Don’t smile until Christmas.
That’s the advice beginning teachers sometimes hear as they enter the classroom for the first time.
Don’t start out too friendly. Don’t try to be “liked.”
To the students, we are told, a smile betrays a weakness.
Don’t let them think you are a “pushover.” Your job is to show them that you’re the boss and there will be no monkey business. Good idea. Don’t smile until Christmas.
Teachers: Don't Smile Until Christmas...
but some will snicker at this advice
I tried to follow that advice when I made my first solo flight as a teacher many years ago. I glided into the room with grade book, red pen, seating chart, and five-page lesson plan. I was as sober as a judge as I introduced myself and started calling names. The attendance report is a legal document. I was serious about making sure I was getting an accurate account of who said “here” and who didn’t. The room was quiet. I was a stranger in a strange land, totally new to the high school.
Students didn’t know what to expect. The hallway grapevine was clueless. Older brothers or sisters had not had me in class. Senses were on full-alert as students carefully evaluated my every move. What type of teacher did they have here? Was I “easy” or “mean”? Was I smart? Was I crazy? Students suspected that some of their teachers were “certifiably insane.” Maybe I was one of those.
They had to tread carefully in those first crucial moments lest their new teacher had installed trapdoors designed to catch some hapless pupil in the infraction of some as yet unknown rule. Who knew? I might be one of those “straight to the office” teachers whose first impulse to any situation was to point to the door and say “Out!”
I could tell the kids were nervous as I called their names. They were fidgeting in the desks they had chosen for themselves. They would soon learn that I was a “seating chart” teacher. That would be enough of a clue to help them start forming conclusions. But at this earliest dawning of the class I simply wanted to find out who was absent. I knew that taking accurate attendance might be my most important job today as far as my principal was concerned.
As I called the names each person answered with “Here.” Occasionally one would say “Present.” Admittedly, it was monotonous. The seating chart would make this boring task unnecessary in the future. Near the bottom of the list I droned out yet another student name.
“President,” a young male voice answered.
The already quiet room became even more still. No one breathed. Who knew how the mysterious new teacher would react to this deviant answer? It might be perceived as the height of impudence. It could bring a scolding. Perhaps the entire class would pay a penalty for this insolence.
It all happened in less than four seconds. I looked up from my list and focused on the young lad near the back of the room. And then I couldn’t help it. It was impulsive.
You could feel the tension in the room lift away
He smiled back.
“Pay attention in class,” I said, still smiling, “and someday maybe you will be.”
So I broke the rule. I smiled before Christmas. I smiled before Thanksgiving. I smiled before five minutes had ticked off the clock the first day.
When I work with beginning teachers these days, I pass on advice I was able to use when I started out. But I don’t tell them not to smile until Christmas. That might have worked a century ago in one-room schools when the teacher had to whip the biggest kid to establish authority. But students of the 21st century respond much better to kindness and a sense of humor. So I tell novice teachers to be firm, to be fair, and to smile long and smile often. If they’re lucky, their students will smile back. Education is serious but it does not have to be grim. A school year gets off to a good start if there are plenty of smiles, followed by grins, chuckles, and even some laughing out loud all before Labor Day.