New teachers, or seasoned teachers with new classes: “Don’t smile until Christmas….”

In tes magazine, 10 August 2018 issue, there were several articles on the subject of how important it is to build the most positive and productive relationships across the school community.  In one of these articles, ‘Do your relationships with pupils really matter?’, Chris Parr interviews Bridget Hamre, associate research professor and associate director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning.

Among other things, Hamre says: “One of my least favourite things to hear is that many new teachers, particularly those working in challenging urban settings, are told ‘don’t smile ’til January’ – meaning they should be strict and disconnected until they have the classroom ‘under control’. That is exactly the wrong approach. Teachers can have well-managed classrooms, and warm and supportive relationships at the same time.”  I tweeted this comment, and was quite surprised at the amount of attention it generated on Twitter (119 likes, 20 RTs and 22 comments as of today), with educators agreeing with, or disagreeing with, what she had said – in varying degrees of vociferousness.

I remembered that when Robin McPherson and Carl Hendrick asked if I would comment on Behaviour in a chapter of ‘What Does This Look Like in the Classroom?’ I met a similar question.  I am FAR from a behaviour expert – certainly no Paul Dix – and I was paired with Tom Bennett (the government behaviour tsar…), but when I considered the questions I said I was happy to give my opinion based on my 30 years in schools.  This particular question was phrased:

‘Should you really not smile before half term?’

(The time frame varies!  Certainly I remember from my early years in teaching the phrase ‘Don’t smile until Christmas’ was the one that resonated).

Tom said: “This is folk wisdom with a grain of truth that is frequently misunderstood.  Taken literally it is perhaps obviously mistaken.  To not smile in circumstances that would normally demand it would be to appear synthetic and odd.  That said, the relationship between student and teacher is best seen as a professional one.  It can be warm and positive, but at all times it needs to be authoritative, or it is merely baby-sitting.  Teachers need to know that students will obey reasonable instructions, not because they should, but because they want to.  On that basis, it is wise if teachers begin their relationships with pupils as sternly as they feel comfortable with.  It is far easier to start a little strictly, and then ease into a more comfortable register with pupils, than the reverse.  Classes frequently see over-familiarity as an invitation to be overly familiar.  Once this tone is activated, it is hard to defuse or reverse.  Because of this, the best course for teachers is to attempt to be more than usually formal.”

My answer was shorter and simpler: “You definitely should!  I would say smile MORE, smile often and show you are pleased to be there (even if you really feel you would rather be anywhere else).  Be at the classroom door and smile at each individual as they arrive.  Show your warmth, your humanity, your compassion, your interest in them.  It certainly doesn’t mean you’re weak.  You can be (you must be) firm/strong AND kind.  Be clear, be consistent, but be warm.”

Can we both be right?

The advice I would give to new teachers, or to experienced teachers building a relationship with a new (and perhaps tricky) class, is to recognise that you may well be tested, and you have to give the impression of clarity, calmness and confidence, even if inside you quake.  In my view, this does not have to be because you are overly formal, reacting inappropriately harshly to the most minor infringement (in the hope that this means the students will be less likely to commit any more significant transgressions) or certainly to suggest that you have, in fact, had a sharp poker surgically implanted in your rear during the summer holiday.  Establishing your authority within the classroom does not require coldness and lack of positive emotion, though I accept it requires a degree of professional distance and the recognition that the focus has to be a productive working relationship and not a friendship.  These young people have their friends – they don’t need another.  You can be friendly without being their friend, and if pupils do like you that should be a by-product of your successful teaching of them, not a driver.  I agree with Tom that if you get it wrong and begin by trying to court popularity, it is likely to go horribly wrong and can be a very difficult position to retrench from.

I repeat I am not a behaviour expert.  If you need to look more deeply into behaviour management, I think Doug Lemov is good on this in ‘Teach Like a Champion 2.0’.  I think Paul Dix’s ‘When the Adults Change, Everything Changes’ is a brilliant book.  And look at what Bill Rogers has to say – see, for example, this very useful post about Bill Rogers from Tom Sherrington.

But withholding your smiles and avoiding any show of warmth?  Not what I would advise.

What do others think?  Please share your views!

Photo credit: John Berry. (How fab is this?)

6 thoughts on “New teachers, or seasoned teachers with new classes: “Don’t smile until Christmas….”

  1. Surely young teachers can’t still be told this?! I had heard of ‘don’t smile till Christmas’ when I trained – almost 30 years ago – but was told this advice was rubbish. I’ve never had cause to doubt that.

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    1. Let’s hope, Rodger! But when Bridget Hamre mentioned the phrase in the tes magazine a couple of weeks ago, I tweeted about it and various people commented, there was no sense from the younger contingent that ‘I’ve never heard that..’!

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      1. I qualified last year, and have heard the phrase used multiple times in different schools during my placements. I can understand why some teachers would stand by this advice, but it did not suit me. I do however think there is something to be said for being firmer with a new classes to establish suitable behaviour and routines.

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      2. I don’t disagree with you – though it concerns me when advice equates ‘firmness’ with lack of warmth/humour/humanity. Hope this year goes well for you. Thanks for commenting.

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