Don't smile until christmas

Why Teachers Should Smile Before Christmas

classroom management teacher inspiration teaching ideas Mar 01, 2022

In my first year of teaching, I was very young looking. As a high school teacher with no facial hair and weighing in at 160 pounds when wet, parents mistook me for a student. I mean, I looked like Ralph Macchio from the first Karate Kid movie. I remember a college professor telling me that because I look so young, it will be easy for students to take advantage of me, and that I "should not smile until Christmas."

Were you told the same thing? It's this idea that if you’re too light with your students in the beginning, they'll walk al over you. If you give an inch, they’ll take a mile.

On my first day of teaching ever, I took this advice that I'd heard from that professor and other seasoned teachers and I started off class standing tall and stern at the front of the room. Now on the inside I was bursting with excitement that I was finally starting teaching, but I thought I couldn't let my students know that. I wanted them to take me seriously.

In the first minute after introducing myself, I told the students that I have a rule in my class that you cannot put your head on your desk (as if this is the most important thing to tell students). Most of the students with their heads down picked them up quickly, but one kid named Daniel kept his down. I said to Daniel, "What's your name?", and he just shrugged his shoulders and kept his head down. In the most serious tone I could muster, I said, "I need you to pick your head up off your desk."

He looked up at me and said, “Nah.”

I responded, "You have two options, you can pick your head up and we can start class, or you can leave my classroom and walk down to the office." Well Daniel picked his head up, but then his backpack, and walked out of my room. The whole class was kind of stunned, and I know what they were thinking. There was thinking "Dang, this twelve-year-old means business! And I'm thinking to myself, "That's right, I'm not the Kid Karate Kid. I'm the grown Ralph Macchio from Cobra Kai.

Now I need to mention, being authoritative like this really isn't in my character. And the teachers I loved growing up weren't the ones with a short temper and no grace. So this wasn't easy for me, but I did feel pretty good about how I handled this situation. These kids need to know that I mean business.

The next day, Daniel started off class with his head on his desk. And I went through the same motions, I gave him two options, and then kicked him out of my classroom. And the same thing happened the third day. Clearly my tough-guy routine wasn’t working. My principal came to me after school that day and asked what was going on, why was Daniel continuing to come to her office? I explained to her that I'm trying to establish my authority early on in the school year, you know, like I was trained to do.

And I could see a hint of a smile on her face because she knows the proverb ‘Don't smile until Christmas,’ and she basically suggested I lighten up a little bit. She gave me license to do that, which was a huge relief to me, because again, being rigid like this wasn't in my character, and, for some of my students it wasn't working.

Later that year, I learned that Daniel comes from a really challenging home life. Because of things that were happening at home, he was kept up most nights and came to school tired, and at the beginning of the school year, he really needed a place that was safe and could insert some joy into his life. So I had to change up my approach a bit.

"Smiling" too much before Christmas.

In my 5th year of teaching, I started at a new school. When I got to this new school, if I'm being completely honest, I wanted to be loved. I wanted to students to like my class, and if I’m being honest, I wanted word to get to my principal about it and make him feel happy in his decision to hire me and bring me onto his staff.

So on the first day I was like a crazy man. I approached that first week of school as if I was a stand-up comedian. My chief goal was to make my students feel like when you’re in Mr. Muir's English class, you are always going to have fun. I was standing up on tables and rapping to Eminem songs. I hung up a basketball hoop on the door, I looked the other way when kids we're playing Minecraft on their computers, and really, just trying to make my class awesome.

And it worked, students really did look forward to coming to my class, and I was getting the reputation as a fun teacher. I'll be honest, I really liked that. I liked that reputation, but always present in the back of my mind was this frustration that students were not taking me seriously. That some weren't getting very much work done, and that I was not using a lot of the wisdom and practices that I had gained in my first 4 years at that other school.

And that’s why, after a few months into the year, it all fell apart.

The students were becoming unruly. One kid glued all of my supply cabinets shut with actual Super Glue. One day I was out and I came back to a note from the substitute that wrote in all capital letters: YOUR CLASS IS OUT OF CONTROL. YOUR STUDENTS MADE ME CRY. 

This wasn’t love; this was disrespect. And so one day, I pulled one of the students who I was having trouble with, a ringleader of sorts, into the hallway, and leveled with him. I said, “Why are you guys acting like this?”

He looked at me and said, “But you acted crazy at the beginning of the year. You were standing on tables and didn’t care if the class got loud.” And I didn’t know how to respond, because he was right.

Is it possible to be fun and have still have high expectations?

So what is that balance? Is there room for both? Do I have to choose between being a stern, strict educator, which isn't really even my personality, or is it better to just be lots of fun and have students walk all over me?

This is a question a lot of teachers grapple with. The brilliant educator Dwayne Reed posted on Twitter last week, “You can be the fun teacher or the nice teacher or the teacher every kid likes and still have high expectations for them to follow the rules. It IS possible.”

I have to agree with Dwayne. There is space for both, and in fact, there needs to be space for both. So I want to share some ways that I’ve found to strike that balance.

Set firm expectations at the beginning of the year.

It is important to explicitly set the tone at the beginning of the school year. When I say explicit, I mean telling students on the first day of school that "I want our class to be fun and I'm excited to joke and laugh with you guys, but that there are also expectations for behavior in this room." And then spending some time talking about what those expectations are. I know this isn't a revolutionary idea, but I really believe in creating a class contract with students.

Have a discussion about what respect means, how they should act when the teacher is talking, and how they should act when the other students are talking. Talk about what the consequences for disrespect are. Let them be a part of that discussion, and write down what you and your class come up with. Put it on a poster and have students sign it, agreeing to the expectations of your classroom. That way, when one of those expectations is violated, which will of course happen, a student is disrespectful or the physical classroom space is not being taken care of, you have something to reference back to.

You can the talk to the class or pull an individual student aside and say, “Hey, remember that contract we made at the beginning of the year? Do you feel like you’re holding up your end of it?” That way there's no surprises when you show your displeasure with unacceptable behavior. My assistant principal from when I was in high school once said to me when I disrespected him as a high-schooler, "Don't mistake my kindness for weakness.”

Just because I like to have fun doesn't mean I can be walked all over. I can be kind and mean business at the same time. To me this isn't about pride, it's about respect. And of course, educators should be expected to give that same respect back to their students. We have to recognize that they also have bad days and need grace as well.

Being consistent is absolutely essential.

I’ve also found as a teacher and a parent of two young kids, that I have to be consistent. We have a rule in my house for our two kids, who are 7 and 6, that their rooms have to be clean every day before they go to bed. If you've ever been a parent of young kids, you probably know that this routine, this expectation, is not exactly an easy one to institute. Sometimes we'll have big busy days and bedtime will be later than normal and it would be a heck of a lot easier to just let them go to bed with messy rooms.

But we rarely if ever make an exception to this rule. Sometimes my kids aren't happy about it. Sometimes I might come across as the bad-guy-dad because I have to lay down the law. However, my wife and I have decided that this is an important expectation in our house, and that the skills and characteristics our kids develop because of it are worth it.

So we are consistent. And it's this consistency that makes this not that big a deal for our kids anymore. They know that this is how it works in our house, and so now they naturally do it. The same goes for the classroom. In all of my classes, I have always had a rule that if a classmate is talking about something related to the subject matter of the class, you cannot interrupt them. Even if we're in a discussion and another student has something important they want to say or contribute, you need to wait until they are finished.

Sometimes I just want to let them interrupt because they're excited and eager to engage in discussion, but I will always pause the interruption and say, "Hold on a second, let them finish and then you can respond." And because I'm consistent about this, interruptions don't happen nearly as often.

Consistency requires discipline.

Being consistent takes discipline on our parts as educators, and believe me, it's not always fun to be consistent. But I firmly believe that consistency is one of the things that our students need most. This is what I think it boils down to: If we can be consistent with our students, and outline our expectations and commit to sticking to them, that gives us space to be joyful and fun and smile before December.

I'm not my students’ friend, I'm a mentor. I'm a facilitator. I'm a teacher. This means I have to restrain myself sometimes and not laugh at inappropriate comments (even if I think they’re funny). It means I can build relationships with students and connect with them on a very deep level, but at the same time have expectations that need to be followed.

And what I found over and over again is that students appreciate this. When that student said to me that “I thought you were the crazy fun teacher who was okay with this kind of behavior,” I realized that behavior was partially my fault. I was sending mixed messages. And so my encouragement to you would to continue to express joy to your students. Tell jokes, be funny, keep it light sometimes, and make your class one that your students love. But also know that the some of the best learning happens when students know how they are expected to behave in your classroom, how they are expected to treat each other, your classroom space, and treat you.

The best teacher I ever had.

I had a teacher in Middle School who I absolutely idolized. When my parents were going through a divorce, he was one of the only people in my entire life who I could talk to about it. Every single day Mr. Peters would ask how I was doing and listen to me when I needed to be listened to. He was one of the most influential people of my entire childhood.

And I remember one time I cheated in his class, and he gave me a detention.

Did you enjoy this article? Hear me tell these stories and more on The Epic Classroom Podcast.

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