First Day

He raised his hand.

I walked to the back of the classroom toward his desk.

It was the first day of class—my first day ever to teach.  And just ten minutes earlier, I had climbed the creaking staircase to the second floor of the science building.  As I walked down the narrow hallway that smelled of formaldehyde, I checked classroom numbers.  When I found mine, I stood outside the door and tried to catch my breath.

I leaned my back against the hall wall and wondered what I’d been thinking.   Me, a teacher?  I hadn’t even taken the required speech class in college because the idea of standing in front of a classroom paralyzed me with fear.  And now here I was, starting a career doing just that.

They began to arrive.  One by one.  I managed a smile for each student.  And when the bell rang, I asked God for a miracle and walked into the room.  My voice quavered as I introduced myself.  I passed out a bio sheet for my students to fill out.  Buying myself some time.

And then I saw his hand—near the back of the room.

“I don’t have a pen,” he said.  And so I gave him mine.

At the end of the semester, I got my first student thank you note.  He put it in my hand as he walked out of the classroom on the final day of the semester.  It read,

Dear Dr. C,

I will never forget the day we met.  Your class was my first-ever college course.  I was so nervous.  And when you gave us an assignment sheet to fill out at the beginning of class, I realized I didn’t have a pen.  So I raised my hand. 

I was scared.  But when I told you, you smiled and reached into your pocket and gave me yours. I couldn’t believe a college teacher would do that.  Thanks for being so kind to me. I will always remember that.

His first day.  My first day.  Both scared.  Both hoping to make a good impression.   A student and a teacher.  Both so different.  But with so much in common.

Now, after 25 years, I no longer hyperventilate when I walk into a classroom.  I’m no longer terrified.  No longer frozen with fear.

But they are.  Many of them anyway.  And I often forget that.  Some of them are first generation college students.  Some of them have never heard of a syllabus.  Some of them have no idea how to write an essay for an academic audience.  They don’t know what a fragment is.  Or how a writing process works.  Some of them are worried about money and about the girlfriend or boyfriend back home.  Some of them already dislike their roommate.  Some of them are homesick and wondering what they were thinking when they said yes to college.  They are scared, just like I was 25 years ago.

Easy for me to forget.  Easy for me to say, “If you don’t have a pen, then borrow one from someone else or go back to your room and get one.  This is college.  You have to be prepared.”

But I know that students can absolutely think they have things under control, and it can still go wrong.  The computer crashes.  The printer runs out of ink.  The power goes out.

And, as teachers we have a choice to make.  We can be harsh.  Or we can be kind.  Some might say that students have to learn accountability or else they’ll think they can get by with anything.  I get that.  But perhaps a little compassion and flexibility along the way might make an impact we could never imagine.

Funny thing.  I had a campus meeting this summer.  And I was scheduled to give a presentation.  I wanted to get to campus early.  But things didn’t go as planned.  Traffic was heavy.  Stop lights weren’t friendly.  And by the time I got to the campus, I was stressed.  I managed to get to the meeting on time.  But as the session began and the first speaker was introduced, I reached for my pen—and I realized, in my haste, I had forgotten mine.

And so I took a deep breath . . . and raised my hand. . . .

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Stan Coppinger

Professor of English at East Texas Baptist University

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23 thoughts on “First Day

  1. Compassion and empathy are two hallmarks of a Christ-centered life. Thank you for modeling Christ-like love.

  2. Thank you Dr. Coppinger for being a great example of humilty and reminding us that we are all human and all have “those” moments.

  3. Absolutely love this passage. It is so encouraging and relieving to have such professors like you on our campus. It’s great to know that being prepared is important, but also that you do understand that unexpected things do happen. I appreciate your love for our class and what you teach at ETBU. It’s a great encouragement to be the teacher I want to be. Thanks for all you do and continue to do. Even more, thanks for sharing the love of Christ with us.

  4. This weeks entry was inspiring by the fact that I now understand that even professors can be nervous and I felt with this entry that I was there in your class. Reading your blog is very helpful it has shown me that great writing can come in many different forms.
    I can’t wait for the next entry I am hooked.

  5. May I have a pen? The first day of school for me is always scary also; I stay up for hours in anticipation. It’s nice to know that teachers can get nervous also! Transaction happening: that nervousness is shared between the first time teacher and student

  6. Coming from a family of teachers, I’ve always heard about the stress and anxiousness that they feel on that first day. I never really imagined that a college professor would be so willing to show compassion to a student because they can relate to them! I liked this post because I can relate. I really don’t like attention but I want to be a teacher so I often get nervous thinking about how I’ll manage!
    The Transaction: The college professor being able to relate to the student through something as simple as a pencil.

  7. I still remember my first time to meet you too! You are one of those people that leaves a very good first impression! That entire hour and a half I was captivated by your passionate drive to teach! I could tell how much you loved your job and wanted us to learn! Thank you for making the most of your opportunities!

  8. This is one of those things I can relate to. During my first week, I was really nervous. I didn’t exactly know what to expect from the professors. Then one by one, I started to see that all of the professors were great. What’s kind of interesting is that on my first day of English, I actually forgot my too! And you let me use it. I thought I would add that little detail to that. Other than that, great job Professor!
    There is a feeling of being nervous that both the student and professor share.

  9. I can totally relate to all of the situations above. Coming to class on the first day always takes a toll on the human nervous system. There are so many crazy thoughts that run through my head the night before. I am prying that my professor likes me, my peers are friendly, and I hope my first impression sticks in the professors head.

  10. This is such a great and relatable blog post. The transaction is between the nervous teacher and the nervous student. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  11. My first day in your class, I will admit, I was quite nervous. Being a dual credit student I felt unprepared; what had I got myself into? But after meeting you and highly enjoying your class I had a new confidence for the course. I could never guess you ever had a shyness to public speaking.

  12. I really enjoyed reading this. It was nice to see how it was for you on your first day teaching. It made me more calm about this class, being a high school student and all, knowing that I’m not the only one feeling nervous.

  13. You were extremely clear and this was easy to read. The transaction is the fact that both the student and the teacher get nervous.

  14. Defiantly felt the transaction coming when you started out with an action. I love how you kept the reader thinking what you were referring to and tied it all together closer and closer to the end. I felt your voice and your desire to want to connect with the students. This journal entry showed me that you never know what impact a professor can have on a students day until you impact in a great way that could possibly be the reason a student resolves his/her fear of college.

  15. As a teacher, God is working through you everyday. The things such as bible verses on the board or a prayer before class that may now seem like routine to you actually mean so much to me. Often students are intimidated by teachers. However, the first day I walked into your class and listened to you express your passion to see us succeed a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. Everyday you encourage your students to grow in themselves and more importantly grow in the Lord. I believe that this year in your class will be a true blessing.

  16. My interest was caught in the first 30 seconds! I liked the brief sentences, very clear and effective. I thought it was really cool that you started and ended with the same scenario. Also, it is very reassuring to see that professors are human too :). That makes the task of turning in writing assignments much less intimidating.

  17. It is refreshing to know that it’s not just a one way street when it comes to anxiety and being moved out of your comfort zone, between that of a teacher and student. Refreshing news, always a pleasure.

  18. What separates a good teacher from a great teacher? I believe that a teacher must communicate and have a relationship with every student. Next is the teacher being on a down to earth level and admitting they are human to. This story is very captivating.

  19. I love this entry. It reflects on me how the first week, when I felt so nervous about all my courses. Thank you for sharing this.

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