It was only three weeks into summer vacation when science teacher Jason Bradshaw tweeted, “If you haven’t had a back-to-school dream yet, you will soon. You’re welcome.”

Bradshaw’s own restless night had gone like this: “I knew that I had a class, and I knew that I was supposed to get there. And even though I’ve been teaching at the same school for several years, I just could not seem to find the room it was in.”

Bradshaw won’t have any problems finding his classroom Tuesday when he returns to Castlebrooke Secondary School in Brampton.

But his dream proves that even if you are all grown up, first day nerves never really go away.

Just one of some 194 instructional days in a year, the first day of school portends both the highs of new beginnings and the lows of not belonging.

Besides graduation, what other day has parents cajoling their children to stand still for photos, capturing the moment for posterity? Yet hurried smiles often belie the weightiness of questions within: Will my teacher like me? Will my child be accepted for who they are? Will I fit in?

And while such worries are common at any time, returning to school during a pandemic, after multiple learning disruptions, and when tensions over race and gender dominate public discourse, the anxiety felt by teachers, parents and students may be through the roof, which is why, educators say, it’s more important than ever to focus on starting the year off right.

Not all students feel they can bring their whole selves into a classroom, says Vidya Shah, a York University professor specializing in anti-racist and anti-oppressive education.

“We know, for a number of students, (school) is not a place where they feel that they can thrive. It’s not a place where they feel they’ve been met with success and support and care. So those anxieties come into the classroom (along) with excitement about what might be possible for this year.”

They think, “maybe this year will be different.”

“It was the demographic of the class that made me a bit uncomfortable, and that was a cultural reset for me because my previous elementary school was so diverse. That’s the part that felt isolating.” — Martha Mengesha on entering high school

Mengesha talks about “Grade 9 Martha” like she was another person. She was quiet, “super anxious,” “still trying to figure things out.”

So for her, the first day at a Toronto high school was the worst. It didn’t help that she missed an earlier Grade 9 orientation day. But between friendship cliques and few other Black students in her pre-advanced placement program, which feeds into university-level upper year courses, Mengesha started to wonder if she belonged.

“I put pressure on myself where I was, like, trying to fit in and trying to act different … But what I realized was that I wasn’t being myself,” says Mengesha, now 16 and entering Grade 12 with an aim to study computer science at university.

“There were definitely a lot of moments where I was, like, do I deserve to be here right now?”

Looking back, she realizes everyone was likely nervous and scared. And while there were first-day icebreakers, it wasn’t enough for her to feel settled. She also wishes she had known that kids feeding in from different elementary schools had been given opportunities and resources, like enriched courses, not available to her. That, she says, might have stopped her from comparing herself to others, made her aware that students learn at different paces and would have made the transition easier.

“People always talk about the three R’s of education being reading, writing, arithmetic, but really the first R is relationships,” says University of Ottawa professor Tracy Vaillancourt, who holds the Canada research chair in school-based mental health. “We learn best when we feel we belong.”

If a student feels safe and supported, research shows, they are more willing to take risks and stretch academically.

That tone is set in a number of ways, from what’s on the walls or in the bookshelves that signal they matter, to activities that allow kids to share common interests, to the way a teacher models inclusivity to the class.

“Kids who are rejected or ostracized from their peers, who feel they don’t belong, who feel their teacher doesn’t care for them, we’re not engaging them to the best of our ability or their ability.” says Vaillancourt. “Get that part right and then you can teach them arithmetic.”

“Grade 12 Martha,” Mengesha says happily, “is more confident in her academic skills and knows she deserves to be in the program she’s in, and is way more actively involved in school.”

That includes helping out at the Grade 9 orientation she missed: “Now I get to assist students with their journey to high school and advise them on how to make a seamless transition.”

“I began sharing about myself. I talked to them about some of the challenges I faced as a child…One of my students came up to me right before recess and said, ‘I think this is going to be a good year.’” — Vidya Shah on teaching elementary school

Shah recalls she couldn’t truly be herself while attending school in York region in the 1980s. She wouldn’t bring Indian food for lunch and when her name was mispronounced, she’d let it slide.

Research shows that mispronunciation, be it accidental or intentional, is a form of racial microaggression and can have a lasting impact on students who might doubt their cultural worth.

Shah says that when she shares her stories, no matter to what age group, “inevitably,” she says, “there are stories that come back about experiences of exclusion, and so it opens up opportunities for us to talk about what exclusion is, how it feels, how we work through it

This doesn’t mean educators need to know everything about every culture and identity in order to make classroom spaces safer either, says Shah. Teachers just need to show they care, even if it is just going through attendance for the first time.

“What (a teacher) needs to say right off the bat, is I’m going to make every effort to learn all of your names correctly, to refer to you in the way that you like to be referred. I might make a mistake in the beginning, but I want you to work with me and help me.”

Bradshaw says as much as back-to-school creates anxiety for students and families, “I think a lot of people don’t realize that educators are just as nervous because we want to do things right.”

In his early years, Bradshaw says, he made the mistake of spending a lot of time talking about rules and expectations: “That is absolutely the worst way to begin the school year,” says the 2021 recipient of a Prime Minister’s Award for teaching excellence. He now starts his first day sharing some of his own story: born in Canada to parents who immigrated from Barbados; a fan of superhero movies and video games. He asks his students to do the same.

“It doesn’t have to be these deep personal aspects of one’s identity, because, again, that’s not something that I can expect students to be willing to share right off the bat. It can just be simple things, what TV shows you like, what movies you like. Hopefully that opens the door to a little bit of trust and familiarity between them and between me.”

Bradshaw also tells them he is a straight, cis-gendered male. “I introduce my own pronouns to normalize it. It’s not saying to each of my students, you must tell me. Hopefully what I’m doing is modelling to them that it’s normal. It’s a safe place where we can do this.”

Introducing the use of pronouns in educational settings has become a flashpoint in recent years, particularly on social media, and some U.S. school districts have recently banned the practice.

“Pronouns, alongside correct pronunciation of names, alongside what are your interests — you want all of that to have a place in the classroom,” says Shah

“Even when I go into a school now, I still get that visceral reaction to the smell, and it’s borne from the anxiety of starting school.” — Vaillancourt

Unpredictability feeds anxiety, says Vaillancourt.

The research psychologist is not a fan of schools that wait until the first morning to post class lists on the schoolyard wall. “You want to know who your teacher is so you can kind of prepare for it. It’d be nice to know who’s in your class so you could prepare for it as well. And sometimes that’s not afforded to kids.”

Toronto mom Tracy Saunders says her two daughters received their class assignments from Sir Adam Beck Jr. School at the end of June.

Daughter Evie, 10, was sad to discover she was going to be in a different class from her close friends, but Saunders — a self-appointed “class mom” who collects family emails on the first day to set up messenger chats — says she made sure there were summer playdates with new classmates to help the girls acclimatize.

“(Finding out early about classes) mostly helps because during the summer, we can make sure we’re connecting with those families and even the teachers … We try to hype it up as a family. They’ve always gone to school very excited.”

But for some, worry can be so intense, kids feel sick.

“There’s a lot of students who are experiencing tremendous anxiety that shows up in stomach aches and throwing up before school. These are physical ramifications of not feeling that you are welcome to these classrooms,” says Shah.

The first day can have such impact on both physical and mental health that School Mental Health of Ontario, which is funded by the Ministry of Education and supports 71 school districts, has a document called The First 10 Days that is fully focused on getting the year off to a good start.

The assumption that everyone is ready to learn that first day doesn’t consider the schooling history of a child, or that a child might not have slept well the night before or didn’t have breakfast or doesn’t have the resources they need, say educators. Even a simple writing prompt asking students what they did in the summer can be tricky for kids who’ve had to stay home while classmates took far-flung trips.

First-day activities might include writing letters to future selves, building towers out of spaghetti and marshmallows or having students co-create classroom expectations. And while these activities can reveal writing and oral abilities and the dynamics of a class, they ultimately serve as an opportunity to get to know the students, their dreams and aspirations.

“You can certainly dive right into teaching and do a great job,” says Doriana Rosati, a system principal for safe schools and well-being at Thames Valley District School Board, but this year, her board is taking advantage of a Wednesday start to do something different.

“(We thought) what would happen if we took those first three days and not only gave permission to teachers from K to 12 to focus on relationships and that transition back to school and building community, but that we were on a common mission to do it?”

Thames Valley is carving out space, time and resources to create what they’re calling the “Essential Conditions for Learning,” beginning with a focus on staff on the Tuesday professional development day.

Rosati describes the approach as going slow to go fast.

“We have all this learning recovery to do,” she acknowledges, “but the reality is we have learned that relationships and connections really do foster the conditions for really amazing learning to occur.”

And that’s something that needs to continue beyond the first week.

“A space where students feel included, that’s just the beginning point,” says Shah. “If we don’t sustain that with a rigorous curriculum that helps them understand the world around them and change the world around them, if that is not followed up, then it is just a fluffy start to the year.”

Janet Hurley is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star covering culture, education and societal trends. Reach her via email: