Don’t smile till Christmas

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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.
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