Offer A Smile to Start Your Lesson

Smiling is Light

Each morning I wait by my classroom door. I wait with a smile.

I hope that will make a difference.

You really can’t over emphasize the importance of that simple gesture.

I don’t ask my students if they have their homework or anything else that has to do with school. I don’t remind them about classroom rules as they sit down.

And I do have to remind myself at times to have the kind of human interaction I would want to have if I were walking into my third grade class. The first thing really shouldn’t be about writing in a journal or turning in last night’s homework – it should just be about a little kindness.

Often many of my students say good morning to me before I have a chance to say it first. We do in fact spend some time at the beginning of the year talking about the importance of kindness. And yes, reminders on this one have to happen occasionally.

But then it happens… a good morning shared by not just that one student whose day is almost always a challenge, but like dominoes the others behind him chime in too. A steady stream of greeting as they unpack their backpacks.

There’s a lot of joy in hearing that from a third grader. No matter how my morning routine has evolved over the last couple of hours, hearing them share some enthusiasm at the beginning of the day encourages me.

It erases my worries about the state tests that are coming closer by the day or the necessity of finishing the reading assessments.

I admit to you though, if my students don’t immediately get started on that morning work after they come into my classroom… it annoys me. However I remind myself that if it was me, I would choose to talk with a friend too.

I’m not a factory worker making widgets that have to meet some consistent standard. I don’t slap an Inspected by #47 sticker on their foreheads as they leave every day. That would be odd.

I just ask them how they are. How their weekend went. What the best part of last night was or how their little sister is doing.

If I can get a smile or laugh out of them, that’s even better.

Kids are honest. I think the younger they are, the more honesty you get in return. If they know that you care about how their night really went, you’re also going to get some interesting responses which in turn requires you to spend some time really listening to their stories.

The replies have reminded me that our job isn’t to teach objectives. Our job is to teach little people. Little humans. Children that have struggles and successes.

My students worry and are stressed. They know when things aren’t good at home and why that is. If their parents worry about money, so do they. If people at home let on that times are tough, they embrace that despair too.

Like little sponges, they’re taking it all in. It surprises me how resilient they really are as they endure what happens around them – whether at home, in the grocery store, or on the way to school.

Knowing this, I try to encourage conversation that’s upbeat. That doesn’t dwell on what isn’t, but what can be.

And I start that conversation by a simple hello and smile standing at my classroom door.

I’m curious and would love to hear what do you do in your classroom to start off the day?

The Ah Hah Moment: A Blessing and A Curse

Patience at the River

If students don’t get it immediately, they struggle.

And it’s exactly the same for me too. How about you?

I hate feeling inadequate. I dread not understanding the point when others around me nod in agreement to the person presenting.

A couple of years ago I sat in a math seminar next to my colleague who was responsible for teaching the advanced math students. I sat there dumfounded trying to complete the problem given to us. She sat back having already accomplished the task while I sat forward trying to just understand what was being asked of me.

That was not a good feeling.

As teachers we value the process of imparting knowledge.

We love posing a question, getting the class enthralled, seeing them engaged, and observing them overcome whatever challenges we’ve placed before them. Mission accomplished. Objective realized. Time to move to the next lesson or revel in the fact that we’ve earned today’s paycheck.

As students they just want it to be over.

They heard the lesson being introduced, perhaps vaguely, and they heard when the lesson was over. They either got it or didn’t. This either worried them or it didn’t.

Next up? They just want that quiz, a test and move on to the next thing. Or perhaps instead escape the classroom and wish it all away.

Sometimes they worry if they did ok. Sometimes not. And sometimes they will stare at the clock wondering when all of it will be over with.

This is of course difficult for us teachers to accept.

It is that time of year in which students dreaming the day away has become unnerving. Time is running out and the state assessments are coming.

Principals are stressed. County specialists are adamant that we review everything we have taught since the first day of school. Both are not helpful to my health nor to that of my students. We know those tests are coming. And if you’ve been doing this a while, we know what we have to do.

Today I gave yet another online assessment in hopes of preparing my students to take their online state assessment. They didn’t do well.

I didn’t take it well.

So I remembered the Ah Hah Moment Lesson I shared earlier in the year.

The Ah Hah Moment comes to each of us differently – yet it will come and we just need to be patient with ourselves.

Some students, just like us adults, will understand the lesson taught us the first time. This is of course unlikely for us as much as it is for our students.

That’s why I reiterate to them again that all of them have the Ah Hah Moment of Learning. Sometimes I ask them to share with us when the lightbulb has lit inside their skull. That’s when I proclaim the amount of time that has passed since the lesson began and I reiterate… the Ah Hah did indeed come.

Perhaps it will take another ten minutes or an hour. Perhaps it will take another day.

Or perhaps, and this does not gel well with instruction specialists, the Ah Hah Moment will occur next year – well past the assessment that they’ll take in a just a couple of months.

This doesn’t reassure me or my administrators, but it’s just how humans are made.

We are different after all.

And our Ah Hah Moment just isn’t going to be dictated by a clock or calendar.

We just need to be patient and believe that it will happen.

Laughter: A Requirement In The Classroom


The other day I was rushing to the copier in hopes of beating the bell before students arrived.

“Don’t ever smile,” is what I overheard a colleague share with a student teacher as I raced by. “You’ve got to be serious all of the time.”

I nearly snapped my neck wondering who would give that kind of advice.


I’ve heard other bits of sage advice about being personable in the classroom as I’m sure you have as well.

Don’t smile before Thanksgiving or your class will become unruly. You’ll never get control of your class after you share a joke. It will be chaos, you’ll see.

If you’ve ever taught or are about to, how to act in front of your classroom has definitely been part of the conversation. Whether in the classroom as a student yourself or in the teacher lounge, antics from the front of the room are often debated. Too nice, too mean, too strict, too casual. What’s the best approach?

To be frank, this last week has been draining. Perhaps it’s me or my students or both of us. We’re tired of prepping for the state assessments coming up in about two months and we obviously have a while to go yet. So I’ve had to force the funny and they’ve had to reel in their zany demeanor at times.

I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Sure it’s more work to rein them in at times – I just love the genuine third grade smiles and laughter. Their enthusiasm is impressive as well. Their jokes brighten my day as much as I hope mine do in their lives.

Can they control themselves? You bet they can.

Can they transition back to seriousness as we return to the lesson? Definitely.

I admit that sometimes the funny doesn’t work. However I don’t think you stop trying. The power of the funny is too important.

Funny breaks the ice that first day of school. It allows us to laugh at ourselves when we mess up. It reiterates that we’re not robots.

Funny puts people at ease.

One can also convey seriousness when the funny isn’t used. When a serious subject or topic is needed, the absence of laughter is definitely noticed.

Funny is an approach useful in motivating when students just don’t want to do the work anymore.

Going after the funny helps your students realize that you’re human, after all. Being human is good.

I suppose every teacher has his or her standards.  Not laughing, smiling, or enjoying myself at the front of the classroom just isn’t on my to-do list.

Remember the class you had when your teacher just seemed to be there without any emotion whatsoever?

You and I are not alone with those memories. That teacher no doubt served as inspiration in a film you’ve undoubtedly seen.

Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?

That guy has made a name for himself with his monotone delivery. Not only do I not want to have to sit in his class and hear him drone on and on. I don’t want to be that kind of teacher either.

I’ll take my lead from Dr. Pappas as I briefly mentioned in Classroom Truths & Hints. He held us spellbound with antics that startled and amused us into never missing a class regardless of his no attendance policy. He had us when he walked into class mimicking bird calls.

Here are a few of my attempts at funny.

  • Birthday hats made upon request. All you need is some construction paper, a pair of scissors and a stapler. A simple endeavor in which the crazier the hat is made the better. No two are alike because it’s just impossible to do that kind of zaniness twice. Students love it and more than one has told me how they’ve kept theirs for years afterward.
  • Nicknaming students. Obviously take some time to get to know your students to better anticipate whether they will take offense if you suddenly call them Bubba or Bubbette. Sometimes nicknames even find their way home or heard on the playground. That’s when you know that Frozone was the perfect name for the student that calculated his math problems with icy precision.
  • I try to include stories in the middle of my lesson. It not only offers a mental break, but it encourages another opportunity for students to get to know me better – building relationships = better learning.
  • I throw in accents occasionally to be a head turner.  They not only awaken the student at the back of the room who has ventured to the beach by the look in his eyes, but they result in all students listening a bit closer to what you’re saying. You can actually see them lean forward listening intently.
  • Cheese and Crackers. I’ve long since forgotten how this title emerged. The premise is a student volunteers to come to the front of the room and sit on the stool. We get to ask him or her questions about favorite dessert or vacation. I start it off with a few and then students raise their hands to be called on by the student. It’s a combination of laughter and sincerity as we learn more about each student. After a few questions, it is quickly apparent what little we know of our students even though they sit in our classroom day in and day out.

School doesn’t need to feel like school.

Yes, students’ jobs are to learn, but they didn’t sign up for this job did they? It’s not as if they stood in line for an application hoping to get the position of student.

School is hard enough without making it an experience that they will enjoy. Sometimes it’s the engaging lesson, and sometimes it’s starting the day with a smile.

Add in a quick story about something funny that happened on the way to school that morning and your students are already engaged.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about being funny at the front of the classroom.

Do you agree that adding humor is acceptable, if not crucial?

7 Top Classroom Management Strategies

empty classroom

It doesn’t matter what you teach or how amazing you are at knowing the subject.

If students regularly take over your room. You’ve got no classroom management.

To me, it’s what teacher nightmares are made of. Paper airplanes flying from the hands of students standing atop desks. Laughing at your best efforts while you try in vain to regain control. The mockery of all the time you’ve spent wanting to teach them. The look of panic in the teacher’s eyes as they cradle their head in their hands.

Makes me break out into a cold sweat.

It doesn’t and shouldn’t have to be this way.

It’s not hard to understand that having no classroom management equals the end of learning in your room.

Here are seven strategies to help you maintain order because once the door closes and it’s just you and your students, it can quickly be a scary place if you haven’t thought through how you will maintain order.

1) Find the happy medium between too strict and too lackadaisical.

Over a decade ago I prepared for my first week as the new teacher. I was nervous. I had done all the lesson planning possible, I even had lessons in case I finished my lessons. I was still nervous.

Years before in my first year at Redford University I had decided I wanted no part in teaching. I didn’t want to spend my days telling my students to be quiet. If only I had stayed the course and learned that it doesn’t have to be that way.

And here I sat the Saturday before school started worried that I had made the wrong decision to return to teaching after many years working in higher education.

I sought out the most experienced teacher on my team for help. What she said still resonates. She shared this.

The teacher who is strict or too lenient will fail as a teacher.

Every teacher needs to find that happy medium that works for them. Some of us are more comfortable with groups who are talkative and occasionally loud while others have zero tolerance. You have to determine that comfort level.

I tell my students that I don’t expect them to be soldiers. To be frank, I don’t want soldiers.

Students are little people with history, family heartache and worries. Each with a story, an individual. I don’t want them in lock step as they march toward the cafeteria.

I do however expect them to do their best in following our classroom and school rules. And that’s when I remind them of the following…

2) Three rules: Does it keep me from teaching, keep you the student from learning, or keep other students from learning?

When one of these happens, we don’t learn.

These three questions are simple to remember and can quickly be brought up when students have “forgotten” right from wrong.

Additionally these three remind me that the restless student who learns and doesn’t keep others from learning doesn’t need be redirected. He’s just fine fidgeting in the back of the room constantly standing behind his desk.

It also reminds me to constantly be on the lookout for those whose number one priority is to get the attention of everyone around them.

3) Be Consistently Fair.

Early on in the year I ask my students to make a choice: Do they want an easy and unfair teacher OR do they want a fair teacher that expects them to learn?

I give them an example or two of what those two teachers might look like.

One of them can’t be trusted to do the fair thing from one day to the next versus the other teacher who might be tough, but you also know he’ll be fair.

From their reaction I can tell that most students haven’t been given a choice. It’s the beginning of what I consider building a relationship of trust based on fairness.

4) Start with being predictably consistent.

When students are loud, follow with a consequence. When students get up without asking, follow up with a consequence. When students aren’t doing what you’ve expected of them, reiterate the consequence… by giving a consequence. You have to be that person.

Do what you said you would. Be predictable and be consistent.

5) Continue to unpredictability and continue to demonstrate fairness.

And now that you’re predictable… students have gotten bored.

They understand how the classroom game is played. They know exactly what you will say when they stop following your rules. They know your consequences because you’ve given them before and they know what to expect. They are no longer surprised.

Surprise them.

This is when you need to be fair, but a bit unpredictable.

You’ve no doubt heard about having tools in your toolbox.

This is when you need to be creative in order to reach that student.

Instead of mixing it up a bit, some teachers will chase the student into the principal’s office immediately. Won’t they be returned to you in short order? Perhaps even within an hour? Then what?

It’s why you can’t treat all students the same.

Yes, I said can’t.

Here’s why.

6) The consequences are different because students are different — by day, by hour, by subject, by the moment.

Our students are human and as such, every day will be different. We hope that the majority of days will be good. Of course they won’t be.

If the student that arrives every morning into your classroom with a smile and then one day you notice as soon as he enters your room that he’s having an off day, that’s to be expected. It’s time to console and lend an ear.

If a student interrupts your lesson every day, quarrels with her peers and keeps others from learning – then that’s a choice she’s making. It’s time to change the consequences and reiterate that your name is on the door – you’re the teacher.

One is having a bad day. One is choosing to ruin everyone else’s day.

Why would you treat them the same?

In my first year when each day was a challenge I hadn’t experienced, one of my students thought a great deal of himself. He acted like he was in high school at the tender age of 10 and no matter what I said about my expectations, nothing sunk in. He was rude to me and others. He wanted no part of learning. When he had an all day writing prompt, he gave me a paragraph within a half an hour claiming that was the best he could do.

His mom had already conferenced with me and was equally disappointed with him.

In fact mom had come into my room one afternoon and grabbed her son by his jacket lapels and started screaming. And what did my colleagues do who had been waiting with me in my room?

They left me, mom and the student in my room as if the fire bell had gone off.

Yes, mom was frustrated. So with his mother’s approval we began a new consequence. It was then that I introduced the concept of the do-over day.

Each day, if I felt like his day fell below my expectations, I would walk him back from the bus loop to the classroom as the buses left. As you might imagine, it left quite the impression. My student went from disruptive and defiant to the type of student I looked forward to seeing each morning.

Was he awesome in every way? No. He was however now doing his best. It took four days of staying after school with him before he realized I was serious about giving his best effort.

By thinking about how to change your consequence beyond a call home, you are reaffirming that your classroom is a place of learning. I will add that on the state writing assessments, he performed at the advanced level.

7) The first week is crucial. CRUCIAL!

Lastly, if you don’t draw the line in the sand the first day about your expectations, you will never reel them back in. Convey to those entrusted in your care the very first day or you will chase them for the rest of the year. There is no going back. There is no do over.

You don’t need to be the teacher that gets mad at the noise and chaos.

With some thought and reflection, your class can be one in which everyone understands your expectations and you can spend more time enjoying your time together instead of wishing the day over.

What do you do in leading your students?

Please share in the comments below. I’d very much like to add to my toolbox of approaches.

Failure is Good


The other day I told my class that it was ok for them to fail.

They looked at me wondering what other nonsense I was about to spout toward them. The look in their eyes revealed the beginning of real concern for my well being.

Actually though, I think I’m on to something.

Too often we are afraid of failing. Why is that? Are we afraid that failing will define who we are?

I think the need to always be right is entirely a result of the environment we’ve created in schools. It’s how public schools are set up. Whether that’s by design or consequence of good intentions.

My classroom has a board of success where I post all of the A papers earned by students. I believe in recognizing success – the kind that achieves top marks. These papers have gone home and returned back to the classroom, put in a pile, and then stapled up on the wall. There are so many now that they’re covering one another as the bulletin board has long since filled. I have created a place where the highest marks get rewarded with a place on our classroom wall.

But what about the student that tried their best and never reached that same A grade success? That for whatever reason, achieving what their peers can isn’t possible. Where is the Awesome Effort designation?

I have no board for overcoming difficulty. No ribbon to be proudly worn when a student has achieved what they thought impossible. That should be changed.

I do reiterate to students that if they haven’t gotten an A on every paper, that’s ok too. In fact at the beginning of the year I share with them the secret of success at school, what I call the Holy Grail of learning.

It isn’t about being awesome at everything.

It is about learning from mistakes made and then doing one’s best to not make the same ones again. It’s about learning what works for each of them. It’s about taking risks and raising one’s hand. It’s saying I don’t know the answer or I need some extra help. It’s about being ok with not knowing the right thing to say before anyone else says it. It’s about trying to figure it all out when confusion sets in right at the start of the lesson.

It really is about being ok with getting things wrong.

Each Tuesday when my students get their graded papers, almost all of them open up the envelope I’ve stuffed and they start rifling though it. I watch them peek into the stack of papers and see what grade they received. I expect that if their grades are good, great conversation will commence when they come in the door.

I know when my own children come home with poor grades, I’m definitely not applauding their effort. I see it as failure. Not good. I’m part of the problem too.

If you haven’t already done it, it’s time you make extra effort to encourage your classroom to be a place where failing is ok.

Because where else will failing be ok? It’s definitely not at school. We’re not set up to allow discovery to be determined by the timeline in which a student learns. Each student is different, it goes without saying, and therefore each learns both differently and at a different point. Just look how we approach state testing – all taking the same test, on the same day, in the same way.

If we don’t encourage some failure there are consequences. If we don’t take chances then slowly the fear of failure will overpower any future desire to try something new, to try something that hasn’t been tried before.

And isn’t the bigger question what our students have learned?

And isn’t a more important question what they’ve learned about themselves?

Classroom Truths Part II: 8 More Survival Tactics


This is part 2 of a two part blog on teacher hints toward being successful at the front of the room.  Take a look at Part I: Classroom Truths: Realities & Useful Hints and tell me what you think.

1) Allow fresh starts. Some teachers will read students’ files to get a better understanding of their strengths and weaknesses before the first day’s school bells ever ring.

Instead I publicly announce to my students on the first day that I do no such thing unless warranted. I also don’t seek prior teachers’ thoughts on my incoming class. Allow me to explain why.

I want students to have a fresh start within my classroom’s walls. If they had fantastic years in the past… I tell them I hope that will continue, and if they’ve had a poor showing, it is now their opportunity to make a change. Does this work? I’ve had some great successes in which students have a banner year within my classroom yet can also recall students in which there was no change from previous year’s antics. Regardless, I stick to the premise that everyone is due an opportunity without preconceived notions.

2) Be open to criticism. No, I’m not referring to one’s supervisor but to one’s students.

I have the “parking lot” bulletin board in my room divided into four parts: positives / things you liked, things you would change, notes to me, and questions. So of course they like to share notes (it’s amazing what they will tell you about what occurs in the bathroom or in the cafeteria) and things they would like to change. I hear all about what I did that they didn’t like. It’s an opportunity to teach the importance of sharing positives — complimenting, doing something nice just because.

If a student thinks I am being unfair, I am open to hearing their complaint if done respectfully. Early on we discuss how to respectfully comment when we feel like we’ve been treated unfairly. It’s yet another skill worthy of developing in young people.

3) Know what button to push — this isn’t intended negatively nor does the knowledge come the first day as I mention above.

Sometimes a student needs a figurative push, sometimes they need their space. Sometimes they need to answer a difficult question, sometimes an easy one. Sometimes a quiet one-on-one conversation is best, other times a public word of encouragement or refocus is more effective.

As I write this, I immediately recall my classroom management class many years ago. I don’t know if my professor would like my approaches, but I will respond by sharing this. They don’t teach you in “teacher school” how to motivate students — whether toward academic success or excellent behavior. It’s yet another skill that teachers have to develop.

Taking into account their style and personality a teacher has to figure out what works for them. I should also mention this: the button to push changes from student to student, from day to day, from subject to subject, and sometimes… from hour to hour.

4) Use “the look” or “the tone” sparingly. These tools don’t work if you’ve worn them out.

5) Raise the bar. Convince students that they can achieve success in the classroom. At the beginning of the year I ask students whether they want a fair & tough teacher or unfair & easy. They always choose the fair option although it comes with difficulty.

After a few weeks I share with my students a “secret” — my tests are tougher than the state assessment. This tough standard might not look as good on the report card initially but the thought processes involved equate to success in so many other ways.

6) Stress Character. If students understand that your decisions regarding what you’ll accept in the classroom are based on a core set of values, they will understand (whether they want to or not) where you’ll draw the line in the sand.

7) Whisper when you want to be heard — students will wonder why you’re whispering.

8) Allow a student to be the teacher — students’ word selection and the unusual nature of them being at the front of the room might just convey what you couldn’t.

8) Lastly, the longer I teach the more I realize how much I’ve been affected by my first year as a teacher. Depending on whether you were supported and had excellent mentors, or not, that year sets a precedence for your success and student expectations. I was very fortunate to have a team committed to helping me survive my first year… and want to return to do it all over again.

I wish all teachers had the same experience I did but know that many didn’t… perhaps this will be good material for the next blog.

I hope you found these useful to you.  Please share your “secrets” below – I look forward to adding more to mine.


Encouraging smiles, reflection and laughter hoping to inspire teachers to do it again tomorrow.