January 26, 2006

What is there to smile about?

A post from another blogger: “If you smile too much or too soon, you are done. DONE, I tell you! It's like I read or heard once somewhere: It's easier to start out strict and ease up on students than it is to start easy and then turn around and attempt to be a good disciplinarian.” I agree with the second part. Once the ship is lost, not even the largest bucket brigade imaginable can bail it out. However I disagree with the smiling part. So…

What is there to smile about?

Effective classroom management has nothing to do with how much or how soon a teacher smiles, even a substitute teacher. Managing a classroom effectively is all about using well prepared assignments that engage the students and keep them focused, on-task, and most importantly, LEARNING. An engaged and active group of students working towards a tangible, attainable (and dare I say) fun goal is much easier to manage than a “bored hoard.” One of the reasons substitutes have such a hard time (and I subbed for two and half years before my first contract) is because of the lack of preparation for the sub by the regular classroom teacher, and the abysmally weak lesson plans left behind that often include showing a dreadfully boring video tape. What’s a sub to do? Of course, part of the reason this condition exists is because so many in the sub pool are so under-qualified for the classroom. Honestly, where do the find some of these people? But not all subs are inadequate and in my opinion substitute teaching is a far better teacher-prep program than most of the so-called teacher-prep programs I’ve been around (but that’s not many.) And to those substitute teachers who may be reading this now, you have my deepest respect and sympathy. Jumping into a hungry pool of sharks, covered in blood, and smelling of fish is not for the faint of heart. So smile at your students when you show up for work tomorrow no matter what the regular teacher leaves for the lesson plan.

Discipline is a dish best served with sides of structure and consistency. Well-designed assignments that clearly map out step-by-step instructions that students can follow do far more to deter inappropriate and annoying behavior than will multiple detentions, time-outs, and referrals. Hard and fast due dates inhibit student procrastination and encourage dedication and follow-through. Always have something due by the end of the period, and a major quiz, test, or benchmark project due at the end of each week. That way, students never have time to goof-off. Of course, this kind of schedule requires a level of preparation, experience, and expertise on the part of the teacher that newer teachers often lack. Not because of a lack of smarts, but because of a lack of time spent teaching. It’s just one of those things. Over time a teacher learns the value of consistency. Some find a repeated daily schedule dry and unexciting. However, kids (even though they would never admit it) do better on a routine. Everyday we line up outside the door and wait for the bell to ring (Ok, not in high school). Everyday we have an assignment waiting on the whiteboard that can be started as soon as the students sit down. Expectations are clear and understood by all. Rules are posted and consistently enforced. Basic teacher stuff that works far better than a teacher’s frown or scowl. Smile, and the students smile with you.

Unfortunately, a teacher who always smiles will quickly lose the useful effect on their pupils of a happy face. There are times when a teacher must show another side. Kids really can be like sharks smelling fresh blood when they sense and grab a hold of a perceived weakness in a teacher. One slip-up, and the troubles begin. It happened to me today in class. A student asked for a deadline extension on an assignment. I gave it to him, and was then mauled by an angry, threshing pack or man-eaters. My error, and I paid for it, dearly. Sometimes a teacher must use their emotional side to make an impression or drive home an important point. I heard a story about a retired colleague who once used a starter pistol in class. He would fire a blank towards the ceiling every few seconds to make his point and demand the attention of his students. (Of course, this was a long time ago. I don’t think such a teaching practice would be recommended or accepted in the current climate. Nor would I ever advocate such an approach.) I don’t believe it’s ever acceptable to lose control, but there is nothing wrong with showing your students emotions beyond your happy smiling face.

Being emotional in front of students is more common among athletic coaches. Just watch the adults on the sidelines of any Friday night high school football game. Coaching with emotion is considered passionate. Shouldn’t classroom teachers be passionate as well? Ok, perhaps not that passionate. I’ve had my moments. Before teaching computers I taught drama. It’s somewhat more typical for a drama teacher to be emotional in front of students. For me, my emotions are like a barometer. It’s true now when my advanced students evaluate our weekly “Friday Show” that airs on the close-circuit television network on campus. My students know that if I get choked up and need a moment before being able to discuss the merits of their efforts they have already succeeded in doing a great job. Letting your students know that you care is important. When kids see that their efforts truly matter to their instructor, they will work even harder towards achievement.

So go ahead. Smile. Your success in the classroom is not determined by your facial expressions, but rather by your determination to teach your students as reflected in your preparation for class, your commitment to consistency, and your willingness to be a human being. That’s a lot to smile about.

Please post your comments below.

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