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“Don’t Smile Until Christmas” and Other Bad Advice

Jordan Catapano


An old adage that circulates around teaching departments tells us, “Don’t smile until Christmas.” This implies teachers should begin their year as strict, uninviting individuals who maintain tight control over their students by restricting their personal, relational interactions. No smiling means all business and no teacher jokes; and all business means obedient students who are too scared of you to step out of line.

The logic of it makes sense to a certain degree: Once the students are fully conformed to the expectations of the classroom, you can act like a human being and start sharing teacher jokes. Being too human too early will certainly lead to a break down in discipline.

This advice is not wholly unfounded. After all, Machiavelli – that infamous political imp – cautioned new leaders that, “It is far easier to begin strict and become kind than it is to begin kind and become strict,” also adding that “It is better to be feared than loved.” Though his advice is controversial, it works -- for some politicians at least.

But is our classroom a kingdom, and we the judges and jailors? How can we best demonstrate the standards and expectations of our class? Is smiling – or making any sort of kind, genuine relational gesture, even telling teacher jokes – going to hinder our educational process?

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Though it is our responsibility as teachers to maintain control and set expectations for our students’ academic and social behaviors, our classrooms are certainly not mere political states that we “rule.” As teachers, we are guides, not dictators; navigators, not drivers. And the best way to set a standard and engage students in the learning process is to develop a relationship, not avoid one.

When I begin the school year, I smile a lot. In fact, a smile can tell students a great deal more than I can verbalize. A smile says that I welcome them. I respect them. I like being here. I am passionate about what we’re doing. I want this place to be a positive environment. I am a happy person. I’m an approachable person. And above all, a smile can tell students that I want them to succeed because they love to learn, not because some cruel authoritarian figure is making them do it.

It’s also true that smiling helps to set an example for students. If I approach them harshly, then it sets the tone that they can treat one another harshly. It is much easier to teach students about respect, kindness, and collaboration when I am modeling it myself. And instead of trying to tell students “Don’t act that way,” my example helps illustrate to students the converse, the “But do act this way” kind of behaviors that make students academically and socially successful.

It can be easy, even tempting, to revert to a colder version of ourselves out of fear of mismanaging a classroom. But we cannot forget that happiness, kindness, respect, and other positive characteristics are contagious. As teachers, we have the power and position to set the tone in our classrooms. As for me, I prefer to make the tone as positive as possible, giving my students a firm foundation of confidence in themselves and their relationship with me so that we can move forward to produce some fantastic learning experiences.

So the next time you hear someone advise not to smile until Christmas, remember that it is far, far better to smile right at the beginning of the year all the way through to Christmas, and then long afterwards as well.