New teachers will be familiar with the adage "Don't smile 'til Christmas". The recommendation has most probably been handed down by seasoned members of staff. But how effective is this approach? Views tend to be mixed, with the general consensus that - provided it's not taken too literally - developing a healthy distance between yourself and your pupils can benefit both sides.
"I think the advice not to smile until Christmas is not too far wide of the mark," says Louisa McLennan, who has recently completed her probationer year teaching primary at Dalmally School in Argyll. "I had a really positive first couple of weeks with my class, spending a lot of time on interactive work and 'getting to know you' activities," she says. "But while that was useful in building a rapport, the fact that it had gone well caused me to be a bit too relaxed about discipline."
"The important thing is to remain firm but fair," says Verna Brandford, lecturer in education at the Institute of Education, University of London. "The pupils need to be made aware that the new teacher is in charge, has established ground rules in terms of what is acceptable or not in their classroom and is consistent in applying rewards and sanctions when necessary and is not afraid to do so after sufficient warnings."
Miss McLennan learnt her lesson several weeks into the term, when she realised that her pupils had taken advantage of her super-friendly approach.
"I went on to have a number of low-level behaviour problems, particularly with chatting, backchat and a lot of moving around," she says. "I then had to work hard revisiting rules, establishing a new behaviour-management system, and enforcing sanctions. Although things definitely got better, I think if I had been firmer from the beginning I could have avoided some of the challenges that came later on."
Most experts will advise you that your job as a teacher is to educate children - not to be their friend. "Many young teachers fall into a 'peer' or 'buddy' role, especially if they are teaching secondary school - this should be avoided at all costs," says John Thomas, an induction tutor at a secondary school in Totnes, Devon.
"This does not mean you should assume the role of malevolent dictator; it just means that you should keep in mind that your role is to make sure they get their work done. You will begin to win the battles simply because you refuse to give in."
There are strategies other than humour that will allow you to gain your pupils' respect. "One way to win them over is to remember details about them - their names, what part of town they live in and their basic interests," says Mr Thomas. "You can learn this info with a short questionnaire at the beginning of term."
Although it is crucial to stand firm right from the start, humour can be a useful tool in the classroom. "It often defuses potentially explosive and confrontational situations," says Miss Brandford.
"As long as the NQT is laughing with and not at the pupils and feels that they can gain control again quickly, a friendly and confident smile is something that can contribute towards creating positive relationships with classes and individuals."
However, establishing good relationships in this way will only work if you are confident in your classroom management and planning. A good way to do this is to use humour and demonstrate a human side. "You may be the only adult a pupil may encounter who is able to teach effectively and share a sense of humour simultaneously," says Miss Brandford. "Plus, it often makes the lesson and learning more enjoyable."
Things to Think About
- Don't take the "Don't smile 'til Christmas" advice too literally.
- Your job as a teacher is to educate children - not to be their friend.
- Pupils need to be made aware that you are in charge before you introduce humour to the classroom.
- Used well, humour can be a useful tool in the classroom - it can diffuse potentially explosive situations and make the lesson more enjoyable.