In my first year of teaching, I was never observed by an administrator. I started to think that not being observed might be a good thing, as I was struggling mightily to keep my classroom under control.
I taught 8th grade English in a public middle school in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The school itself was struggling and had been placed on a state list for low student achievement. The principal and assistant principal were both brand new in their jobs and in hindsight, I have empathy for the difficult situation they were in (although I certainly had no empathy at the time). I got used to the idea that administrators were people who helped when things went badly—for example, when a discipline problem forced me to call them and get help. Maybe it was better they weren’t visiting, I thought. What would they see in my classroom? That I was a failure?
I visited the classrooms of teachers who seemed to be successful, which in my mind meant that there was little to no misbehavior. These teachers seemed to address any misbehavior quickly and harshly, so I started to imitate this in my own classroom.
I was attending grad school for teaching in the evenings through the New York City Teaching Fellows program, and in the Spring semester of my first year, I was given a Practicum class led by Norma, a friendly, experienced teacher who taught in a private all-girls Jewish school. I decided that Norma would be a great person to work with, but that she “really wouldn’t understand” my teaching situation.
I remember the first day Norma visited my class. She sat in the back of the room and smiled at me as I began teaching. I made sure to address any infractions quickly and loudly, wanting her and the students to know that I meant business. I figured she’d acknowledge how hard my situation was compared to hers.
I will never forget her feedback.
“I can see you want to manage your class and keep it under control, Julie.” She paused. “Why don’t you try smiling?”
I slowly processed this idea.
“And maybe joke with them a little,” she continued. “And give them some compliments.”
I was shocked. “But the teachers who have control of their classrooms hardly ever smile.”
“Well, maybe you have a different style,” said Norma.
Once I had processed my shock, I figured there was no harm in trying. The next day, I started to smile, and made sure to compliment students: “I see you started your writing early! Nice job!”
Teaching started to seem easier. When Norma visited a couple of weeks later, the classroom was a different place. The mood was lighter, the students seemed happier to be there, and far more students were on-task and engaged.
Norma’s insight for me to smile cost me nothing and required no extra work, yet it transformed my classroom. As the semester progressed, Norma gave me more ideas about teaching, each of which was like a piece of gold. Working with Norma also helped to me see my own prejudices and realize that kids are kids—the same strategies that worked for her students worked for mine, and all kids deserved no less than the best.
I remembered Norma years later when I became a mentor for new teachers. When new teachers told me, “Well, you don’t understand my class” I remembered how Norma had addressed the same attitude in me in such a respectful manner. I heard my earlier self, remembered my own struggle, and channeled my inner Norma.
Photo credit: Julie Nariman
This blog post was inspired by a Twitter educator’s chat the day before I posted, #masterychat. Thanks to all the educators who shared their brilliant ideas!