If you’re like me, sometime during your first year teaching someone told you, “The trick is…don’t smile until Christmas.” For some people that advice might have been easy to take, but as a person whose default facial expression is a smile, I was crestfallen. I kept myself awake thinking, “I’ll never be a good teacher – I smile too much!”
The idea was that being happy in front of students would show weakness and make your class less efficient or rigorous. The assumption was that joy and efficiency were at odds. You could either have one or the other. Luckily for me, my smiling habit (or NRF – nice resting face) did not ruin my career as an educator.
In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion it may have been an asset. We reached out to an expert in the field to get more insight on this important topic. Eric Jensen is one of the leading translators of educational neuroscience in the world. He wrote Teaching with Poverty in Mind (the book we quoted yesterday) as well as 25 other books and several journal articles. Eric wrote,
Kids either love learning or they don’t. They either like their teachers or they don’t. They either feel respected or they don’t. Ultimately, they’re either going to graduate or they won’t. Kids who leave school have good reasons to leave: they don’t feel liked, respected or emotionally connected to the school.
What was the common feature in all their decisions? Feelings! I am NOT saying schools should be a “kum-ba-yah love fest.” What I’m saying is that you can have both: academic rigor and emotionally engaged students. Strong teachers do this ALL the time. How we feel is what’s real. Take home message here is ‘Keep it real and keep the joy in kids. Sometimes you’re all they have.’
I wish Eric had been there my first year teaching to tell me it was “okay” to keep the joy going in my classroom. The fact is his work and the work of many other neuroscientists and psychologists tell us that it is more than “okay” to focus on joy in your classroom. Research shows that joy and efficiency are not at odds (the assumption underlying the “don’t smile” suggestion). Instead they are mutually reinforcing – a virtuous cycle.
Let’s look at one aspect of a joyful classroom – a teacher’s relationship to students. Rather than being a hindrance to efficient classroom, good relationships are foundational. According to research from the king of meta-analyses himself, Dr. Robert Marzano:
In a recent meta-analysis of more than 100 studies (Marzano, 2003b), we found that the quality of teacher-student relationships is the keystone for all other aspects of classroom management. In fact, our meta-analysis indicates that on average, teachers who had high-quality relationships with their students had 31 percent fewer discipline problems, rule violations, and related problems over a year’s time than did teachers who did not have high-quality relationships with their students.
Which brings me back to smiling. Smiling is the universal sign of human connection and if we want to have high quality student-teacher relationships and bring joy to our students, it’s a must!
Sometimes though, we all know it’s hard to keep our smile strong every day, so consider trying this idea based positive psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman’s article “Positive education: positive psychology and classroom interventions.” It’s a powerful way to build joy both for yourself and for your students: Three Good Things. Write down three good things that happened each day for a week. Next to each positive event listed, write a reflection on one of the following questions: ‘Why did this good thing happen?’, ‘What does this mean to you?’, ‘How can you increase the likelihood of having more of this good thing in the future?’ Have a very happy Thursday and remember…