Harry K. & Rosemary T. Wong’s “The First Days of School”

I love this book. I think you should buy it.

I picked it up after reading recommendations on several blogs, and it arrived at a very good time (even if it’s no longer the first days of school.) True, the strategies are mostly directed at elementary school teachers (I don’t have a classroom to set up effectively, although I really wish I did; some days I might fantasize about making posters with detailed procedures like “Remove your coat. Empty your bag. Sit at your desk,” but they probably wouldn’t go over well with my 18-year-old students.) Nevertheless, this book is full of basic, concrete principles that will make any teacher think more carefully about their classroom, their processes, and their career.

I read this (substantial) book cover-to-cover in a single night. My favorite discovery was in the first chapter, when the Wongs describe the four stages any teacher goes through in their career:

1. Fantasy:

…neophyte teachers…believe that to be a successful teacher, all they need to do is relate and be a friend to their students. They also believe that teaching means doing activities, especially fun activities. …

2. Survival:

Teachers are in survival when they rely on ineffective practices just to make it through the day. To them, teaching is a job, and they do it for the paycheck and vacation benefits. … They exhibit no accountability: “I teach the stuff; if they don’t want to learn it, it’s not my fault.”

3. Mastery:

Teachers who know how to achieve student success employ effective practices. These teachers know how to manage their classroom, they teach for mastery, and they have high expectations for their students. …[They read] professionally and [go] to professional meetings. They…exhibit accountability: “If the students are not learning, I need to find another way…”

4. Impact:

Effective teachers make a difference in the lives of their students. These are the teachers whom students come back years later to thank for affecting their lives. To make an impact on your students, you need to use effective teaching practices…When you reach this stage, you have gone beyond mastery: you have arrived as a teacher. When you reach the impact stage, you will return to the fantasy stage…” (6)

The Wongs assert that all teachers pass through the survival stage, but, ideally, we pass through it as quickly as possible in order to get to the mastery stage, the stage where we actively learn, grow and blossom as teachers.

I somehow managed to spend fifteen years in the fantasy stage. It wasn’t that things never went wrong, or that I never had a class that made me miserable, but the problems were so outweighed by the charge (read: ego trip) I got out of being in the classroom that I saw them as aberrations, not symptoms of anything that needed to change. I was what the Wongs call an “unintentionally inviting” teacher:

This is the level of the “natural born teacher.” Such teachers are generally well liked and effective but are unaware of why they are effective: they do not have a consistent philosophy of education. When something does not work in the classroom, they are unable to analyze what went wrong. They are usually affable, and this characteristic often hides the fact that their students may not be learning to their full potential. (67)

When the issues started to outweigh the joys and I had no tools with which to deal with them, I plunged into the survival stage, toying with the idea of quitting teaching – or at least finding a teaching job where (I thought) some of these issues wouldn’t present themselves – and then reminding myself that I like having a steady paycheck and lots of vacation time.

I’m now, however, starting to see glimmers of the mastery stage. I’m no longer gritting my teeth and ignoring problems in the hopes that they’ll just stop turning up. I’m trying not to complain about the students who seem impossible. Instead, I’m researching strategies, studying theories, talking to colleagues (not just bitching, but talking), buying books on education, and – most importantly, I’m finding – keeping this blog. I’m aiming to become what the Wongs call an “intentionally inviting” teacher:

…[these] teachers have a professional attitude, work diligently and consistently, and strive to be more effective teachers. They have a sound philosophy of education and can analyze the process of student learning. Most important, they are purposively and explicitly invitational….They say things like this: “Good morning. Have a great day.”…”Please tell me about it.”…”Yes, I believe it is in your best interest.”…”You can do better than this; let me show you how.”

I think the most valuable lesson I’ve taken from The First Days of Teaching is that good teaching – teaching that leads to a well-managed, productive classroom and real student learning – is about having effective procedures: clear expectations of what students will do, and consistent ways of responding when they do or do not do what you expect. In my next post, I’ll to write about some of the ways I’m trying to implement this approach in one of my difficult classes. In the meantime, if you feel like you’re in the “survival” stage of teaching and would like to start struggling out of it, I highly recommend that you put your hands on this book.

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12 responses

  1. I read sections of this book (as I didn’t feel I needed all of them), and I have to tell you, I’m pleasantly surprised by the book’s wealth of information. In any case, good post.

  2. Thanks! Yes, some parts of the book are relevant to some teachers and others to others, but I found that even the stuff that didn’t directly relate to me gave me stuff to chew on.

  3. I taught a year on an emergency credential before getting into an intern program. At the beginning of the intern program we were given the Wongs’ book but had no assignments from it. “We got a grant to give it to you, so we’re giving it to you” is what I was told.

    All those ideas swirling around in my head on how to improve over my first year–the Wongs had already figured it out and had written a book on it. That book was amazing. I wish I’d had it *before* my first year!

  4. Me too! Although I don’t know if I would have been ready for it then…finding it now has put a lot of my past experience into perspective. Still, I’m wishing right now that I’d instituted some of the clear procedures they describe, even at the beginning of this year…

  5. The sad thing is that I have had this book since I student taught. I didn’t read it then and haven’t yet read it. I will make it my goal to do that before the end of December. I have heard nothing but positive reviews of it.

  6. Joel: It certainly is a helpful text, but, as a regular reader of your excellent site, I have to say, I think a lot of the Wongs’ advice will be old news to you. Nevertheless, it is a handy compendium to turn to for helpful reminders on days when things aren’t going so well.

  7. i was using wong’s methods before i even heard of them! they have always worked very well. the wongs have put their great ideas altogether in their books & i highly recommend them! i have taught physics, chem, & phys sci for the last 12 years and have rarely had any major disciple problems. i have seen scores of first year teachers–many fresh from credible university education programs–who know nothing about these principles. they know lots about bulletin boards and their subject area, but if they quickly realize their limitations on classroom management. if you know of a struggling teacher–veteran or newbie–or someone in college to become a teacher, get them this book/dvd! it will help them and their students!

  8. The book is a great tool for all teachers at all levels in their profession, take the basic information that fit your needs ( passion & desire ) and situationsi ( open minded, sensitive & empathetic ) and adapt them to your grade level, classroom socioeconomic background envirnonment, special learners, etc and share with your school staff at work!! A must and a plus are his long DVD’s the investment is worth it!! Great teaching all, Julia

  9. The thing that I really latched onto in their book was the differentiation between rules and procedures. The clarification made it simpler to enforce rules and to see procedures as things to practice and teach. I highly recommend this book! =)

  10. The book is a must for every teacher. The idea of procedure is very new to me as I never came across it during my years of training as a teacher at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji. I have tried it in my classroom and it worked. Now I hardly have any discipline problems in my classroom and I am able to concentrate on improving my teaching strategies as I have a well-run classroom with minimal distractions from students. However, many teachers in my school, when I shared this idea with them, seemed unready to implement it in their classroom- this is probably due to the fact they have no knowledge of it before or they just do not want to improve.
    To me , this is the starting point if you are serious about improving students’ achievement. You got
    to create a classroom that is conducive to learning, which I think is very possible with procedures. This is the best classroom management technique I have ever come across. I wish I had known it before I started teaching..

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