Don’t Smile Until Christmas

Beginnings count. The longer I taught the more I saw the importance of the first week of a school year, the first day, the first hour, the first minute.

As a novice teacher, I tried to show at the beginning of a year that I wanted to be a friend, thinking that if students liked me, they’d learn from me. So I brought smiles and kind words and easy warm-up lessons to the first day of class. And my students took my gifts and trampled on them.

So after a few years, I caved to common wisdom—adopting the don’t-smile-‘til-after-Christmas strategy. I posted rules, set routines, and made my voice strong. Students followed my structures, but without spirit. Something, I felt, was missing.

My mistake, I came to see, was choosing between expectation and support. One did not need to exclude the other. And gradually I learned to start school years with a robust show of both, twining support and expectation together in opening exercises.

Here’s an example I often used with middle school students:

Before school started I’d go the bank and ask for a new $20 bill for each class.

“What is this bill worth?” I’d ask a class.

Then, as they watched, I’d crumple the bill. I’d drop it to the floor and grind it under my shoe. Next, I’d pick it up and try to smooth it. But the bill was wrinkled and dirty.

By the time you get to middle school, I’d tell students, you’ve been trampled on—by your friends and your family and bad deals in life. You’ve probably even hurt yourself a few times.

Once again I’d ask the same question: What is this bill worth?

My point, I’d tell them, is that bad times don’t diminish your worth. In this class I plan to recognize your value.

When I sat on a stool and said these things in a conversational tone, when I took my time and looked at each person, when I meant what I said and they could tell, I could feel them open toward me.

This, then, was the right time to talk about expectations. If I believed in my students, after all, I’d set high standards for them.




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