Don’t smile till Christmas

I started publishing videos for students. But one of the things I least expected about doing this is how many teachers who have reached out and gotten in contact with me. I wanted to share one of the questions that was sent in, and my response.

Hey Eddie,

I am at university and about to begin my teaching internship. I am often asking educators about classroom management and behavior strategies since its the one thing I am most worried about in terms of becoming a teacher. The most common response I get is the need to set up routine, but also to literally be in terminator mode in terms of strictness and firmness for a term (I have also been told about the “don’t smile till Christmas” idea). Whilst I understand the need to be firm/strict, I came into teaching because I knew it could be challenging but extremely fun at the same time and it just isn’t in me to be that teacher that is constantly nagging and picking on minor things in order to set a standard for the class. I think me and you are similar in the sense that we like to, or even NEED to, engage with the students on a level that makes it enjoyable for the both of us. However its clear that you have accomplished this to a much higher level than I have even come close to in the past on pracs and you have found that balance between engaging with students and knowing when to assert your position.

So my question for you is, how do YOU set your standards, routines and behavior expectations with a class in your first couple of weeks with them and how do you go about easing those expectations over time to create that relaxed classroom nature.

As you might be able to tell from how I interact with my students, I have never felt entirely comfortable with the Terminator mode idea. I received similar advice while at uni and gave it a real go, but found it didn’t gel effectively with my personality. I felt like I wasn’t being myself whenever I took that approach to interacting with students, and it didn’t seem to help me or them at establishing a positive learning environment. I did, however, recognise that I needed to act and speak in ways that didn’t come naturally to me at first. I couldn’t be a Terminator all the time, but I had to master the ability to be a Terminator some of the time – when it was really necessary to draw the line in terms of expected behaviour inside and outside the classroom. It wasn’t in my personality to be dead serious about everything, but if I wasn’t able to be dead serious some things, then I would just come across as flippant and dismissive. That’s not doing a service to the kids any more than being angry all the time would be.

I guess my primary tip for classroom management is this. The key is not any technique or program in particular – even though I’ve learnt tons and they’re all useful. The key is relationship. When we walk into that classroom, we are not just there to transmit information. We are there to form a relationship with the kids, and that relationship becomes the conduit through which information and understanding flows. Have you heard this phrase before? “Students don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” It sounds a bit cutesy, but I’ve found it to ring very true with my experience. That means you care about them and ask how they’re doing as human beings. But it also means you care about their standard of conduct and will discipline them where necessary. If students see you don’t care in either of those ways, you will quickly see that no management strategies in the world can establish a really effective environment for learning – at least not for long.

So to answer your question directly: what do I do in those first couple of weeks? I don’t think I can give you any blanket advice here. I’ve taken a slightly different approach with every single student I’ve ever met, and that’s because (for all their similarities) every single student is unique. This is something that is best gained with experience: you need to learn how to read students and their particular needs, and respond accordingly. Some of them need you to be really serious, sure. But they also need to see that you can laugh. That you are genuinely concerned when they are going through hard times. That you can call them by name, look them dead in the eye with burning anger and tell them to leave the room immediately when they act in a way that harms or endangers another student. And to do all this in a way that’s consistent with your own character and personality. They need to experience your full range of emotion, in the right place at the right time, for you to earn their respect. And in that context, learning can really thrive.

Practical tips for maths teachers: the growth mindset (TER Podcast follow-up #2)

Last time I wrote some thoughts I had after completing my interview for the TER Podcast about maths education. You can go back and read that if you’re interested in thinking through some of the big-picture issues surrounding the problematic state of maths education in Australia. Following on from that post, I want to share some more practical pointers that I’ve observed to be helpful in a variety of different classes and contexts. Each one is its own idea, so I’m going to devote a few posts to unpacking them in a bit of detail.

What are some of the effective approaches you’ve seen people use? Answer number one: adopting a growth mindset.

First things first. It’s vital that teachers regard their students with a real growth mindset. This is a phrase familiar to anyone who has read the work of psychology professor Carol Dweck, who gives the best summary of what the idea is about:

In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.

You can see why this is such a big deal to maths education. Maths, perhaps more than any other subject in school, is dominated by a fixed mindset. There are people who are good at maths and then there are the rest of us. In fact, the phrase, “I’m no good at maths” has entered into our cultural vernacular and sadly become an acceptable response to anything encountered in everyday life that involves numbers or numerical thought.

The problem here is that this kind of thinking becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. When we think of ourselves as unable to do mathematics, we don’t bother trying – and hence deprive ourselves of the very experience that will allow us to develop mathematical skill (namely, struggling to grasp numerical concepts and master the tools necessary to solve problems that require their application).

It doesn’t take too much imagination to realise that our self-concept when it comes to our mathematical ability isn’t just self-generated. It is formed, in large part, by those we trust to nurture and develop us as mathematicians – our maths teachers. What kind of an effect do we as maths teachers expect to have if we consistently communicate that “This is too hard for you, and you will never be able to succeed at it no matter how hard you try”?

And sadly, whether it’s through the bevy of tests that end in failure, or the advice to children to take the mathematics course that will maximise their ATAR rather than challenge and enrich them, or even just the little interactions with students every lesson that erode their self-confidence – this is the message that students often pick up from us, their maths teachers. Some students survive this process, but many don’t. They aren’t just disempowered – they’re paralysed. No wonder “maths anxiety” is a thing (who ever heard of any other subject that has its own psychological malady associated with it?). What a tragedy.

It’s obvious that people can take the growth mindset too far. One of the most enduring characteristics of truth in all spheres is that it will always be abused by someone with the wrong idea about how it should be interpreted, and this is no exception. If you’re curious about this and want to know how to avoid that particular trap, you can watch a vlog I recorded about it a few months ago.

But that isn’t most of us. For most of us, the growth mindset is a breath of fresh air. Yes, anyone can master maths! Sure, it takes some more time than others – but who is surprised by that given that every human being is unique and brings a new perspective and set of skills to the table? Rather than view those differences as a cage locking us into a certain level of achievement, let’s embrace them and see how they can be brought to bear on the pursuit of mathematical understanding that we should all be a part of.