Guess What’s in the Teacher’s Brain: Asking Better Questions in the Classroom

This post comes from a chapter in a book by Penny Ur or Tessa Woodward about asking questions in the classroom. It’s been a while since I read it, but the essence was that too often when teachers pose a question, they are asking students to read their minds. That is, we ask a question to students that may have many answers. But we already know the answer that we want to hear. We will refuse to accept any answer besides the one in our head. And there’s no way for students to know that “right” answer, since other answers are equally valid. So asking questions in the classroom becomes an exercise in reading the teacher’s mind, not a chance to engage with the material.

I fell down?

There’s actually a great example at the beginning of the Pixar movie Monsters, Inc. The movie opens with a job training for monsters who are going to jump out of closets and scare kids (but not hurt them-this is a Disney movie, after all). The first monster in the kid’s room simulator, Mr. Bile, trips over the toys and hilarity ensues:

A monster writhing in obvious comic  pain is bouncing on his head, dragging himself on his butt and so on.

Obviously this would not scare a child. Afterward, the instructor asks the trainee monsters, “What was Mr. Bile’s mistake?”

Mr. Bile says, “I fell down?” This turns out to be the wrong answer. In fact, the mistake was not closing the door. This would lead to a child entering the monster world which would create chaos! OK, the instructor has a valid point. But surely it’s natural for the class to be focused on the part where Mr. Bile fell down, then bounced around in comedic pain! The question wasn’t really a question at all. It was a way to tell the trainees to always close the door. “What was Mr. Bile’s mistake?” has many valid answers, but the teacher wanted only ONE correct answer! So asking questions in the classroom can be tricky!


First Day of Class Advice for Teachers

The first day of class is always a mixed blessing. Going back to school is very exciting and meeting new students for the first time is always a pleasure. But it’s hard to plan for the unknown: What moods and personalities will your new students have? How will the class mesh? What needs and interests will they have? More concretely, there’s a lot of logistical uncertainty. Students are late or go to the wrong class, books and resources don’t arrive on time, copy machines break, printers or computers are being used by admin staff, and so on! There’s a lot to think about, a lot to do, and a lot can go wrong. So I’m sharing some of my first day of class advice for teachers.

I collected most of these ideas as I was working on my book 50 Activities for the First Day of School. Obviously, you should take them with a grain of salt. What works for one teacher in one classroom may not work elsewhere, so go with what works for you! My biggest tip for the first day of class for teachers is:

Don’t expect perfection!

I always love learning from others, so please do feel free to add your own first day and back to school advice for teachers in the comments!

First Day of Class Advice for Teachers

Setting the Tone

  • Be enthusiastic. Be happy to see your students and happy to get down to work. This can be easier said than done. There are some people who adopt a slightly ironic teacher persona. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of humor. But on day one, sarcasm can come off as surly or even mean.
  • On the same note, ignore the old teacher adage, “Don’t smile until Christmas.” Research shows that students study better when they like the teacher, and when they feel the teacher likes them. So don’t be afraid to smile and be kind. Set the tone of your classroom as a comfortable place to study.
  • On the other hand, don’t be a pushover. It’s much harder to enforce a rule later on that you were lax about at the beginning. Be firm and consistent, but not condescending.
  • Give students an overview of what they are going to be learning in your class. This might mean handing out a syllabus or letting them flip through the book. Focus on how they will grow in the end. This doesn’t mean you have to have every day or minute planned out or that you don’t make room for creativity. But students like to know that there’s a plan.
  • Be particularly strict about any shows of disrespect to other students. That helps make the students feel comfortable and safe. Be sure to be consistent on this point.
  • In particular, never let a student feel ashamed about their name, nationality, or native language. Sometimes we accidentally make disparaging remarks about how hard a name is to pronounce, or a weird fact we know about their country that might portray the country in a negative light.
  • Most students want to walk away from the first day feeling that they have learned something. They don’t want to feel the first day was just logistical stuff like learning rules and getting books. Nor do they necessarily want to just play games all day. Be sure to choose activities that have a purpose beyond fun. I’m a big fan of activities that build community and also give language practice such as those in my book, Classroom Community Builders. Thanks to the wise Penny Ur for this insight.
  • It’s easy to fit in a quick lesson on a new grammar point or vocabulary item. When students are speaking, pay attention to some of the common errors you hear, or places where they could use some new language skills. Then follow-up your icebreaker with a quick lesson that fits those needs.

Icebreakers and Warmers

  • Remember, icebreakers like Memory Chain have students revealing facts about themselves. Make sure no one is being made fun of for something they revealed to the class.
  • A lot of getting to know you activities ask students to produce an interesting fact about themselves. Model what you mean by an interesting fact.
  • In fact, getting to know you activities can have more than one function. You can build community, have students learn names, and practice language in one activity! Consider losing Two Truths and a Lie, and doing a classroom community builder instead.
  • Students are more likely to comply with rules if they feel they have had a say in the rule-setting process. Get them involved with an activity like Classroom Rules Negotiation (pg. 60) which also helps build community by getting students working together.
  • You can also cover rules and the syllabus in a way that is interactive and dynamic with a Syllabus Scavenger Hunt!
  • One of your goals should be to build rapport, not just between you and the students but between the students too. Here’s some more resources for great icebreakers and rapport builders!

Name Games

  • Write your name on the board, if it’s not on a syllabus or hand out. It’s hard for students to catch names when they go by fast!
  • Consider jotting down student names too. Fast-paced activities like Toss a Ball make it hard to catch people’s names and it’s shocking how often students don’t seem to really learn each others’ names.
  • Make sure you know what students like to be called. I know some teachers prefer to set a particular tone in their classroom, whether formal or casual. But not all students are comfortable with teachers using their nicknames.
  • Don’t tell students how hard their name is to pronounce, or force them to have nicknames, or accidentally disparage their names. People often take jokes or funny comments on personal things badly, regardless of intention.


  • Bring back-up for any technology. Don’t depend on the projector absolutely working, especially not on day one when the IT guy is busy doing his own first day tasks.
  • Stack up handouts or resources you will give to students neatly. Put them in the order you will use them in before class begins. That way you aren’t scrambling to find things in the middle of lessons.
  • Consider breaking up your first day activities. You can hold off on the icebreakers until day two and some teachers do apparently!
  • Forget Pinterest, especially if you’re a new teacher. Little is going to be picture-perfect on day one and in fact there’s reason to believe students learn better when things go a little awry. If nothing else, it lets you model what to do when things wrong for your class!

You can also download a beautiful abbreviated version of First Day of Class Advice for Teachers suitable for hanging in the staff room! Check out more back to school advice from our authors and share your own first day of class tips for teachers in the comments!

Creating a Classroom Community Builder Activity

I’m a big proponent of getting to know you activities, not only on the first day of class, but beyond. However, you should definitely do icebreakers or warmers mindfully. Getting to know you activities are really for building community in the classroom. Sometimes that means you have to tweak your planned icebreaker to turn it into a classroom community building activity. That’s why I love this article with a good set of questions for choosing and implementing classroom community builders or other icebreakers. Or if you’re like me, you love to create your own activities. In that case, this article is a great guide to creating a classroom community builder of your own. I’m adding the article to my list of resources for great icebreakers and warmers.

Questions to Consider

Among the things to consider when creating a classroom community builder, according to the author, is:

“What do you want to achieve with an icebreaker? Do you want to set the tone for the learning community or lead into course content in engaging ways?”

This is a really important thing to think about. A lot of times we deploy an activity on the first day of class expecting community without thinking it through. It feels like that South Park episode about the underwear gnomes

  • Step 1: Activity that looks fun/went well for us before/students enjoy
  • Step 2: ?????
  • Step 3: Classroom Community

Why Are We Doing This?

So it’s worth taking a second to sit and think about exactly what we want to do here! I’d add some other purposes for using community builders, such as building rapport among students, learning students’ interests and needs, and learning names. No one activity is going to do all these things. So it’s good to know why you are doing the activity you are. Sometimes I also find an activity that teaches me student interests can also help me learn names. Because each student has to go around and speak once or twice (for example), I ask them to say their name first. So thinking about purpose can help you adapt an activity and make it more useful or dare I say, purposeful?

I also love that the authors recommend explaining the purpose of the activity to students. I often forget to explain to students why we are doing the things we are doing. And some icebreakers may feel like empty fun if we forget to explain our purpose to our students. A fun activity done in the first few minutes of class can go wrong if students aren’t quite in classroom mode, as well.

Creating Your Own Community Builders

Creating a Classroom Community Builder In addition to the advice in this article, if you’re looking for a chart that can help you creating a classroom community builder or icebreaker of your own, I’ve created a DIY creating a classroom community builder chart that outlines the four major steps of an icebreaker activity. In writing 50 Activities for the First Day of School, and then Classroom Community Builders: Activities for the First Day and Beyond, I tried to identify some of the typical steps that go into an icebreaker. Although this doesn’t apply to every activity, here’s what I came up with.

  1. Students usually acquire information from each other or the classroom or teacher. From the other side of the coin, they are sharing or giving information
  2. Then they usually have to record that information somewhere, and usually as they record it, they are manipulating it, doing something with it.
  3. Then they share or distribute the information.
  4. Finally, they use that information in someway. This step can be as simple as reporting back to the class or as complex as writing a biographical essay about a partner.

Reverse-Engineer a Community Builder

For each step, the chart has a number of examples of how that could be done. You can also think back on your favorite icebreaker and reverse engineer it to see how it accomplishes each of these steps. For example,  Instant EFL Lesson Plans starts with an activity called “Circle of Life”. I’ve used it as grammar practice, but the author, Cristian Spiteri, uses it as an icebreaker. Let’s take a look at how it works:

In this activity you write some important information about yourself without telling students the meaning. Students have to guess what it means. I might write Victor1995, 20, Minecraft. Students ask questions or make guesses to figure out what those words and numbers mean. In this case, I have a good friend named Victor. I graduated university in 1995. I have been teaching for 20 years. I love to play Minecraft.

Circle of Life 

Does this fit the pattern?

  1. Students acquire information that you write on the board.
  2. They manipulate it by guessing the significance, which takes some logic and critical thinking skills. (They don’t really record it though, do they?)
  3. They share it by asking questions.
  4. And they use it to figure out what the words mean!

Check out my other Back to School Tips or share your own advice for icebreakers, warmers, or classroom community builders in the comments. You can also browse our Back to School titles in our catalog of Teacher Tools.

Back to School Advice from Our Authors

We’ve had a post up for a long time on classroom community builders and icebreakers full of back to school advice. We’ve even put up a post of general first day tips! And now that the back to school season is upon us, I wanted to highlight a few articles and activities shared by our authors. Find back to school tips about building community, building group work habits, and reflective teaching!

Who better to warn us that school is coming than Ned Stark. Time to listen to our back to school advice!
Forgive my attempt at a pop-culture reference. Is Game of Thrones even a thing now?

On to some back to school advice from Patrice Palmer, teacher, trainer, interviewer, and self-care coach:

Group Work Gone Right: Setting Students up for Success from the Beginning

Patrice published Successful Group Work with us after seeing too many group projects fail. The problem is that we assume students are just naturally good at group work, but they aren’t. So she’s written a book of 13 activities that teach teamwork skills. These are great activities to weave into your beginning of the year plans. Start class off with these simple, mostly low-prep, activities and help students be successful at group work. Take a look at some sample activities in her article on MiddleWeb on avoiding the pitfalls of group work and learn more about why she wrote the book in this interview with Patrice in HLT Magazine.

Question: How Can I Incorporate Reflection into my Teaching?

Sharon Hartle has some great advice for you. Her latest book, Keeping the Essence in Sight, is a remarkable example of what reflective practice looks like. Organized into four key areas, Learning, Teaching, Technology, and PD, Sharon asks and then reflects on key questions that make us better teachers. And if you’re interested in the meaning behind that enigmatic title, read the first post from Sharon’s blog (be sure to bookmark it so you can keep up with her posts). Before we get too busy with classes and admin work, it’s nice to touch base with the reason we teach through this warmly told anecdote.

I Don’t Even Like Icebreakers

I’m not only the publisher of Classroom Community Builders, I’m also an author. So I’m going to step in with my back to school advice too!

As a teacher, in the first days of class, I often feel I’m balancing welcoming tasks with work tasks! Do I engage them and have fun or try to teach them? Now, research suggests that there is some overlap. Students tend to learn better in an environment where they feel respected, where they are free to make mistakes without being mocked, where they believe others are interested in what they say and how the do. And I’m particularly fond of activities that include both rapport-building and language-learning aspects. Here’s the story of how I figured that out and ways to do classroom community building while practicing language: Don’t Break Ice, Build Community.

Get Them Moving

Sometimes, it may be ok to do a brain break, and get students moving. Cristian Spiteri, author of Instant EFL Lesson Plans recommends a game called “Follow the Leader” In this activity, one student leads the group in a dance and other students try to guess who the leader is. It may not lead to a lot of language practice, but sometimes students need to shake out their anxiety! You can also check out his award-winning lesson plan for improv storytelling. The lesson pulls a story out of students without their even realizing it!

Over to you! What’s your best back to school advice? Any start of school tips and tricks? It could be a pearl of wisdom, a helpful activity, or a simple practical tip that makes life easier!

Building Classroom Community Presentation

When I started writing this, I was coming off my high from an awesome TESOL 2018, and apparently it was a pretty good conference, as the first clause of this sentence is all I wrote before saving this to my drafts folder. So here, belatedly, is my presentation on from the TESOL Conference in Chicago on building classroom community. Specifically I talk about the four conditions that go into really building classroom community. For each principle, I’ve also shared a few activities that you can use in your classroom. I’ve posted about this elsewhere but I think the presentation works really well.

Note that the second slide is meant to represent a class of bored, unengaged students. It’s a stock photo, not my actual students. Some members of the audience thought it was real. One way to definitely destroy rapport with students is to use their images publicly like that. I would never do that.

The third slide shows the “fun” teacher. This is a popular approach to building community. But it’s an approach that doesn’t really build community because:

  1. It’s hard to be funny and cute all the time. You can’t be performing every minute of every class.
  2. Sometimes you have to be serious or even discipline a student and that can feel harsh coming from the “fun” teacher.
  3. You’re really building community between you (or a persona of you, in fact) and the students, but not a community among the whole students themselves.

Hence my four conditions that exist in places where community is built organically, such as sports teams. I hope this presentation and the free activity ideas are helpful. Please feel free to get in touch with questions or comments.

You can also check out resources for creating classroom community, and our advice on creating your own classroom community builders.

Browse our books on classroom community building and back to school activities:

Liked this advice? Check out our teacher tools that build community with engaging activities:
50 Activities for the First Day of School by Walton Burns Alphabet PublishingFront Cover of Classroom Community Builders by Walton Burns from Alphabet PublishingSuccessful Group Work by Patrice Palmer Alphabet Publishing


And if you’re interested in classroom community building, you’re probably doing a lot of group work in your class. Check out our free ebook full of tips for putting students in groups, including factors that lead to strong groups and fun ways to form groups quickly by joining our mailing list!

Resources for Classroom Community Builders and Icebreakers

SoOn this page, we’re collecting some great resources for classroom community builders and icebreakers. That includes particularly useful back-to-school activities and articles to build community and get your students and classroom ready to work hard, show respect, and learn well. This includes research on the importance of building rapport. But, we’ll also share quick classroom tips and tricks. We’ve even got some great icebreaker or warm up activities here. Keep coming back as we update this page regularly. Got a link you want to share? Leave a comment!

Tips for Building Classroom Community on Day One

  • The Importance of Establishing Rapport with Your Students . This is a great article on the benefits of building rapport with your students. It breaks rapport-building-behaviors into concrete things you can do in your classroom today!
  • How Can You Use Icebreakers? What a great list of things to consider when selecting an icebreaker.
  • Setting The Tone in the First Ten Minutes of Class. This is a great testament to the power of the Do-Now. I like how a good Do-Now can create a classroom space that is calm and work-focused but still friendly and safe. Believe it or not, some teachers dislike fun icebreakers because they feel it can get students ramped up at the beginning of class. This article is a good reminder that an icebreaker can be calming as well. This article was a big reason I finally collected my do-now quotes and riddles and games into the book, On the Board.
  • 50 Classroom Procedures is a comprehensive checklist of procedures you may need for class, such as how to start class off and what to do if students are confused.
  • On the Very First Day (Be the Best You Can Be) Often the best way to build rapport is to share a bit of ourselves and our interests with our students.

Building Classroom Community All Year

Articles on How to Build Classroom Community


Suggested Activities for Building Classroom Community

and other back-to-school activities!

  •  Classroom Community Builders is my collection of activates that build classroom community while also doing language work! Students walk away from the first day of school feeling part of a team. But they also feel like they got some work done, too!
  • Start off the year by teaching teamwork skills. Everyone has a group work horror story. Part of the problem is we don’t always remember to teach students how to work in groups. So Patrice Palmer shares some activities to avoid group work pitfalls and start class off on the right foot.
  • 3 Ways to Take Advantage of the Culture in Your Classroom My three favorite activities for getting students to share their greatest resource–their own culture.
  • 4 Activities to Get to Know Student Expectations   Four great activities to learn my students’ expectations. And these activities have the added benefit of being fun and working well as icebreakers or as class rapport.
  • 7 First Day of School Activities Students Love focuses on activities that get students thinking about the course and course requirements. We’re always fond of articles that stretch classroom community builders to be about more than just getting to know you or having fun. Although, those things are important, too.
  • Using a Course Blog as a Class Ice-Breaker. Can a blog be an ice-breaker? This professor tried it out and found it worked pretty well!
  • Icebreakers for a Psychology Class In addition, we do not view ice-breakers as only necessary the first day or first week of courses, but rather we view ice-breakers as ways to continue building community and introducing new topics.” Here Here!