Teachers, It’s Okay to Smile



I’m standing in front of my first period class after a long Thanksgiving break.


Papers are rustling.


Pencils are being sharpened.


Voices are lowering to a whisper.


And it occurs to me how glad I am to be here.


So I tell my students.


“We have a lot to go over today,” I begin and most of my middle school faces turn serious.


“But I just want to tell you all how happy I am to be here.”


Curiosity moves across those adolescent brows like a wave from one side of the room to the other.


Some even looked worried like they are afraid I am going to tell them I’m sick or dying.


“It’s true,” I continue. “I’m glad to be here this morning with all of you.


“I think teachers sometimes don’t say that enough.


“This is a great class. You’re all really good students, and I’ve watched you work hard and grow.


“For many of you this is the second year you’ve had me as your language arts teacher. For others, this is your first time with me. It doesn’t matter. I’m glad I can be with you and help get you ready for the challenges that you’ll face next year in high school.


“I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – I am not just some guy who stands up here and gives you assignments. I’m your resource. If there’s anything I can do to make your year a better one, please ask.


“If you’re having trouble with the work or you’re confused about something, I’m here. If you need help with something – even if it’s not school related – I’m here. If you just want to talk or someone to listen – I’m here.”


I pause to see if there are any questions.


There aren’t, but neither is their any apparent doubt, bewilderment, perplexity.


The class looks back at me in silence with serene eyes and smiling lips.


And then we go on with our day.


Is it a big deal?




But I think it’s worth noting.


Not that I’m some super teacher. I’m not.


I mess up all the time. But I feel like what I said this morning was right somehow.


It’s simple and easy and more of us should do it.


Kids can get the impression that teachers aren’t human. They’re these mysterious creatures who pass judgment on them — and where do they even go when class ends? Who knows?


I remember when I was a young educator one of my mentors told me the old chestnut “Don’t smile until Christmas.”


I saw where she was coming from. It’s easier to command firm discipline if students don’t think of you as anything but an educating machine. But I could never go through with it.


I smile on the first day – probably the first minute students walk into the room.


I greet them with a grin – every day.


And I think that’s right.


Discipline is a means to an end. You have to have some sort of order in your class so you can facilitate learning. But that doesn’t mean you should preside over prisoners locked in a penitentiary of their own education.


Learning should be about choice, fun and curiosity. It should be about expressing yourself as much as it is about finding details and forming grammatical sentences.


Everything we do should be in service to the student.


Reading comprehension is to help the student understand what is being said and then form an opinion about it.


Writing is to help the student express the maelstrom of their own thoughts in a way that can be understood by others.


I think we lose sight of that.


It’s okay to enjoy the work – for both students and teachers.


It’s okay to enjoy each other’s company.


In fact, you SHOULD do so if you can.


It does not somehow degrade the experience of learning. It enhances it.


When my classes are over, I always have several students gathering around my desk wanting to prolong our interaction even if it means they’ll be late to lunch or late going home.


Kids ask about my break and I ask about theirs. We talk about favorite TV shows, songs we like or even local news stories.


They share with me their middle school crushes and ask advice.


You have to draw a line between teacher and friend – and between teacher and parent. Because the kids are looking for you to be both.


But you can’t.


We walk a strange middle ground, but I think that’s necessary.


If I’m going to help students know things, I have to let them know me to a point, and I have to get to know them.


I can’t share everything with them, but they have to know I care.


As Theodore Roosevelt said:


“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”


So go ahead and smile, teachers.


Let your students know you care about them.


It will improve both your lives – and maybe even your teaching.


Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!


8 thoughts on “Teachers, It’s Okay to Smile

  1. I pulled my son out of public and put him into private HS (all boy’s, Faith/Catholic based). The test prepping common core curriculum, over testing, and the endless SEL seminars/data gathering was too much to take. For the first time ever, he comes home talking about how much he likes school and his teachers and how much he is learning. He talks about how the teachers respect the students and that because of this, the students respect the teachers….that’s a lot coming from a 14 yr old boy, who, for his whole school life has been treated as nothing but a test score and has been herded like a farm animal from one desk to the next. Keep smiling and talking to your students because that is what really makes a difference (and a connection) to a child.


    • Lisa, on the one hand, I’m glad your son is getting the kind of education he deserves. On the other, what a pity that you both have been cheated out of the authentic, fully public education that is the right of every American. This is exactly what the high stakes testing and school privatization industries are working in tandem to do. They get paid if your child is subject to endless testing and/or if you put him in private school. It’s a scam. We need to join together to fight this insidious plot against our children and our pocketbooks.


      • I have a sister that retired after 30+ yrs in the classroom. She was that special kind of teacher that kids and parents loved. She is in full agreement that child#2 is in the best possible place…even if we have to pay for it. She retired because of all of this nonsense and she will NEVER set foot in another classroom again. Schools are NOT joyful places for children to be. Is it too hard for teachers to try and treat children with a little kindness, compassion and respect? I know teachers are overworked, underpaid, under the microscope and angry, but do they really have to take it out on the kids all of the time? These are children….they are not a test score. I live in a very wealthy, test centric, grade competitive (parents), common core oriented district outside of DC with lots of “stink tank dephorm”. Lots of parents have realized what is going on and are fleeing public education in droves. the private schools are filled to capacity and they make school a joyous experience for these kids….. even if we have to pay for it! All I can say is that it is worth every penny to hear your child say that he likes school, he is learning so much, and he loves his teachers.


  2. I regularly tell my students “Thank you for letting me be your teacher.” I’m in an inner-city school that conforms to all the negative stereotypes. The students in essence decide whether or not they will try to learn what the teacher is teaching, making it all but impossible to manage a class if there is not mutual respect. Lately when I say that, I get in return, “Thank you for being our teacher.” Because we have mutual respect (most of the time), I find that my students have higher achievement than in many of their other classes.

    When a teacher enjoys teaching, the students can tell and that can make a huge difference in outcomes.

    Liked by 1 person

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