Protecting First Period: An Approach to Solving Chronic Truancy
April 3, 2019
The first hour of the school day is optimal learning time, because student energy and concentration is at a premium. When schools allow a flexible window for student arrival, they don’t capitalize on this reality. In the process, some children pile up dozens of late slips over the course of a school year. Enabling this habit is criminal, while sending students a clear message:
Arriving on time is not important.
During my second year of teaching, I commonly began the school day with eight students. Then, over the next half hour, the remaining 23 children would slowly trickle into class. This made it challenging to deliver meaningful lessons. It also hurt the morale of students who showed up on time, because their reward for punctuality was more work. Students who arrived late invariably started the day at a deficit and rarely caught up. This damaged their attitude, which often contributed to behavior problems.
I felt conflicted trying to uphold the integrity of the school day while complying with a lax start time, so I sought help from more powerful colleagues. Most older teachers accepted chronic tardiness as a school reality that they had no power to change, and my principal told me that he was required to allow students a 30-minute arrival window. I emailed the school district CEO, explaining my problem, but he never wrote back to me.
Towards the end of the school year, I decided that passively accepting the tardiness epidemic was sending all of my students the unspoken message:
I don’t care about the first hour of the school day or YOU.
Those who arrived on time deserved to see reward for their efforts, and children who showed up late needed me to simulate a real-world reality for them. I created a spreadsheet with every students name on it and started documenting the number of minutes each child arrived late. When an individual accumulated 30 minutes, I called their parents, requesting that their child make up their tardy time after school. Most agreed and within two weeks, I was beginning the day with 30 out of 31 students present.
Behavior problems started to disappear. The routine of arriving on time and immediately getting down to work structured - and in turn settled - the students’ lives. In a very short time, the classroom transformed from a sea of chaos to an island of security.
Carly, the only student who continued arriving late, was determined to catch my bluff. All year long she had challenged me - creating consistent classroom disruptions, never doing her homework, and regularly talking back to me. She continued arriving 20-25 minutes late every day and even though her parents supported me, she refused to stay after school to make up the time.
I planned a walking trip on a Friday afternoon and had her stay with a partner teacher while her classmates and I went to a nearby park. When she asked why she was the only one who wasn’t allowed to go, I handed her my spreadsheet, showing that every other student had made up the time they missed.
The following Monday, I told the class that we’d be going on a field trip in three weeks, but those owing me tardy minutes wouldn’t be allowed to go. That afternoon, Carly started giving herself detention. For three weeks, she stayed an hour after school, and one day before the field trip, she fulfilled the balance of late time she had accumulated.
The remainder of the school year was socially enjoyable and academically enriching for the entire class.
A school day’s first class period yield’s the greatest opportunity for academic success. It also provides a structure for making the rest of the day run more smoothly, and teaches students valuable life skills. Because of this, it’s incumbent that teachers and administrators do everything they can to protect these golden minutes.