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You Better Smile Before Christmas!

You Better Smile Before Christmas!

_mg_0359.JPGThe common classroom management wisdom we all hear is, “Don’t smile before Christmas.” I believe that advice is good advice when taken metaphorically. If taken directly as written, it is about the worst advice you can follow.

Good advice
In the middle of my fourth semester of teaching, when I was learning how to really get a handle on classroom management, I asked lots of questions. Among the answers I got was this little gem:

Never smile before Christmas!

I asked further questions for clarification, and my mentors advised me that basically my job as a teacher is to educate the children. It is not to be their friend. The funny thing is that when you are strict, they will like you more than when you try to be their friend. It’s one of those conundrums of life, I suppose.

I took the advice to heart. I assumed the role of benevolent dictator of the classroom. I stopped trying to be funny and like the students. I just tried to make sure they got their work done. It worked like a charm! I began to win the battles, simply because I didn’t give in. A lot of that resolve was because I had made the conscious decision to reduce my happy face appearances.

Bad advice
When my third year came and went, things were much much better. I decided at the onset of my fourth year that I was going to really try the rule. I was going to be serious all the time. It worked great until the end of the first class. I was strong and kept the serious attitude, but I finally broke down and laughed at something.

I discovered then that it just doesn’t work that simply.

Better advice
Some people have the attitude to be mean all the time. One of the kids told me this week that I am mean. I gave her “the look” (I will have to write an article about the look one of these days). She said, “Not really. You’re nice. But you’re strict.” I think that’s the issue with me. I can’t help but be nice most of the time.

My nature is to make jokes. I have had high school students I’ve worked with occasionally ask me how my middle school students ever learn anything with as much as I joke around. But I have accidentally stumbled upon something.

Laughter makes learning more memorable. If you have a natural sense of humor, then you can really increase learning by throwing in a few laughs here and there. It works! If you have to contrive the humor, or even if you don’t like telling a joke and hearing the students groan, just don’t try. But if it works for you, go for it! You’ll be amazed.

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Best advice
I think my third, fifth, and hopefully all the rest of the years, have been my best. The keys that I did in those was to:

  1. Start out super strict
    Explain and overexplain, enforce and reinforce, and overexplain some more. Ask questions for comprehension.
  2. Be yourself
    My self is sarcastic. I really try to tone it down quite a bit when I am teaching, but don’t try to put on a show. Just as those kinds of things don’t work well in job interviews or first dates, neither do they work well in class. Eventually the real you will be found out!

Once I began to get control of classroom management, I discovered some things. It required much less of my effort to stop the bad behaviors because I was investing time preventing them. I also discovered that I really had a lot more time to teach. That is good and bad. I almost didn’t know what to do with myself at first. I learned that I didn’t know how to actually fill an entire 50 minute class!

I also realized that it freed me up to express myself much more with the kids. I could ask them questions and not fear they would get off task for the remainder of the class (usually). I could tell them about my weekend. I could ask them about theirs. Basically, it gave me an interactive class instead of an overactive class. I didn’t have to yell at them for being too noisy. I didn’t have to argue with them. It was very cool.

So the moral is:

Never smile before your class’s behavior is under control.

That may be after Christmas. That may be after the first month. That may be Day 1. As you get older and grow as a classroom manager, the smiles will come earlier and earlier! The coolest thing is that if you can smile before Christmas, and the behavior is under control, then you get enough Christmas gifts from students to make all the other teachers jealous!

It’s never too late to start!
It was spring break of my second year when I determined to get control of classroom management. We were already preparing for the spring contest and spring concert. I was in an uphill battle. But I persevered. I asked tons of questions. I spent much time in prayer and planning each day. I was determined to win the war.

By the end of the school year, things had turned around. The kids who got mad at me for enforcing the rules had mostly straightened up, and classes ran extremely smoothly. The deal is, it is never too late to start. If you are sitting here in December (or May even) and realize that your class is out of control, then I encourage you to really dig in to some classroom management resources. Start with this list of 50 Classroom Management Tips I Have Learned This Month. Then dig further into my blog and anywhere else you can find good information. Remember, it is never too late to start.

Joel Wagner (@sywtt) began teaching band in 2002. Though he had a lot of information, his classes were out of control. He found himself tired, frustrated, disrespected by students, lonely, and on the brink of quitting.

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He had had enough. He resigned from his school district right before spring break of his second year and made it his personal mission to learn to be a great teacher. So You Want To Teach? is the ongoing story of that quest for educational excellence.

Joel Wagner
Joel Wagner (<strong><a href="">@sywtt</a></strong>) began teaching band in 2002. Though he had a lot of information, his classes were out of control. He found himself tired, frustrated, disrespected by students, lonely, and on the brink of quitting. He had had enough. He resigned from his school district right before spring break of his second year and made it his personal mission to learn to be a great teacher. <strong><a href="">So You Want To Teach?</a></strong> is the ongoing story of that quest for educational excellence.

10 thoughts on “You Better Smile Before Christmas!

  1. Ah, you have made me think about things that have really helped me be an effective classroom manager! I do have to say I would have a very difficult time not smiling. I tend to wear a smile as part of my outfit for the day unless I am in deep thought. I think smiling is reassuring and helpful. It helps puts students at ease. Of course, if a student and I are having a chat about bad choices then there is probably not a smile on my face either. I am going to blog about some things that have helped me.

  2. Good points here. I always tell first year teachers make sure you’re first day of class is a good one because that’s the best it will ever be. Everyone is so hopeful, expectations are high etc. The trick is to keep that bit of magic all year long.

    I run a pretty tight ship in my classroom because an out-of-control classroom is never, ever any fun. Having said that, I also inject a lot of humor into my classes. This, of course, is from someone who uses a rubber chicken as a pointer and occasionally dons a tiara.:-)

  3. I’ve done a LOT of thinking about classroom management. Heck… who hasn’t? I listened to everything they told me in teacher training, and after my first few years I threw most of it out in favor of philosophies of management that evolved out of reflection and… well honesty. What do they say?: “To thine own self be true”

    “Never smile before Christmas.” I never believed this from the get-go. Like you, laughter and humor are too much a part of who I am. Like you, I used to be concerned with whether or not they liked me. To be honest, I supposed I still am… but what I came to realize is that more than that what I want is for them to BELIEVE me. And I think that, above all else, they have to know WHO I am before they believe anything I say.

    But see, I think it goes beyond laughing and joking around. My students have seen me cry… several times, in fact. It mostly comes on when I’m addressing the parents at a concert and I reflecting on a piece that means a lot to me… or when I’m telling them how great they’re kids are and how much it fills me up on the inside to be able to work with them. I go all mushy. The running joke is that it isn’t a concert unless I cry at some point.

    **Relationships with students and parents should be, above all else, professional. You are not there to be their friend, you are there to be their teacher.**

    My big issue with this statement is that a “professional” relationship exists between to entities who are untied in a common understanding about what their goals are. This is not the case in education. Joe Kid walks in your classroom, most likely with his own agenda. In the old days you could beat him into submission. These days you have to reach out to them and hope to God that they respond. I’m not talking about being friends, I suppose, as much as I am about being more like… a youth minister.

    I am not “in business” with my students. I am a part of their life. And a lot of times we’re not teaching our subject matter as much as we are teaching life. “Professional” relationships fall short in that arena.

    The tough thing about the whole “being friends” is that it’s difficult to bring on the fire-and-brimstone when you need to confront a kid about something they need to change. Like what they said in Harry potter: It’s difficult to stand up to your enemies, but even more difficult to stand up to your friends. That’s the price I pay for being me. I’ve made peace with that.

    I don’t know… the other reason why I am what I am is probably selfish. I can’t imagine waking up and spending my entire day being an office stiff. I need to laugh… I need to be myself around people. No walls.

  4. I agree that there are some risks with “being friends” with the kids. Some of our kids have gotten way too comfortable with us lately and they try to take over the office. We put up a sign on the office door yesterday that said:



    Do not enter the office without permission.

    Knock on the door and wait.

    If you are not invited in, carry on with your life OUTSIDE of the office.

    So far it has worked out well. :)

  5. A teacher I worked with my first year advised, “smile until they get out of line, then cut them off at the knees”. It’s pretty similar to the sage advice dished out by Patrick Swayze in “Roadhouse”. “Be nice until it’s time to not be nice.” It’s worked pretty good so far. (15 years).

  6. Thank you so so soooo much for this! I just graduated college this May and will start my first full-time teaching job this Fall (K-8 music). I have no problem having lessons and planning and getting myself together, but, I keep going back and forth with what I should do on my first day – pertaining to classroom management. I am such a happy, vibrant, sarcastic person, so, the whole not smiling thing is REALLY hard for me. But, your suggestions are just great! I definitely feel much better now! Thanks!!!!! :)

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