Reflective Practice

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad First Day

"Monsters," by Rosies Helping Hands via CC 2.0:

By Eileen Liang

It was the same nightmare: I’m standing in front of a room full of students – faceless, yet somehow staring – and my mouth opens and closes. No sound comes out. My heart pounds. My stomach rolls over and over. My brain? Blank.

I jolted upright. I was pouring over an Introduction to Sociology textbook I planned on using in my class (recommended to me by multiple sources for being free, rather than for overall quality). I was finding it hard to focus. I was absorbing nothing. Random words would trigger long forays into the anxious recesses of my mind. The main production: vivid scenes of me royally screwing up.

And so I didn’t sleep much leading up to my first day of teaching. I fretted over my course site; I fretted over my first day of class plans; I fretted over how I would format and print out the syllabus. I was absolutely convinced I would croak and/or the students (those scary monsters) would see right through me (meet my lovely brain friend: imposter syndrome).

Up until this point, I had no training, no official guidance, no pedagogical insight whatsoever. I hadn’t ever taken an Intro Soc course myself! Having taken seminar style classes for the majority of my undergraduate career, I couldn’t even picture what a lecture-style introduction course would be like, let alone try to plan a semester’s worth of lessons! I was completely out of my element and very, very afraid.

I took a sleeping pill the night before my first class, slept fitfully, rose early, and got to my classroom early enough to struggle with the technology, but not early enough to hide said struggle from students. I put a pile of syllabi on the desk, projected the first slide of my would-be cheerful welcome powerpoint, and sat at the front of the room, holding my hands tightly together to stop them from shaking.

My first mistake was attempting to do roll call. I had decided at the last-minute that forty students was too big a group to allow for student introductions, and immediately regretted that decision ten names in, having butchered eight of them, my voice unsteady with absolutely no trace of authority.

I know how personal names are. I know how much it sucks to have them butchered, no matter the pre-emptive apology. The thing is, I have trouble pronouncing words all the time. Growing up in Taiwan, even with English as my first language, there’s a lot you don’t learn. I may have no accent, but if I’ve never heard a word pronounced before, chances are I will mess it up. My students don’t know this though. To them, I’m just a stranger with a lot of (perceived) authority sitting at the front of the room mispronouncing everyone’s name. It’s not a good look, and probably not the best first impression. Some students whispered to each other. My ears grew redder.

Lesson learned: Never. Do. This. Again.

The rest of the class went in a blur. I forgot to include an electronics policy and lateness policy in my syllabus (this has resulted in patchwork policies announced in later classes making them hard to enforce or remember). I failed to show my students around the course site I had set up, not on BlackBoard, but on a platform they were probably unfamiliar with, Instructure Canvas (this resulted in a prolonged on-boarding process). I did not touch on resources for undocumented students or talk much about accessibility (this has resulted in continuous self-flagellation).

After I let my students go— I kept them 30, 35 minutes tops, long that first class—I sat in shock at my desk. I had done it. There were some faces in the student crowd now, which made them less monster, more human, still terrifying. I had said words, made sounds that were mostly sentences; someone even called me ‘professor’!

It’s been two weeks now, four classes, one online. I’m still struggling to figure out my teacher “persona”: am I strict, with rules and policies aplenty? Am I lenient, focused more on student happiness? Am I kind, willing to accept all excuses and give extensions? Am I ruthless, unwavering in penalizing for missed deadlines?

I struggle with wanting to be liked, wanting my class to be liked, wanting the students to want to come to class and learn, wanting them to actually learn. So many of my tools and tips come from other graduate students and adjuncts, all of us just trying to figure out the right thing to do, all wondering, hoping: are my students learning from me?

Eileen Liang is a doctoral student in Sociology at the Graduate Center and a Contributing Writer to Visible Pedagogy.


  1. Ben Gussen

    Roll call is never a good idea, especially at the tertiary level. I would rather use an icebreaker to get students to introduce themselves.

  2. Murugavel T

    True… Roll call can never be a good idea, most importantly, when the class is a large one. The most important thing according to me is to gain your students’ trust. Though it takes some time, as teachers we need to give much importance to it. Of course, teachers should also be open to learning as well, even from students.

  3. Henri Balraj, K.

    Teacher Recipe
    Taught Recipe

    Recipe = why I am what I am.

  4. Teaching is like acting, only you can’t always learn your script. Sometimes you have to improvise, change plans, adjust to the audience, while making sure you still deliver the content. I’d say experience has a role to play, but also a desire to be in the classroom and a clear understanding of why you are there are vital.
    You can start something that is not really working (like roll call in this instance). You stop then and there and you acknowledge it is not working. You change and ask students to introduce themselves instead, admitting your pronunciation is not good. Fear is not good obviously, as it ‘blocks the brain’ (scientifically proven). This should be avoided at all times, maybe by having those back-up plans, or even by allowing improvisation to also occur in class. Students like it. The teaching becomes not a practised lesson, but one that is made to suit the audience.

  5. Shah

    It was a pretty strange experience you have got on our very first day but one thing I would like to share; anything we do the first time we always hesitate and gradually we come on the right track,
    I appreciate it!

  6. Amrit

    I will introduce my self and my experience and will skip Roll and even skip each student’s introduction, I think both of these will take lot of time. But what I will do is try to get an idea of their level of understanding of their perceived experience of this Unit that they might have gained from previous students of this Unit or from what’s up group! This will give me a idea of their overall understanding – level so that I can prepare accordingly!

  7. Graham

    I am going to mispronounce their names. Thus, I send the roll around the room for the students to tick the box or not tick the box if absent. I then can get started.
    Preparation would have gone a long way to making the class flow in the above example. Ask someone who has taught it before how to get yourself organized. Your colleagues are a resource–use them. And RELAX. You are well prepared. They are nervous in their first class too. Chill.

  8. Jocelyn S. Serna

    Roll call is not a good choice especially when the class size is large. Just ask them to get a piece of paper and pass it in front which will serve as your attendance for the day. In the following days, you may ask them individually to submit an (index) card with their name, picture, and other necessary details related to the subject.

  9. Shashikala Reddy

    I tend to take as many sheets of paper as there are students in the class and distribute a blank piece of paper to each student, tell them to write their names and what they would like to be called. This helps me match student to their name. If I mis-pronounce some one’s name, it is at various times during the class rather than at one go .

  10. Angelika Maag

    First days are always scary because you don’t know your students. You have to sell yourself well and then deliver – never easy.

    • Usman

      To avoid being scary and nervous esp. in my first class, l usually allow my students to dominate the discussion. That way, I discover my students, establish their comfort zone and develop confidence.

    • Dr.Sumathi P.V

      A good planning rehearsal will solve the problem I think

  11. Renetchie Martinez

    Its good when there is enough preparation and a plan that serves as a guide.Whenever you get nervous, you can go back to your plan and back on the track.

  12. Sylvester Matsapola

    Pity for Eileen. i am happy that she gave an honest reflection about her first class and she was able to point at her gaps. The reflection will ensure that she improves her teaching in future. In summing up, her reflection points to the importance of PLANNING.

  13. Yousra Ali Alghanimi

    For the first lesson I’d suggest less serious work. Come early and watch your students coming in , study faces and greet them back. Introduce yourself and the course. A script will do in first classes. It helps oragnize ideas and priorities. Stick to simplicity, too much preparations and fretting sometimes yield negative results. But remember that students are used to these situations ; they might even help if you ask for feedback and suggestions.

    • Isabel Dinis

      I think that simplicity and being who you really are in the classroom are key strategies.

  14. Ashoka

    The first day is the most crucial day for a teacher.

  15. Dalia

    I experienced doing the roll call on the first day because I wanted to familiarize with my students’ faces. Yeah, it was terrible to do it because I mispronounced some names which made others murmur and giggle. I felt having rosy cheeks. I learned a lesson from that situation–if it is unavoidable to do a roll call and you are uncertain how your students’ name are pronounced, you’d better ask them. Besides, names are subjectively pronounced and spelled.

  16. Lindy

    I have personally always disliked having to introduce myself (as a student) in the classroom – and it takes up so much time.
    As a teacher I tend to take the roll b/c I can start “putting faces to names”. This exercise has been interesting as I’m now thinking of other ways to achieve this, so I can avoid the roll call. Thanks for the ideas!

  17. Usman

    I don’t ever make the mistake of going into active participation in my first class. I allow the students to do most of the talking, including self-introduction and jokes. I also avoid going beyond sharing course outline and resources in my first class. That way, I establish strong rapport with the students and determine their comfort zones which make my work easy.

  18. Moises Vasquez

    Maybe doing roll call is not a good idea, I consider it is necessary for both reasons; first, to know students’s faces and second, for students to know the importance of attending to classes not just the first day, but also everyday.

  19. Dawn Ross

    We would welcome the students to country by an Elder of Alice Springs, they will share their story, we would then go on and introduce ourselves. Students would sign in each day. We give them name tags so we can remember who is attending.

  20. Dawn Ross

    We would welcome the students to country by an Elder of Alice Springs, they will share their story, we would then go on and introduce ourselves. Students would sign in each day. We give them name tags so we can remember who is attending.

    Try find out the dynamics of the group.

    Before coming into the class, you could centre yourself by deep breathing from your stomach out through your mouth.

  21. Julianne

    Roll call is always a difficult one as it is a requirement – however, I find that passing around a printed roll that students sign and can write their preferred name on helps.
    If unsure about teaching a certain style of class then it is always good to attend a colleagues class to familiarise yourself with that style. Plus watching other more experienced teachers can help to ease your nerves.
    Being prepared is essential but having a lesson plan is also essential, in particular for the first week as this will keep you on track and ensure that nothing is forgotten. Even preparing a PowerPoint that is mostly your lesson plan can ensure that nothing is missed. Even asking the coordinator to have a look over it so that you don’t miss anything else is a good tip.

  22. Sadiksha Acharya

    I think it’s okay to ask students how to pronounce their names. When I mispronounced the students’ names, I always apologized and asked them to correct me and I made a note next to that student’s name. It’s only for the first time. You’ll then start pronouncing them correctly from the next day. It is important to recognize students by their names!

  23. Ijana MacLean

    First days are the worst. It gets better as soon as you get to know the students and see how they work. I mispronounce names easily and do apologize some students are fine with it others can get annoyed. I have made a list where I write the pronunciation down for myself.

  24. Vainess Muzi

    First day is hard.

  25. sonam

    Have been there and felt my cheeks were flushing hot red. But slowly with the upcoming classes i felt familiar with the students names ,routine etc. and improved in term of things that did not work on very first day. But yes for teaching each and every day brings new experiences and learning for both student and teachers.

  26. Teresa M Lewis

    I admire Eileen’s true recall of her first day. I have to do a roll on students each teaching class which I believe is a safety aspect in case there is an emergency of some sort. This I have planned ahead by placing everyone’s name (36 of them) in a tabular format and have labelled weeks 1 through to week 13. This I shall pass around the class asking them to initial where their name is under the respective week.
    Whilst the paper is being passed around the class I aim to introduce myself, ask a few questions of the class then proceed with introducing the course content.

  27. Rasoafara

    The first day is very crucial especially when something unexpected happens. It does not help you focus on the next activities.
    Don’t forget to remind yourself that you are the professional actor. Play your role.

  28. Ikenna Asogwa

    Roll call may be good, but not necessarily support it for undergraduates. Rather, I could have a class list where they initial

  29. Dr.Sumathi P.V

    Self introduction of students is better than roll call.Some strategies need to be planned if group is large.

  30. Aleyamma Ninan

    An honest reflection of first day class.But instead of doing roll call,if it was as an ice breaking for five minutes with self introduction ,and student’s self introduction while Eileen could have been able to understand the pronunciation and identify the student if she will be holding the roll call list while the students self introduced and a rapport may have started there.

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