Saturday, August 17, 2013

Classroom Management: Don't Smile 'Til Christmas

Fellow educators: what was your number one growth area during your first years of teaching?

I know what mine was.

As a beginning teacher, I felt pretty confident in planning lessons. I knew my content. I believed myself to be a competent assessor.

But classroom management? Not my strongest suit. To be honest, I had a lot to learn. My first year, I was too easy on the kids, which made for a rough year. Sharing my struggles with a colleague, I got this nuggest of sage advice: "You want the kids to respect you? Don't smile 'til Christmas."

I resolved that I'd be much tougher on the kids my second year, that I'd show them I was in control of the class. I wouldn't smile until Christmas; let them sweat a little, let them wriggle uncomfortably under my heavy glare if they took a toe out of line.

The problem was, this is totally not who I am. I am far too enthusiastic and energetic and joyful to give the kids the stink eye until Christmas!

Looking back, I believe my colleague meant well with this advice. But it really is terrible advice!

A "don't smile 'til Christmas" teacher assumes that a well-managed classroom is one in which s/he must enforce strict discipline. Even the hint of a sense of humor or any joy in the learning process might be seen as frivolous, off-task behavior. Certainly can't have that!

It seems to me a quick slide from "don't smile 'til Christmas" to "school is basically prison" for students. You know...put in your time, keep your head down, you'll be fine. Just get through it. Go along with it and try to not get the warden (principal) to come down on you.

Who ever said school has to be a prison? And how much valuable learning will students experience in a prison-school?

I understand the concern--especially for beginning teachers who (like me, as a newbie) struggle with knowing how to arrange their classroom atmosphere to make it conducive for learning. But we also need to consider the needs of our students. Certainly teachers shouldn't strive to be buddies with their students, but they also shouldn't need to glower at the kids unnecessarily.

My friend Al is a longtime teacher in middle grades, and his approach is very different. He is a proponent of what he calls heart-directed management. Rather than carrots and sticks as extrinsic motivators, he strives to really get to know his students, to understand what makes them tick. He learns their interests, their strengths and weaknesses, their preferred learning styles, their hopes and ambitions. Once he builds this sort of relationship with the kids, coercive, manipulative management (avoiding smiling?) is far less necessary. He smiles readily, laughs heartily, thinks contemplatively, and corrects gently. He is able have honest conversations with kids about their occasional missteps, but as the year goes on, this is generally less necessary. His respect for his students affects the classroom atmosphere, and they develop deep respect for him in turn, and their classmates too. His classroom is full of grace!

This kind of heart-directed approach seems so very appropriate in a faith-based school, such as the one in which Al teaches, but I think all teachers could stand to take a page from his book.

Because students don't need this guy to be their teacher:

Image from Shardayyy [CC BY 2.0]


  1. Thanks for this post. I was definitely the same way in my last years of teaching, relaxed the first year and too strict in the second year. I am trying an approach similar to what you described, getting to know the students on a deeper level, trying to have a deep connection with them.

    1. Glad it was an encouragement, Nathan! It's not easy work--getting to know the kids at that level--but it's worth the time and effort spent! Blessings to you in your new year of teaching.

  2. What a great read just before starting school tomorrow! I'm heading into my second year in 3rd grade and am hoping to create a classroom like you described, where students feel like they are known beyond a name. I appreciated your thoughts!

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Megan! Blessings to you as you begin year two. (It gets better and better, if you're willing to keep learning!) :-)