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Teaching Secrets: How to Smile Before Christmas

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When I entered my first classroom many years ago, I found myself running to veteran teachers at the first sign of trouble, asking “What do you do?” Without fail I would hear someone say, “Don’t smile until Christmas!”

It seemed all of my experienced colleagues felt that unless you put forth a grim and commanding presence in the first months of school, any attempt at classroom discipline was doomed for the entire year.

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I heard this mantra, but I didn’t want to believe it. Their advice didn’t square with my vision of the kind of teacher I wanted to be. As my career progressed, I would spend some time each summer refining my opening gambit for my newest crop of students—scrupulously avoiding any hint of the “Don’t smile until Christmas” philosophy. Eventually, I settled on this:

Welcome to a new school year, students. It is my goal that each of you will be happy in our classroom each and every day. In order to make that happen, though, I have to be happy, too. So let’s work together to develop some class rules and routines that work for all of us.

During nearly three decades as a classroom teacher, I have never had a problem getting students to develop a list of guidelines both they and I could live with. And I never hesitated to throw in rules that mattered to me. I called them my “pet peeves.”

We all know that pet peeves may be small things, but they are somehow important to the individual. For example, one of my pet peeves was having a student sharpen a pencil when I was talking to the class. So my rule was that students could sharpen pencils any time they wished as long as I wasn’t speaking. I faced little or no resistance to my pet-peeve rules. After all, I was being so pleasant about it, and they sensed that I sincerely had their best interests at heart.

Once the class routines were well-established, I never faced insurmountable difficulties with structuring lots of student discussion and collaboration into my lessons. Everyone understood and accepted the rules, and with this base to build on, it was relatively easy for me to give students more challenging situations in which they could demonstrate their ability to manage themselves well.

Losing Control

Today I work as a literacy coach, and I have found that many teachers are fearful of releasing their classroom control to students. So they exhaust themselves instead, always standing at the front of the classroom and directing all instruction from what they see as a position of authority.

If this strategy fails to create a positive climate (and that’s often the case), it’s likely because students feel no ownership of the rules and routines the teacher is trying to enforce, and they are more inclined to test the teacher’s limits. Constantly having to fight for control of the classroom is both draining and defeating. By truly inviting students into the process, everyone wins, but especially the teacher.

A few years ago I worked with an interpreter for four deaf students who were in my classes. One day she said to me, “Your room is so active compared to other classrooms!” At first I didn’t know if this was meant as a positive comment or a criticism, but she explained that my students always seemed to be fully engaged in activities, often working in pairs and small groups, while in most other classrooms the teacher spent a lot of time directing and managing the kids.

It was heartbreaking to me when one of my students wrote a reflection that began: “In our other classes we get in trouble when we want to talk about what we’re learning.” Students must talk to each other in order to learn deeply. My success in engaging students in lively investigations, discussions, and collaborative projects hinged on the foundation laid during those first few weeks of school, when we spent time developing a cooperative work ethic.

Visual Appeal

Our positive atmosphere was bolstered by a classroom environment that was both visually appealing and student friendly. My grandmother wrote about and lectured on color theory, and I am my grandmother’s grandchild. My room was always full of colorful displays and lots of student work samples. Even my homeroom students (who can be troublesome because they’re less connected to the teacher and classroom) would enter my room and quietly wander around the walls, checking out the postings I’d carefully chosen to engage their attention.

I am convinced these two techniques—creating a feeling of shared ownership and maintaining an inviting classroom environment—worked wonders for me over a long career. My students knew I truly valued them and their learning. My extra efforts during the first few weeks of school paid off handsomely throughout the year. My students didn’t have to wait until Christmas to see me smile. They quickly learned Mrs. Marshall’s class was where they wanted to be.

As one of my students cried as she entered my room on the first day of school: “Oh, this is a happy place!”

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