During my “preservice training” the summer before I began teaching in the Bronx public high schools, one of my instructors, a decorated veteran teacher, advised me not to smile during my first month in the classroom.
“At all?” I asked in disbelief.
“Don’t do it,” he said. “You’ll regret it.” He explained that by smiling, I’d be showing weakness, which the kids would take as license to walk all over me. He further admonished that, even when I didn’t actually know the answer to a question, it was imperative that I respond with a firm yes or no—"Are we having a fire drill today?” “No!” “Will we have to take a state-mandated exam at the end of this course?” “Yes!"—and then make corrections in the future as needed.
Perhaps it was due to my inability to follow his advice that my early years of teaching were so rocky; indeed, I smiled and even—God forbid!—laughed out loud. The kids correctly ascertained that I was a complete soft-touch, and far too green to be an old-hand at teaching, despite my insistence that I’d been at this 10 years and that my age was “somewhere between 20 and 40.” And they did what the veteran teacher predicted: They walked all over me. I would endlessly shout over their chatter to gain control of the class, and then—when I got them listening—they’d interrupt to ask personal questions (“Miss, do you have a boyfriend?”), and generally get off-topic.
But the thing is, the veteran teacher’s suggestion would never have worked for me, even if I had tried to keep up the charade he recommended. I’m not the type to avoid smiling; it just doesn’t work. And in fact, as I eventually learned, being the type of teacher who smiles, laughs, and is—for lack of a better word—a “cuddly” personality has been the mainstay of whatever success I can claim to have had in this profession.
In retrospect, I understand that the lesson I really needed was the importance of developing my own unique “teaching identity,” and of addressing the various aspects of teaching—discipline, academic rigor, classroom management, etc.—in a way that was true to the person I really was. But beyond being made aware of that challenge, I’m not sure there was any way to learn except trial by fire; I had to gain experience teaching to see what worked and what didn’t. Figuring out how to balance my own softness with the firm hand needed to manage a classroom of rowdy teenagers has been, for me, the steepest learning curve—but in the connections I’ve made with the students, it has also been the most personally rewarding.
Ilana Garon has been teaching high school English (and math, in emergency situations) in the Bronx since she graduated from Barnard College in 2003. She is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post and Dissent Magazine
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