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The First Day

by Sarah Hruska-Olson Olson.Sarah@MacPhail.org

As the ECM department at MacPhail prepares for the start of Fall Semester, I remember how excited and nervous I was to teach my very first Early Childhood Music class at MacPhail in the fall of 1997. I was so preoccupied that I left my garage door up when I left the house! My bicycle was taken from the hooks my husband had carefully installed in our garage only a few days before.

I never saw that bicycle again, but I have learned a few ways to set myself up for success on the first day of class. This year, I also decided to interview some ECM colleagues on their best tips for a creating a successful first day for each of their group teaching situations.

Give yourself and your students time

One of the easiest ways to cut back on stress for yourself and your students is to give yourself extra time to arrive at your teaching site and prepare your space (If you are coming from another teaching engagement with limited travel time, make sure you have scoped out the traffic and parking situation in advance). Cheryl Henningsgaard comments, "I try to make sure my classroom is warm and inviting. I arrive early to prepare my classroom environment by setting out interesting materials for children to immediately manipulate and enjoy as they come in!" 

Cheryl opens her classroom door several minutes before the class starts so families can arrive, get settled and start class on time. Cheryl firmly believes that these extra minutes set the stage for successful, joyful learning. The materials Cheryl sets out before class are simple and she changes them frequently from week to week to maintain novelty and interest. She is able to quickly put the materials away when everyone is settled and the class begins. By the beginning of the "Hello" song, families are welcomed, engaged, and ready to begin!

Amanda Underwood notices that late arrivals are common for her Musical World class students. Although we encourage families to arrive on time, many parents are juggling work schedules, multiple activities with siblings, and other unavoidable time conflicts. To make each child feel welcome as he or she comes in, Amanda often uses an open ended question or an easy improvisational game to give each child a chance to share ideas individually as he or she arrives.

Welcome parents as much as the children

“I need the parents to want to be there and to have fun,” explains Amanda Breininger. “I get parents excited to be children’s mentors.” During her welcoming speech to parents, Amanda highlights the social and musical goals of the course and explains that the class will be fun and purposeful. She tells caregivers, “Grownups are the M.V.P.’s in this room. You are the most important person to your child.” Amanda says she models joyfulness to parents by “leaving bad days at the door.” Like Cheryl, Amanda opens the door early and welcomes families individually as they arrive. 

Aric Bieganek also opens the door early for Musical Trolley and Musical World, classes where the parents drop off their children for class. “Be inviting from the first minute,” he says. Aric often likes to have recorded music from the class curriculum playing to give parents a feel for the day’s lesson.

By allowing families time to get settled, he eases the separation process. Aric often uses a song like “Dr. Riley” as a transition for parents to leave the room. Sandy Waterman often opens the classroom door a few minutes before class is over so that parents can watch their children explore the week’s instruments or finish their art projects. “Don’t rush them out the door,” Aric suggests. “We tend to forget the importance of the end of class. Things get a little more conversational and a deeper connection is made with the parents.”

Have a system for learning names

Even if you learn names easily, consider making nametags to help caregivers learn children’s names and one another’s names. I often like to take a name “quiz” on the first day by having children find new spots in the circle while I cover my eyes. I have them carefully cover up their nametags while I go around the circle to see if I can remember each name. Children enjoy this playful activity and parents appreciate the teacher’s efforts to remember each child as an individual.

Former ECM director, Linda Lysdahl taught me to save the door roster with children’s names on it and to add the parents or caregivers names next to the name of each child. Be sure to ask each caregiver what he or she would like to be called. Post the parent/child directory in the room to help parents remember one another’s names throughout the class. Finally, don’t forget to remind everyone of your name and to give them your MacPhail business card with your contact information!  Parents sometimes will forget the teacher’s name and become embarrassed to ask.

Create a community and establish routines

One very important tool for building community is the circle seating formation. Although I sit on the floor and encourage parents to join me as they are able, I also make sure to provide chairs for anyone who needs them. The circle seating allows everyone to see one another and to feel like a part of the group. Cheryl comments that many people come to MacPhail with their children not realizing that their neighbors are in the class!

Other parents may need more help from the teacher initially to interact with one another. I always ask the parents to learn the name of one adult before leaving on the first day. This simple direction usually leads to further conversation among adults. Cheryl explains, “Parents communicate with each other, which models communication to children.

The greeting song is another very important tool to establish a sense of routine and to quickly get everyone involved. Most teachers use the greeting song as the goodbye song at the end of class so that the ending of the class mirrors the beginning. Although every ECM class is filled with opportunities for exploration and new musical ideas, it is helpful to have a routine to help families transition in and out of class. The last ten minutes of class before the goodbye song are a great time to practice new musical skills or explore instruments and other materials.

As Dianna Babcock loves to remind people, songs make the perfect transition tools. Singing directions can ease children and parents into the next activity and establish a sense of routine. In parent/child classes, I mention a few safety rules to keep in mind. In child independent classes, the teacher can establish a quiet signal and teach the children a few simple classroom rules and boundaries.

If something goes wrong, don’t panic!

Children are often anxious on the first day of class and their parents may be worried too. Reassure parents that there are children have many different responses to their first music class and that there is no one “normal” way to participate in class. In Musical Trolley and Musical World, it is normal for some children to cry during separation.

Most children calm down quickly as they become engaged in the music, but we can offer to have an assistant go and get the parent if a child continues to feel upset. If the parent chooses not to leave, we should respect that decision and work with the parent on a plan toward successful separation in the classes to come. Finally, don’t be afraid to communicate with the ECM director, Dianna Babcock, if a parent or child seems unhappy with the first class. If the parent contacts her, she will then have detailed information from you to work with.

After talking to my ECM colleagues, I am more excited than ever to get started with our first week. Of classes.  We’ll have a jolly time!     

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