What I Learned in My Teacher Training: Don't Smile Until Christmas

by Mary Pat Champeau, Director of Education

"The classroom should be an entrance into the world, not an escape from it.” ~ John Ciardi

"Teaching was the hardest work I had ever done, and it remains the hardest work I have done to date." ~ Ann Richards

"Don't smile until Christmas." ~ Mary Pat's first teacher-trainer, 1979

During my own teacher-training many years ago, we were told not to smile until Christmas or our students would walk all over us. I was teaching children, ages 8-14, in an Islamic country (no Christmas), in classrooms without electricity or running water, in the southern crescent below the Sahara desert. There were 40 children to a classroom, three to a desk. There were ridiculous textbooks (the first lesson I was supposed to teach was called "A Trip to the Ice Cream Parlor" in a country where no such thing existed). There was a yearly ration of one box of precious chalk, and a director who physically beat children (and legally so) who stepped out of line.

Don't smile until Christmas? What would make the children want to come to school? But, I was not the most natural of teachers, and I had to learn everything experientially, so I took this suggestion to heart and tried not to smile at my students, no matter how charmed I felt by some of them. Their parents were paid to send them to school, so they came and went from distant villages, depending on the growing and harvesting seasons, staying in group-compounds without their parents when it was time to attend school; some were as young as six years old, entirely on their own.

Don't smile until Christmas? I did my best to be stern and authoritative, and basically I acted as if I didn't like the students, because that's what I had been trained to do, even though in my heart I actually rather loved them! One afternoon (before Christmas, so I was still obnoxiously stern) I wrote the word "eigth" on the board, and during the portion of the class where students were taking notes, a student raised his hand and told me the word was spelled wrong. I looked at the word and panicked -- I knew it was spelled incorrectly (I had meant to write "eighth"), but I didn't feel I could risk the loss of authority that might come from admitting I'd made a mistake (before Christmas), so I sternly reminded my student that I was the teacher and the native speaker of English (I was an ESL teacher), and I advised him, and the rest of class, quite strongly, to copy this word into their notebooks exactly as I had written it on the blackboard. They did as I asked them to do. For the rest of the year, whenever we were writing ordinal numbers, I had to spell "eighth" incorrectly, just to save face.

This is all to say that I couldn't even offer my students, so long ago, the very first element of humane education: Provide accurate information. Critical thinking? Creativity? Reverence? Curiosity? These lofty goals never even occurred to me -- I needed to keep order! Of course, my classes weren't fun for any of us, and I will never forget the day some of my students came to my house and offered me a cup of ice they had purchased from a man who was selling this exciting novelty out of a cooler in the market. They said maybe it would remind me of home, and maybe then I would be happy.

Later, when I got to know these students, they relayed that there was a consensus about me in the beginning that I hated living the village life; they felt sorry for me, and they assumed I would leave. I told them I never had plans to leave back then, and that I had been trained not to smile until Christmas/December. One boy's face lit up and he said, "You did succeed!" He seemed genuinely happy for me. Oh my! Some successes are not worth achieving.

What if I had been trained in the four elements of humane education rather than in the traditional methods of classroom management? I doubt I could have incorporated each of the elements into every class, but over the course of a month or a semester or a year, I could have created the fun, generous, lively atmosphere that these elements engender, and nobody would have mistaken me for an unhappy teacher.

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