Here are the “old school” rules you need to break
Twenty-three years I have been teaching children. That means twenty-three times like today, up two hours earlier than I need to be, buzzing inside with excitement and nerves about the twenty-third “first day” of school.
I’ve heard all the rules about how to best teach children. And how to make them behave. How to get them to learn.
And I’m here to tell you.
Most of the advice is trash.
I’ve broken all of these rules and not only lived to tell about it, but also to come out better on the other side.
Let me share some of the wisdom I’ve collected along the way.
Put away the “teacher face” or “no smiling till Halloween” advice.
You can be consistent and firm and smile at the same time. Think about how many times you have been in a new situation, likely nervous and apprehensive, and have been soothed by a warm reception from your host. Children are not soldiers whom we have to command by stern faces and rapid-fire warnings about their treacherous future in our classrooms. They are people, at this point very fearful people, desperately hoping that you will be kind, fair, and reasonable. As a matter of fact, by imposing this “mean face,” you are imposing a subtle form of trauma on the child. And, if you know your research, you know that trauma impedes learning. So smile, laugh, and let them know that you excited to have them there.
Be real. Let them in.
It is well known that one of the most reliable determiners of student success is the student-teacher relationship. And no real relationship can be one-sided. Relationships are built on communication, honesty, and acceptance.
Go ahead. Refuse to tell them how many children you have, or what your first name is, or why you got that bookworm tattoo on your ankle. Don’t answer their questions about your favorite television show or how your summer was. See how well that works to establish a bond.
Let them in. If you share your life with them, they will be more open to share their lives [and writings and fears and successes] with you. This sharing will create a bond that makes them work for you when they will not for other teachers, that will make them tell you they need to be left alone today because their parents are fighting and help you avoid a potential “blow-out” in your classroom.
Let them see you at your worst. Tell them your baby is teething and you’ve only had two hours of sleep. Tell them about the time you cheated in school or got in trouble for making a “D” in math.
This makes you real. It means you deal with “crap” just like they do. It means you feel just like they do. It means you have failed just like they have.
No one is perfect or morally flawless. We all make mistakes. And refusing to admit your own humanity just makes you seem like a hypocrite. It makes you untouchable. And, however glamourous that seems, it only breeds more fear. Remember, again, fear hinders learning and that’s not really what you want, is it?
Accept their hugs. Give them high-fives. Pat them on the shoulder when you compliment their work. When they come to you before school in tears, don’t lie and say you have to go make copies.
Close the door. Hand them a Kleenex. Listen to them.
Your job is so much more than teaching phonics or sentence structure or The Civil War. Your job is helping children believe in the world and its people — for they may go home to abusers or silence or poverty that teach them doubt and pain, not kindness and love.
Love them not only when they are sad. Love them when they are mean. Talkative. Stubborn. Grouchy.
Don’t get me wrong. You have a classroom to run, and you may have to give them consequences when their actions go too far. But always do so with love. And accept them excitedly back into the fold when they have paid for their penalties. They may be a little miffed at you to begin with, but they will soften when they see your love is unconditional.
The Bottom Line:
Your classroom is a microcosm of society. It is a testing ground for students — a ground to explore ideas and to learn more about life and the world and other people. Teach them that honesty and kindness and effort will be rewarded. Teach them it is okay to make mistakes. Teach them that it is good to laugh with others, to have a little fun and learn at the same time. They will love you for it and come back years later to say they still remember —
Okay, don’t get excited. They may admit that they have completely forgotten the text of Romeo and Juliet — but they never forgot how you made them feel. And that, dear teachers, means you are more important than William Shakespeare. Just think — that makes you pretty darn awesome.
Good luck in your journey and don’t forget to have fun along the way.