Don’t Smile ’til Christmas: A Teacher’s Worst Advice

When I first started teaching, I actually gave stock to the garbage of an educational aphorism, “Don’t smile until Christmas.” I remember thinking, “I’m young . . . I look even younger. I need to lay down the hammer early so kids don’t mess with me.”

And there I was, reading the syllabus with a scowl. Emphasizing words harshly. Thinking that my increased volume would shock the youth into bowing to my authority. Puritan preachers had nothing on me. Had I been better at reading my audience, though, I would have noticed their confused expressions. What is this nut job all upset about? It’s day one…

Thankfully, I’ve learned to ignore the useless beliefs that “iron fists fuel learning.” I’ve come to realize – through practical experience and nerd-fest researching – that we should be giving teachers, new and old, the opposite advice: Don’t stop smiling . . . ever.

Smiling is arguably the most important and impactful nonverbal expression humans can use in social situations. So, let’s take a crash course in what smiling is and why it’s so important:

The Purpose of Smiling

Primates expose their teeth as a sign of submission. Perhaps this is where curmudgeonly teachers get their crappy advice about not smiling. Perhaps they think that we are still primates who, upon exposing our smile, submit to an onslaught from our foes. Good thing we are beyond our baboon beginnings.

For those of us who ascribe ourselves as “human,” smiling is an expression of social safety. It signifies that we are not a threat, that we are approachable, and that we wish to share positive emotion. If any of these ideas – safety, approachability, positive emotion – do not belong in the classroom, then, by all means, don’t smile.

The Effects of Smiling

There is ample research on the positive effects, internally and externally, of smiling often. Ron Gutman provides an engaging and informative summary here:

Let’s explore the benefits from an educational standpoint:

Smiling prevents perceived threat

Imagine you are scanning the brain of an adult as he or she sees a picture of a neutral facial expression. The part of the brain you would see light up would be the frontal lobe – our rational thought center. We are, in a sense, logically analyzing if this face is happy, sad, angry, etc.

Compare this to the brain scan of a teenager looking at the same photo. Which areas of the brain light up? The limbic system – in particular the amygdala which is processes emotion and perceives threat. In other words, teenagers are more likely to read neutral expressions or tones as threatening. Worse yet is the idea that when one is sleep deprived, this effect is strengthened. Read: You think you’re being normal and neutral. Sleepy teen thinks you’re being a jerk-hole.

The simplest solution: Smile more.

Facial Feedback Response

Theorized by good ol’ Charles Darwin, FFR suggests that cueing a certain facial expression can activate the feeling of that emotion. This theory has since been legitimized: We can fake it until we make it – or better yet, fake it until we become it as the great Amy Cuddy suggests about nonverbal influence.

Think about the power of this small idea. We can intentionally counteract sourness syndrome. Smiling, then, can not only affect our students; it can create a better experience for us as teachers. Joyful teachers = joyful teaching = joyful learning.

Smiling is contagious

As summarized in Ron Gutman’s TED talk, it is difficult to suppress smiling when seeing someone else smile. For example, try not to smile looking at this kid:

Some link this idea to the concept of mirroring – the process by which humans build rapport and mimic one another’s nonverbals. By smiling, we make it more challenging for our students to be a bunch of angsty grumps. Now, this doesn’t mean jumping around with exaggerated grins – doing so will just tick your kids off even more. A simple smile will do, please.

Smiling increases ratings of competence, sincerity, and sociability

Do we want students to see us as knowledgeable and competent? Yes. Do we want students to trust us and see that we are sincere in our intentions to educate them? Yes. Do we want to build rapport and have strong social trust in the classroom? Yes. All of these are beneficial for learning and management, and all of them can be increased by smiling often.

A joyful default makes management easier

The idea that smiling helps classroom management runs counter to the horrid advice to “not smile until Christmas.” However, picture yourself as a student. You have a teacher who smiles often (even if Ms. Grins is faking it). Then, after you and your classmates get a little unruly, that smile ceases immediately. Before the teacher even says a word, your brain has been cued to recognize the behavior as socially unacceptable. Your developing brain is improving its ability to read emotional responses. Compare this to a classroom in which the teacher normally scowls. You’re having to constantly worry about whether this pseudo-scizophrenic teacher is going to snap.

Smiling, therefore, makes it more clear to students what behavior is socially acceptable in our classroom and what behavior is not. In my experience, after developing a smiling default, my students know quickly when they’ve disrupted a social expectation.

For those who think, “I don’t smile. It’s not natural for me. I’m not going to be someone I’m not,” consider this. You were actually born joyful. It was who you were as a person – joyful, smiley, full of laughter. But, you allowed certain circumstances and people (probably a slew of grumpy “don’t-smile-until-Christmas” teachers) to change who you were and kill your joy. By smiling, you are cultivating who you used to be: a happy person who loved learning. So, cheese it up and bring a smile back to your life, your teaching, and your students’ learning.

This post originally appeared on  Check out the site for more great teaching resources: for teachers, by teachers.  



How Academic Risk-Taking Dies in the Classroom

Picture a baby. A fresh one. Straight out of the womb. It’s probably making a bunch of noise. It’s probably gross looking (let’s be honest: this whole “cute newborn” thing is a myth). Despite the grossness of this baby, it came into the world wired with a certain skill set.

On a résumé, this baby would probably list skills like:

– Defecation

– Crying

– Nonsensical noise making

– Breathing

– Sleeping

– Eating

That’s essentially it. In other words, this child has zero employable skills (Psssh … millennials these days …). But there’s another major ability this child has in excess: risk-taking.

We are born risk takers. We will do just about anything as babies, no matter what the outcome of the risk. Some of these risks are idiotic. Others are critical. Think of one of the most basic functions: walking.

Picture Baby A about to take his first steps. His parents are probably staring at him, rooting, clapping, smiling, videotaping. Now, this move will not bode well for Baby A, who will most likely crash to the ground in an uncoordinated thump. But Baby A don’t care. Baby A is a risk taker. And as the much anticipated fall happens, the parents no doubt scream and cheer rather than chastising their tot for failing.

What does Baby A do after this failure? Try again. And again. And again (at least until his parents can get that perfect Facebook-worthy video posted). Baby A will do this until he can walk. And voilà! We have learning. Walking is not the most employable skill, but we have progress, people.

This natural risk-taking is critical to development. And yet, at a certain point, we stop taking risks that help us grow. But we don’t stop taking risks because of physical danger (I once saw a kid kick himself in the forehead just to see if he could, so I can tell you physical danger is not an issue for today’s youth). We ultimately stop taking risks—positive risks that lead us forward—because of social danger. And so a critical question educators must ask themselves becomes: Are we creating a culture of academic risk-taking in our classrooms?

Take the common risk of answering a question in class. Imagine the growth potential if 100 percent of our students attempted to answer 100 percent of the questions we asked 100 percent of the time. But they don’t—at least not at the secondary level. There’s no physical danger in raising your hand in class, only social danger.

Many early elementary classrooms are teeming with kids who still own that innate risk taking. When my wife asks her second graders a question, I see dozens of hands shoot up, vying for a chance to answer a question. Kids are elbowing one another for space. Grunting increases.

A high school teacher asks a question and it’s a different story. Eye contact drops, faces contort in a pseudo “look-like-I’m-thinking” expression, and silence stalks the room. Maybe one brave soul will flick a subtle wrist with a half-inch raise of the hand, hoping he or she isn’t actually called on. We have witnessed a death in the type of risk-taking we want our young learners to practice. But such academic risk-taking didn’t die overnight.

Students lose this academic risk taking for many reasons. But one of the main reasons they lose it is because we create a culture of social danger in our classrooms. Here’s how:

We are more concerned with acknowledging the product than acknowledging the process.

With our hand-raising example it looks like this:

Teacher asks young child a question: “What’s the solution to the equation 6 divided by 2 equals …?”

Young child feverishly elbows out competition, certain of success.

Teacher: “Yes, Taylor?”

Taylor: “12!”

Teacher: “Nope. Sorry, Taylor. Who has a better answer? Marcus?”

Marcus: “3.”

Teacher: “YES MARCUS! Great job!” Maybe high-fives commence, anthems start playing, candy and Webkins get tossed to Marcus, celebrating his brilliance. Maybe not. Regardless, the teacher has lavished praise on the product of learning (right answer) over the process of learning (attempt at solving). A message has been given, however subtle: Right answers get rewards. The subtext is: If you don’t have the right answer, don’t try.

We know teachers don’t intend to send this message, but everything speaks. And putting product over process once doesn’t kill academic risk-taking. But imagine if this message is given implicitly over and over.

Whose papers are hanging on the walls? The A papers. Not the papers that have shown the greatest growth from draft one to the final draft. Who gets the shout-outs in the newspapers and at ceremonies? The kids with the 4.0s. Not the kids who have worked their tails off to make up for those freshmen 1.0 mistakes.

Are products important? Yes. We still need to ensure that our students are competent and not just confident. But we must consider how our over-focus on product often destroys the very process needed to develop the product itself.

Over the next couple weeks, let’s engage in a conversation about how to help our learners—all learners, from kindergarten through their careers—revitalize that child-like risk-taking that created a boom of development.

Next week, we’ll share ideas on how to quickly, easily and consistently foster safe academic risks. Until then, post your thoughts: How do you foster a culture of academic risk-taking?

This post originally appears on  Check out the site for great resources and ideas for teachers, from teachers. 

Sunset - Don't give up

An Open Letter to Myself: Don’t Give Up

Twenty-four of my students are failing. Only two are passing. They are failing in the grade book. They are failing in mastering content. They are failing in overcoming the abyss of apathy that is a characteristic of the students I teach. And, because of this, I am failing.

I have tried dozens of techniques and watched them bomb. And then tried new ones and watched them bomb again. I am frustrated and at a loss and exhausted.

For the last month I have fought hard not to admit this to myself, but it’s time I live by a credo to speak hard truths:

I want to give up on them.

I have heard it over and over again from dozens of teachers: Some kids can’t be reached. Such kids have a perfect storm of disadvantaged genetics, dismantled home-lives, and self-destructive mentalities. One teacher cannot reach them. Nor can one school, nor one community. Save your energy and dedicate it to the “good ones.”

Another truth: Lately, I have felt myself nodding in agreement when I hear teachers say these things, even uttering variations of the “Doomed Pupil Decree.”

But it’s ironic. Because my students are failing, I feel incompetent. Because I feel incompetent, I want to quit. And yet, quitting is exactly the habit I most want my students to break. It is a grey, dotted line separating irony from hypocrisy.

But I can’t shake it from my head that it’s wrong – that I’m wrong – to say “There’s no hope.” I choose to believe that there is always hope. Even if there is no hope, there is always need for hope. I can accept the reality that not every kid will be reached. But, I do not accept abandoning my effort in trying.

I can’t kick it out of my mind that every child needs a champion, every quitter needs a coach, every failure needs a fresh start. Even as my frustration hits its wall, as my energy runs on fumes, as the easy option to give up calls me to play – even then I cannot quit. Quitting is not my job. My job is to try to influence every mind that enters my room. Every day. Every student. Every second. And, when I am not trying to my fullest extent I know it – and it is only I who must answer to my own lack of integrity.

Even when Carlos walks in late for the 9th time, still no pencil, still no notebook, still with ear buds marking walls of detachment, I cannot give up.

Even when Brian is gone for the twelfth day in three weeks without the slightest rationale, I cannot give up.

Read the rest via


Staying Present in the Classroom: Practicing Mindful Teaching

How am I going to transition to the next lesson? What’s that smell? What am I going to have the kids who finish early do until the bell rings? Do you think any of them actually like this book? I hope our staff meeting doesn’t go long; I’ve got to get home to my puppy before she pees the crate. Man, she’s a cute puppy. I wonder if people would pay just to rent her for an hour. Seriously, what’s that smell? Did someone fart? Is it me? Oh [expletive], did I forget to put on deodorant!? No . . . I’m good. What’s the best question to ask when they’re done reading – y’know one of those “Mind: BLOWN” questions? Where should I stand as they read. Should I be moving around the room? But not too much . . . because then they’ll get distracted. Am I doing too many exit tickets? I need to get an air freshener.

Welcome to one-minute in my mind as I teach. It’s a frantic, chaotic cluster. It’s a human brain, I assure you. And, I bet your human brain isn’t much different.

Our minds are a flurry of thoughts in any given second. Whether it’s prepping our next spoken sentence or planning our week’s errands, we often live everywhere but the present moment. Not only do we have a knack for thinking ahead, but as teachers, planning ahead is our job.

But, what if our habit of frantic fretting makes us less effective, less happy, and less resilient to burn-out?

What we need, perhaps more than a shot of espresso to the veins, is a habit of mindfulness. We need to give ourselves permission to just be present in the moment, to be conscious of the life we are living, and to not worry about the thirty-thousand things that must be done this day.

If you’ve been following the world of psychology lately, you’ll recognize this idea as the booming concept of mindfulness. Mounds of research show that mindfulness practice and interventions help reduce stress, increase focus, improve self-regulation, and even improve relationship satisfaction (click here or here for some more articles about the subject).

So, how do we make mindfulness happen without adding another strategy on our plate? Two easy steps.

Step 1: Your Mindfulness Life Hack: Conscious breathing

Before I introduce mindfulness to students, I ask them to share what comes to mind when they hear the word. Typical responses include:

– Sitting cross-legged in front of burning incense;

– Bald dudes in robes worshipping a bald dude named Buddha;

– Airy music and waterfalls;

– Chanting “OM”;

– Getting high (Note: this answer comes up from my students regardless of the question).

One of the biggest misconceptions of mindfulness is that it has to be anchored into a ritualized religion, practiced in communes with patchouli wafting in the air. It doesn’t have to be that complicated.

The simplest way to practice mindfulness and become present is to simply notice your breathing. That’s it. Breathe in, paying attention to your body and your surroundings. Breathe out, still paying attention to your body and surroundings. Done.

Thich Nhat Hahn, a mindfulness maestro, concurs in No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering when he writes,

The way we start producing the medicine of mindfulness is by stopping and taking a conscious breath, giving our complete attention to our in-breath and our out-breath . . . The great news is that oneness of body and mind can be realized just by one in-breath.”

You can make it more symbolic, more spiritual, more specific if you’d like, but you don’t have to.

Read the rest via WeAreTeachers.


To Teach or Not to Teach: Is it Worth the Money?

The voice comes from the center of your chest. “You should become a teacher.” As it settles in, warm and satisfying, a counter-voice calls from the surface of your brain: “Are you sure you want that as a career? I mean, is it worth it?”

For you, this question, with its conflicting answers, hovers, a haunting phantom of past, present and future. To teach or not to teach?

Perhaps most of all, what you are truly asking yourself is, “Will I earn enough money to make teaching worth it?”

No. You won’t.

There is not enough money to make it worth it.

There is not enough money to make it worth it to question a call to report a child’s crisis, not knowing if, when you click to hang up, the trip from CPS will just whip another fist to the kid for opening her mouth at school.

There is not enough money to make it worth taking that accusatory finger to the chest—the media, the parents, the politicians, the writers, the thinkers, the movers, the shakers—wanting better, faster, better, faster. To know the crushing feeling of society shoving you to your knees without a hand to lift you up. A raised bar without a raised budget. Because everyone has had a terrible teacher—a teacher bad enough to shroud the millions of micro-moments that dozens of great ones gave to us from the time we stepped into the classroom.

There is not enough money to make it worth seeing the wolf of a false prophet called “accountability” feasting on profits from texts and tests—weeks of real learning lost in preparation for more weeks of Scantron bubbling just to create bell curves to serve up on news feeds—every school, every child, ranked and filed in homage to King Data.

There is not enough money to make it worth the sideways scoffs about “teacher luxuries,” eternally assuming that those sweet summers are paid, that salaried work is measured in days, not hours, that all jobs are the same. “Because my unrelated job is treated thusly, yours should be too.”

There is not enough money to make it worth spending unmeasurable hours designing a flawless lesson only to see it fail because one student is in no mood, or technology crashed, or it’s Monday, or it’s Friday, or “my parents never had to do this,” or a fight just broke out, or you’ve been told to announce that a classmate has just died—or the other thousands of moments on which every lesson’s success hinges.

There’s not enough money to make it worth feeling like there’s always something that could have been better, that every day you will make countless mistakes, that every class has at least one student who wants you to fail because he hates you just because you are a teacher.

There is not enough money to make teaching worth it.

You may sit on college loan debt, fighting for a livable salary in a society that slashes educational funding. You will question your decision yearly to stay in the fray.

But I hope you teach. I hope you stay. I hope you choose to make the sacrifices daily because teaching is worth something more than money—greater than salaries and steps and raises and 401ks.

Read the rest via WeAreTeachers: To Teach or Not to Teach?

Where Life Lessons Reside

The Lesson of Every Conversation: Encouraging Teens to Have Meaningful Interactions

Nothing is worse than not having a driver’s license as a teen. Other than having to wait around for your mom to pick you up. Which is my life right now. Waiting. Watching every other jerk get picked up from driver’s training. They’ve all been scooped up by their timely parents. All except me. And, John, some other kid I barely know. Maybe I can talk to him to kill time.

* * * *

The desks are lined up in three columns facing forward – each column with two desks, side-by-side. The lights are dropped low. The music is mellow and somber.

Students are floating in. They look at me in that typical, quizzical “What-weirdness-do-we-have-today?” Their biggest concern is where they are supposed to sit – “Wherever we want!? Please!?”

It doesn’t matter where they start. In a couple minutes I will mix them up – pair them with someone they do not know well. Today’s lesson is all about conversation – principles of creating good, even life-changing, conversations with anyone.

* * * *

John is the character left out in books and movies and history. He is not an athlete – nor a musician – nor any image of the “high profile” teen. If anything, he contributes to the homeostasis of high school : a target of more than a few aggressors. He doesn’t fit a mold. He doesn’t “look like us.” And, here I am with John with nothing but barren hallways and time.

* * * *

Projected, sober and thick, on the wall is a quotation.

Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Students look for a personal meaning in the quotation. Whereas MLK Jr. was speaking of literal separations through segregations, we create our own walls called “assumed difference,” seeds of silence that grow into forests of fear and hate.

Now, it’s time for the task.

For the next hour, you have one goal: Understand the person next to you using conversation.” Students are waiting for the “academic” objective. They will find none.

(Read the rest via