“The First Days Of School” – Book Review

July 12, 2016

If you’re a teacher, your own first days of school experience probably mirrors my own. Almost every teacher I know has some story to share about their struggles as a first year teacher. I remember being a fresh faced teacher straight out of my teaching credential program. Just a few months prior, I had accepted my first teaching position at a local charter school as a 7th and 8th grade math teacher and I couldn’t be more excited. It was new. It was exhilarating. It was my dream come true.

Fast forward a few months and my dream had become my nightmare.

My students were constantly talking out of turn. Math lessons were routinely interrupted by requests to go to the bathroom. Groups of students had started huddling together in different corners during the class period to do everything EXCEPT the assigned classwork. I was a tired pathetic mess at the end of every single school day, wondering if I was going to make it through the school year.

Why You Should Read Harry Wong’s The First Days of School

Unlike a lot of people that I have talked to regarding this book, I was not referred to this book by another person. I came across this book out of desperation because when I literally googled “classroom management book” at the height of my desperation as a struggling first year teacher, it happened to be one of the top results on Google.1 My experience in the real world has been largely similar because I have yet to come across a veteran teacher who has not heard about this book in some way shape or form. I mention this because enough people have read and reviewed this book to merit its usefulness as a highly regarded resource especially if you’re finding the teaching profession to be quite a bit more challenging than initially expected. With that said, let me start off by saying that this book is not the end-all-be-all solution to your problems as a first year teacher. As I will mention later, this book has certain limitations so take everything I’m about to say with a grain of salt.

What is this book about?

This book has quite the following so I won’t go into detail here what this book is about; there are plenty of other sites that provide a much better synopsis than I ever could. However, what I will say is that having read through quite a few books on classroom management myself over the years, “The First Days Of School” continues to be the one I refer to the most and recommend to other first year teachers on a consistent basis for one simple reason: It’s practical. This book doesn’t dwell on an emotional message encouraging you to connect with your students or establishing a good relationship with them. Instead, the book focuses on the little nitty gritty practical details to get your class running smoothly on day one. For example, in my first year as a teacher, I started the school year with an interesting opening activity. My motivation was to: 1) try to win some cool-teacher points and have a fun activity to start off the school year, and 2) give myself a buffer day to learn names and try to start figuring out the “lay of the land” in terms of which students were the quiet ones, which students were the studious ones, or which were the ones I should keep an eye out for in terms of behavior. I was surprised to learn that the Wong’s had a completely different idea of what should be happening on the first day, opting instead to recommend activities that establish classroom management procedures: procedures like how to enter the classroom, how to pass in school work, how to exit class, etc. Considering how chaotic my first year was and how much better my second year was, I’d have to agree with the wisdom of the Wong’s on this point.

Counterpoint

The common complaint about this book is that it is mostly for primary grade teachers and that it doesn’t really work at the Middle and High school levels. For example, at the primary grade level, there are recommended entry routines such as lining up before class that just won’t fly in a high school setting. While I do agree that some of the practical tips can be more effective at the primary grade levels than in, let’s say, a High School AP Calculus class, the principles that the Wong’s wrote this book around are timeless and I have found they worked just as well in every class that I’ve used them in. Also, let’s face it, there’s just no way a single book is going to be the solution to all of your teaching problems across the whole k-12 education spectrum. However, if you are able to absorb the underlying spirit of the book (which is to set expectations, follow up & stay consistent, and make things super clear for your students), it’s just good solid advice that will work in whatever setting you’re in.

If you end up picking up this book (or even have it already) here are a couple tips & recommendations about how to use this book in your own first days of school.

  • If you’re a first year teacher, read this BEFORE you start the year. To be completely honest, if you’re a first year teacher and reading this, chances are you’re going to have a tough time regardless, but trying to change course and re-establish new routines & expectations in the middle of the year is an uphill battle in an already tough situation. However, if you can absolutely avoid it, be firm from day one, establish good routines and be consistent in following up with those routines. It will pay dividends later on in the school year.
  • Use this book as inspiration, and NOT as a prescriptive solution to your teacher problems. Again, this book is not an end-all-be-all solution to your woes in the classroom. Read it, be inspired, take what you need, throw out what you don’t, adapt it to your classroom and keep moving forward.
  • Be open minded. Chances are, if you’re reading this book, it’s because you’re at your wits end already and looking for advice like a drowning person is looking for a life raft. But even if you’re not, keep an open mind and try some of the practical pieces of advice in here. Even if you’re teaching an AP Calc class in high school, establishing solid routines and setting up a bullet proof classroom management system will make your life a million times easier and allow you focus all your time on teaching and inspiring your students.
  • Buy a used copy. Unless you’re the type A, “I like clean new books”, treat this like your college textbook: look for a used one. If you look hard enough, you can usually find a copy for less than a dollar. And besides, you really don’t need a new one with a CD-ROM especially since you probably don’t own a machine that can read those things anymore anyway 😛

Who should buy this?

  • First year teachers
  • Veteran teachers who need a little inspiration to develop their craft

Buy Rating: Strong Recommend


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Hi, I’m Matt. I’m a High School Math Teacher, Husband, Father of 2, lover of all things Pizza. I’m a big believer in incorporating technology into as many of my lessons as possible. Need to get in touch? You should contact me on Twitter @mathmattics or on my blog.

  1. As of this writing, it sits at the #1 spot which is quite impressive for you SEO geeks out there!