Saturday, April 26, 2014

Don't Smile 'Til Christmas or Why the Curmudgeons Were Wrong

Maybe its the time of year, but I'm struggling to remain motivated. Am I burning out? I hope not! I've decide I need to get back to blogging. I'm going to try something new. One of my friends outside of education asked  me recently what is one thing I would change about education. What a loaded question! I'm going to take a different approach. Standardize tests, and data driven curriculum aside, I'm going to say that we all need to smile more! Naive, I know. Stay with me though, I'm going to do a series of posts with small simple changes I have picked up from other educators, readings, classes, and some I've  stumbled into on my own. They will all formulate around SMILE, the S standing for "Setting the Tone". I'm sure there will not be anything here you don't already know, but sometimes its good to stop and think about why we do what we do, and what it can mean to the kids. So part one of Setting the Tone is going to deal straight up with SMILING, curmudgeons may want to stop reading now..

Have you ever been to a restaurant where the hostess greeted you with a stern gaze and suspiciously looked you up and down? As if you were the plebeian scum that they had the unfortunate luck to deal with every day? In one look they have let you know that they don't trust you, they really don't even like you, and their time could be better spend elsewhere? Of course you haven't....oh wait you have? In that case I need to pose a follow up question- WHY? Why, if you ever experienced this kind of greeting, would you return to that estalishment? Chances are such a greeting would sour your meal, possibly warrant a complaint to management and- barring spectacular service or food, make you hesitate to return.

I bring this up because first impressions are everything. How you greet a child entering your room sets the tone for the whole class. When I first started teaching I worried a lot about the "first day" impression. I spent a lot of time trying to create an image that said, "I am stern but kind. Intelligent but creative. I know everything and you are here to absorb as much of my wonderfuness as you can before you leave.  Oh yeah, I also have lots of rules and this will be a well organized class and you will come in and act exactly as I envision at all times, and you will come out of here ready to take on Watson and Ken Jennings with your eyes closed and when you win millions of dollars you will fondly think back to today and thank me saying something like, "I  didn't appreciate her then, I thought I hated her,  now I know she was preparing us well." I assumed that after the first day they would know all this about  me and the "tone" would be set for the year.

Um OK past Liz, how did that work out for you? I won't get into my misguided thoughts about what it means to be a successful educator, or how facts from history class have a hard time winning precious space in the hippocampus that is overflowing with lyrics from Drake or the Beibs. I won't even address the fact that a student thinking fondly of his middle school teacher is a rarity akin to Punchers the Lobster (which is very rare in case you didn't know). Actually if you didn't know that Punchers is a rare lobster beanie baby from the '90s you are probably not my target audience. I'm kidding of course (you are obviously far wiser than me and chose to invest in stocks rather than beanbag animals- you should cash those in and retire as Punchers in place of retirement hasn't panned out as planned) but my point is I was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, and the thing I was most  wrong about? Setting the tone for the whole year.

I'm not denying the importance of first day impressions, but setting the tone is something you have to do every period,  every class, every day. I have heard many a teacher lament because they planned what they thought was a fun and engaging lesson, only to be met by teenage eye rolls and a lack of excitement. I'm guilty of feeling this way occasionally too. What I've noticed though is that you can have the most  engaging lesson ever- heck you could have students doing handstands and disecting real life cadavers (on second thought- don't do either of those things) but if students enter the room before you get the chance to greet them- you miss the opportunity to pump them up or build them  up (whatever they need that day).

Our students carry a lot with them throughout the day. They carry their physical belongings, books, pencils, cell phones- but they also carry emotional things with them- crushes, home life, depression, a bad grade from the last class, a moment of sadness in the hallway. It is our job as educators to ensure that they enter our classroom ("our" meaning the classroom belonging both to the students and myself) in the best possible frame of mind. We cannot fix all of their troubles in the three minutes between classes- but we can set a tone that says, "for the next 45 minutes, you don't have to think about that stuff- take a load off and be a 13 year old student."

There are lots of ways to do this, but the easiest way I have found is the simplest way-  stand outside the door and greet them with a SMILE as they come in. I'll admit I've been waning in doing it this year, and I need to get back to it, because it is so powerful. This looks differently depending on the day. Some days I want my students energy through the roof- and on  those days  I'm in the hallway whooping and  cheering (you know quietly enough so as not to disturb the other classes around me- more later on how to do a quiet whoop) and welcoming them to the activity. I am often met with the teenage eye roll when I do this (middle schoolers are not supposed to smile or laugh at something on purpose), but I usually can crack a smile (yes I realize they are laughing AT me- who cares- whatever it takes).

Other days I simpy smile and say "hello." That's it- its as  simple as that, and yet how often do we forget to do that? We would never open the door for a friend with a surely glare or a disapproing eye- why do we  do this to our students? I try to make eye contact with each student and smile directly at them. Too many of them live in smileless worlds, they need this  emotional hug. I can also use this time for quick questions, "how did the science test go Jane?" "Hey did you win your game last night Jimmy" "Claire you look very nice today, I really like that color on you." The important thing here is that I mean what I'm saying. Claire did look nice, I did want to hear about Jimmy's game, and I know Jane was worried about the Science test.

I try to stay in the hallway until the second bell rings, so that even the late students, the ones that would normally slip in right when the bell rings and try to go on noticed, get a big smile or a compliment from me- they deserve it too, and may need it more than others.

I think the teachers I work with do a really nice job at being in the hallway in between classes, but I've heard some educators say, "I don't have time for that I need to be at the front  of the class ready to go as soon as the bell rings" or "I need to be in my room inbetween classes to talk with students or to set up for the next group." I understand these concerns, and maybe this is not something you feel you can do every day- but try it even once a week (maybe on Monday to set the tone for the week)?

This is such a small act that let's the students know that you care about them, you're excited for them to be there, and they are in an emotionally safe space.

I'll admit that I have been waning in my hallway presence as this year has gone on- just in thinking about the importance of this and writing this post, I need to get back out there. I really believe it is so important to greet students with a smile.

Let's revisit the restaurant analogy again. Does it make more sense now? In the same way that the hostess is the facee of the restaurant, we are the face of our classrooms. Unlike a restaurant however, our students cannot simply choose to leave, or not return in the future if they feel uncomfortable. They are required to come to our class- but if we're being honest, shouldn't we want them to come to our class?

I smile at my students as much as I can- but they make me smile, and even  laugh. Sure, some of it is that working in the trenches of hormonally charged awkward middle schoolers can make you laugh (occassionally at them, often with them, sometimes in spite of them, always at myself) but I like to think that students are the bright spot in education. Data, standardized exams, and minute by minute state approved plans may be dampening the school experience both for educators and students alike- but my students? They're human- which is the one variable we can't graph- but getting a student to smile who never shows emotion? Off the charts.

Do you smile before Christmas? What are some ways we can set a positive tone for our students?

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