It’s late in September and the novelty of the new year is beginning to wear off. I know some students will test the boundaries of appropriate classroom behavior to see what will happen, and others just plain struggle to get through day after day of school. I find myself remembering a piece of helpful advice I learned in my first year of teaching.
Ms. Cunningham had been a special education teacher for decades, and was probably the most senior member of my school’s staff. That year she was serving as a literacy coach while she pursued her doctorate in education, and so I had the benefit of her eyes on my teaching from time to time. She was known for being “old school” when it came to classroom management, and students who were unruly most anywhere else wouldn’t dream of it in her classroom.
As she watched me struggle to teach a class with some particularly hyperactive boys, she must have seen a perma-frown forming on my face.
After class, Ms. Cunningham told me, “It takes time, but you’ll have to get really good at doing this–” She turned to her left and made a stern face and shook her index finger at an imaginary student. Then, without skipping a beat, she turned to her right and adjusted her facial expression into a big smile and gestured invitingly at another imaginary student. It was powerful to watch how she shifted her demeanor with such awareness, having had so much practice.
Our facial expressions are powerful communication tools in our classrooms! When confronted with difficult behavior from some students, the danger is that we get frustrated and apply our reaction to an entire class of students.
And since teachers “make the weather” in our classrooms (who am I quoting?!), this very human error can be the difference between a positive and negative overall tone of a classroom. Ms. Cunningham was subtly yet concretely showing me how to compensate for the inclination to carry (negative) emotions on our faces from one moment to the next.
An added benefit of this practice is that changing our facial expression can actually change our perception of our own feelings. When we smile, even if it’s fake, our brain releases endorphins that make us feel happier! (I love to pull this fact out for students who seem to approach a task with a negative attitude, and ask them to “try it out” to see if it works… 99% of the time it does!)
Working with a large group of students in a limited amount of time requires teachers to manage our emotions with more control and speed than we generally do in normal adult life.
Taking a second to consciously reset my facial expression after addressing a negative behavior with a student goes a long way to ensure that the “weather” in my classroom stays fair.