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No Smiles ‘Til Christmas

“Don’t smile until Christmas.” I wish I could say this wasn’t the most common snippet of advice about classroom management offered in my graduate coursework. Instead, I’m baffled by having entered a field where the conventional wisdom is to act like you don’t want to be there for the first few months.

The first few days and weeks of school are essential for establishing an orderly and productive space for students. They provide the groundwork for a successful school year. As a teacher, I’ve struggled each year with my role as classroom manager. My first year in the classroom, I wanted to assert myself as an authority. I was, after all, the teacher. I demanded silence and told students when they could and couldn’t go to the bathroom. I found myself in power struggles with no easy victor.  It was clear to me when students were exhibiting behaviors that distracted themselves and others from learning, but I didn’t know how to communicate what I knew. As I observe new teachers interacting with students, I recall that feeling of knowing what I want to accomplish, but not knowing the steps to get there.

This year in my classrooms I still demand silence and tell students when they can and can’t go to the bathroom, but I don’t find myself in as many power struggles. I’ve learned to assert authority is a different way. Early in my career, I drew my authority from my role as teacher. Over the past few years I’ve learned to find authority from a clear sense of purpose and direction. We need to do this now so that you’ll learn this so that you will be able to do this then, I recite to my students over and over again. For me, clear intentions and deliberate instruction are the best classroom management. Still, I only partially know how to make this level of planning happen.

As I imagine routines and structures for my classrooms I work, I have a new goal in mind. Near the end of last week’s New York Times Magazine, which focused on education, Ben Greenman writes of “productive frustration”: those precious moments between the formulation of questions and the finding of answers. Education, he says, is “about filling [children] with questions that ripen, via deferral, into genuine interests.” I want to create classrooms where students are excited by frustration rather than triggered by it.

Some students are frustrated when a reading isn’t easy, or when the answer to a question isn’t immediately apparent. Others become frustrated when they don’t understand directions, when they’re sitting next to the same annoying boy for three periods in a row, or when they don’t know how to answer a math problem. Depending on the student, frustration can lead to off-task behavior, outbursts, or complete shutdown. The big question is how to create classrooms charged by productive frustratiosn, not destructive ones. The answer I’ve come up with for myself is to let my students see me work through my mistakes in order to create a culture of mistake-making as part of learning. Beyond that, I’ll keep you posted.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.