest of the period or worked on their day three presentation, if they weren’t done.

Day THREE: Room 130

So I had my own drawing ready to go using an Elmo projector. I know some teachers really get chaffed when teachers talking about using a digital camera arm. I think they are awesome. If you do any type of hands-on, analog activities in your class, then why wouldn’t you want a digital camera projector? Here’s my drawing:



My story was about a kid named Reggie, who instead of standing up to his mom (who wanted him to eat McDonald’s filet-of-fish for every meal, instead decided to hire the super villain Manta to kill all the fish in the ocean. Thank gosh I like pizza and so do my friends and the fishes of the ocean.

So I shared my story and told the students “Okay that was a C+ story, feel free to make your story better than that if you want an A or a B.” They gasped of course. I smiled. We smiled and then they shared their stories.

click on each image to view a larger image

What if a student wasn’t an art master? What if they didn’t go all out with their drawing? Well the purpose of the activity wasn’t to draw something well, it was to share our fears and our likes, to get to know each other better. To tell the story of ourselves and start creating the you that you know in your heart in the minds of our classmates.


I liked this activity so much that I think I’m going to do it again. And that’s the start of a much better tradition, than the tradition of Mr. Scary-o.


  1. In my defense, I was asking my best friend for a piece of paper, in order to complete the assignment Mr. Scary-O had just given us. I was mortified that in my excitement, I had forgotten paper, pens, and pencils on the first day of school. I almost cried when you made me switch seats, and every day for the next week I dreaded going to your class. The only reason I didn’t transfer out was because I had friends in the class and other people had told me about your greatness. I’m so glad I stayed! I’m also glad that Mr. Scary-O is a thing of the past-school is way better when your teacher doesn’t put you on the verge of tears, especially on the first day.

    1. I’m still sorry about that experience and I think the only way to repay you is a nice dinner, lunch, or breakfast when you come back home during Thanksgiving or Winter break.

  2. It’s very weird to step into a different class this year with a new teacher and classmates. I loved your english class and hope you have a great year with those new students! And glad to see you’re starting new traditions! 🙂

  3. Definitely the right shift into being present, authentic and attentive. This level of engagement had just the right blend of high interest, meaningful connections that learners thrive in.

    Did you engage in similar ways beyond this first day activity?

  4. David, I was excited to try your ‘Scared is scared’ idea for the first day… and have just noticed that the first video has been deleted. I am so disappointed. I’m wondering if it may be available someplace other than youtube. Do you have a name or title for it? Thank you so much. You have some wonderful things. Thank you for sharing.


  5. I really love this idea. I will be using it this year with my Health classes… I did have one question… I’m reading the section…. “Once you are done I want you to use your original lined paper, the one where you wrote the answers to your questions to write down the short story of your drawing.”… did I miss a piece where you asked them to answer their own questions? Can you help direct me? Thanks!

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