A Different Question to Start the School Year

John Norlin · August 6, 2019

As another school year nears, educators are preparing to welcome their students back from summer break with the excitement and anticipation of the wonderful possibilities that lie ahead. While students are finishing their last days of summer, educators are returning to organize their classrooms and plan lessons and units with their colleagues. With all the planning that goes into preparing for a new year, one of the biggest mistakes an educator can make is with the very first question they ask students who enter their classroom, “How was your summer?”


Some might say, “Why is this a big mistake?” Let’s think about it for a moment. At the core of our work in education is the understanding that it is all about relationships. Students not only have a hard time learning from someone that they don’t like, but they also have a hard time learning from someone who they feel does not like them. In relationships, first impressions matter and what happens if the first impression a student has with their teacher is to possibly be reminded of something that triggers negative thoughts that is the opposite of joy, fun, and excitement? 

“Relationships are the most important component in engaging, inspiring, and motivating our students. Nothing else matters!” - Hamish Brewer

For some students summer break is not something to look forward to at all. Some students leave the consistency of school at the end of the year only to experience adversity, chaos, and trauma. Some students did not get on an airplane, go to an amusement park, or even the city pool. Some students didn’t even leave their neighborhoods. Some students stayed home every day to watch their younger siblings, whereas others got a job to support the family financially. Some students went to bed every night hungry and reminded of what they don’t have.

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When we ask students to share about their summer and a student experiencing this kind of adversity has to listen to other students share about the exciting trip they went on or the wonderful time they spent with family, it does not start the year off on a positive note. We only get one chance to make a first impression so what if we spent as much intentional time planning how we kick off the first moments of the year as we did the lessons and units connected to our content area curriculum?

So here are five different questions to ask your students to start the year:

  1. What is one thing you could teach me as your teacher?
  2. What is something that you learned this summer?
  3. What is it that you are most passionate about?
  4. What is a special talent that you have or have been told that you have?
  5. What is something that you are looking forward to this school year?


John Norlin

John Norlin is a Co-Founder of CharacterStrong, a Servant Leadership trainer, and motivational speaker. He was Washington Advisor of the Year, taught 5 leadership classes per semester for 10 years at Sumner High School, and was a Program Administrator for the Whole Child for five years.