This is a response to an article in SecEd by Margaret Adams entitled Have You Smiled Yet? I was asked to write a response after expressing disbelief on Twitter that someone would still be advocating the ‘Don’t smile until Christmas’ mantra.
Seven years ago I entered my first teaching job in a deprived area of Nottinghamshire. Two schools, literally next door to one another, merged at the beginning of my NQT year. The department in which I was based was located in the roughest part of the school that was taken over. It would have otherwise been closed after failing to come out of Special Measures.
The pupils in front of me were a mixed bag. I had children who didn’t even register on the CAT scale for literacy with such horrendous homelives that it was a wonder that they owned a uniform and came to school. In a recent episode of SecEd Margaret Adams suggested that the traditional advice ‘not to smile before Christmas’ was defensible. I’d like to argue otherwise. Did I smile before Christmas in that first term as an NQT despite it being the hardest of my life? You bet. Here’s three reasons why whether new to the profession or vastly experienced you should ignore Margaret Adams’ exhortations and smile away.
First, as a teacher you are in loco parentis when with the young people in your classroom. At that moment, in the eyes of the law, you are standing in place of their parents. Can you imagine a parent who withheld smiles for a number of months from their offspring? How would that make them feel? Imagine being an apprehensive 11 year-old Year 7 pupil this term. How would you react to a teacher who refused to show any human warmth or positive emotion? Or one who blanked you when you called out a cheery ‘good morning’? If you’re not aware of the backgrounds of the children in front of you, ask them! You might be surprised at what you find out. Good teaching is all about relationships and bridges to learning.
Second, it’s important to smile for your own mental health. The best advice I ever received in terms of how to act in the classroom was to be an ‘enlarged version of yourself’. Trying to be two different people inside and outside the classroom is not a recipe for long-term stability, happiness or positive learning and teaching situations. Smiling is one of the most natural and spontaneous things we can do. So many unexpected things have made me smile over the past few years in the classroom that I’ve lost count. Teaching can be a long, hard slog – and especially during the Autumn term when Christmas seems a distant prospect. But ‘smile and the world smiles with you’ my dear old Grandma used to say, ‘frown and you frown alone’.
That’s not to say that new teachers should just ‘grin and bear it’, however. Smiling at everyone and everything can be as much an example of not being yourself as refusing to smile. Let your positive and negative emotions and reactions mean something to pupils. Let them know where they stand. If you haven’t read ‘The One Minute Manager’, buy or borrow it. Let other people be able to react to you as a human being, not as a machine implementing policies and spurious ‘wisdom’ from those more experienced in the profession.
Third, and finally, we have a responsibility to others in the workplace. An organisation – a school, a university, a business – is made up of the people it contains. Workplace cultures are not imposed, they are created and shaped by everyone – even those new to the profession. Not only will a well-placed smile cheer up colleagues who might be having a hard time, but they will hear from pupils how much they enjoy learning with you. That makes school a positive place to work and better for you in the long-run.
In conclusion, then, smile! Be positive. Let that be your default position and be an enlarged version of yourself. Find ways to make your classroom a positive, vibrant environment for learning. Use displays of emotion such as smiling to connect with those around you and forge meaningful relationships. Contrary to what Margaret Adams may think, it’s possible to be serious about learning and teaching whilst having fun – and smiling – along the way.