Facebook
Edutopia on Facebook
Twitter
Edutopia on Twitter
Google+
Edutopia on Google+
Pinterest
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

Debunking those Pesky Classroom Myths

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

We have all heard the following classroom myths: If you want discipline to go well, don't smile until Christmas, and, if you want to have good classroom management, never turn your back to the students.

On campuses across the country you can hear such myths and others repeated over and over again. They demonstrate an attitude of pessimism that does not belong in American schools.

So, let's tackle some of those misnomers from the teachers' lounge:

  • Don't smile until Christmas. Harry Wong says to start the school year with a celebration and that the very first days of school set the tone for the rest of the year. I learned this to be true. The worst thing to do the first day of school is to go over the rules, ad infinitum. The very first day of school, I wanted my students to be able to tell their parents that they learned something useful. Students are all quiet and subdued the first day of school anyway. Minimal discipline is often necessary. We can go over the rules later the first week. Why not give the students a reason to want to stay in your class and learn the very first day? In her book, If You Don't Feed the Teachers, They'll Eat the Students, Neila A. Connors says, "Don't ever stop playing and laughing, and that day without laughter is also a day not fully lived. There is so much to smile about in our business; and we know that we don't stop playing because we grow old -- we grow old because we stop playing."
  • Never turn your back to the students. Building trust is the first thing a teacher should do beginning a school year. How do you build trust? According to Flip Flippen, founder of Capturing Kids' Hearts, trust is built by getting to know the students a bit, and letting them get to know you. He maintains that in order to build a high performance learning team, commitments must be made and kept alive. In the course of instruction and learning, the students have to know that the teacher cares enough about them to pull them back to the commitment that was made the first week of class when they stray out of line and the students can also do the same with the teacher.
  • Teachers know best. We teachers should know best, but that is not the point. The point is that students know best also, after all, they know when a lesson goes well and when it flops. They know when the teacher is prepared and when the teacher is shooting from the hip. They are an untapped resource for professional development. Getting feedback from students has made me a better teacher. I learn from the perspective of the student and the students appreciate the opportunity to share. They might not be able to tell me how to fix the problem, but knowing there is a problem is more than half the battle.
  • Students aren't interested in learning. They just want to have fun. I asked my daughter, Mercedes, about this and she said that students are not necessarily averse to working hard, they just don't appreciate work that is too hard, or above their skill or confidence level. It is not that students won't do homework, it's just not a priority in their lives. How does a teacher make homework a priority in their lives? Simple. Give a reason to do the homework that motivates them. Grades, and other threats, do little to motivate students. Rewards and bribery are temporary measures that work, but ultimately are not enough for the long term. The best way to motivate students to do homework is to make it an extension of exciting and engaging learning that begins in the classroom.
  • Students hate school. Students don't hate school, they hate what happens in the classrooms at school. In his book, Why Don't Students Like School, cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham explains that the way students learn is not the way most teachers teach. He gives examples of how teachers expect drilled, isolated facts and figures to stick in the student's brain. Ask a student what he had for dinner last night, or even better, ask him the plot and the story line of the movie he watched in the theaters last week. Without rehearsal or repetition, he will be able to tell you. We simply need to align our teaching better to how students really learn and they will feel success and remember what we taught them. My favorite quote from his book? "Memory is the residue of thought."
    • Perhaps the biggest myth of all is: I believe every student can learn. You will find this noncommittal statement in nearly every school mission statement from Texas to Alaska, but it avoids the acceptance of responsibility. It should read, "I believe every student will learn in my class." The great challenge and fun of being a teacher is making that happen.

      Life in schools is hard enough but a great teacher can make all the difference. Thanks for being teachers and debunking all of those myths.

Comments (21)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

crhooley's picture

Thank you for the insights and I do agree with most of what has been posted. You have to give students a reason to want to learn, engage them, be creative. In my classroom we have a blast. I have taught from desktops, brought out spontaneous song and dance and taken the random field trip outside the school walls during instruction to help us grasp a concept. Yet I do not do this on the first day of school or even the first weeks. I have to build a relationship with my students and boundaries must be set before we are able to do these "crazy" things. Many of my students come from very rough homelives where chaos is the rule. My kids know I love them and I greet them with a firm handshake everyday, yet the first few weeks of school they are learning to underdtand when it is play time and when it is work time. I think this is a real struggle for beginning teachers, understanding that balance early and setting a tone of work vs. "I am your friend, let's have fun". There is a timeline that must be followed and if it takes till Christmas to get some of those work/fun expectations to be established then that is what it takes. There is some truth in the saying, "Don't smile till Christmas." Maybe we should reword that and make it Labor day or Halloween!!

Jeff's picture

I agree with you when you write about the importance of students having fun in the classroom. If students enjoy what they are learning they will remember the material with little repetition. I also agree that it is important for students to learn and have fun on the first day of school, but I always go over my rules and expectations first. Students have ambiguity their first day and it is important they know what is expected of them for the following year. I follow my lecture of the rules and expectations with ice breaker games that allow the students and I to get to know one and other. Thank you for your post you made many good points.

bensjohnson's picture
bensjohnson
Education Consultant dedicated to improving schools, one teacher at a time

Jeff:

I think there is even a larger reason to have enjoyable learning (and hard work) successes in the classroom early on. It leaves the door open for more learning. There are millions of Americans, many of them teachers, that carry deep scars from math and science classes and that vowed to never again set foot in a math or science class if they could avoid it. On the flip side, if you talk to any one who is willing to admit that they like math or science and continued learning it, it is because of a positive experience in math or science early in their lives. I believe that it is possible to be rigorous without being onerous. Good experiences leave the door open for more learning, while bad experiences slam the door shut.

[quote]I agree with you when you write about the importance of students having fun in the classroom. If students enjoy what they are learning they will remember the material with little repetition. I also agree that it is important for students to learn and have fun on the first day of school, but I always go over my rules and expectations first. Students have ambiguity their first day and it is important they know what is expected of them for the following year. I follow my lecture of the rules and expectations with ice breaker games that allow the students and I to get to know one and other. Thank you for your post you made many good points.[/quote]

Jill Stone's picture
Jill Stone
third grade teacher from Sarasota, Florida

Ben,
I can't help but smile when my students enter my classroom on the first day. I've heard the myth before that you don't smile until Christmas. I want my students to feel comfortable, safe, and at ease when they come to my classroom. Hopefully I will gain their trust and repect as they get to know me as a caring and fair teacher. I appreciate your positive outlook.

KristiN's picture
KristiN
5th grade teacher from Maryland

Thank you for tackling these annoying classroom myths, Ben. At a recent team meeting we discussed classroom and grade level norms for the year and an inexperienced teacher stated "no smiling until Christmas". I asked how he planned to attend conferences, Back to School events, awards ceremonies and school celebrations with a scowl on his face. We need to think about the image we are presenting to our students and their parents. I am a high-energy teacher and my students expect that level of excitement and thrive on my ability to inject humor into dry topics. I agree that we also need to look at exciting and engaging classwork and homework assignments to help our students stay focused as we teach them responsibility and work ethic. Thank you, Ben. I truly enjoyed your article and I will be sharing this with my team at our next planning day.

Fonda P.'s picture

Some of these myths hold educators back and they are not able to build a relationship filled with trust and respect between them and their students. I have to say I smile the whole year and show my students the first time we meet that I care about them. Students know when their teacher cares about them and I believe that we have to model behaviors we want our students to demonstrate. By not smiling until Christmas this can make our students have a negative attitude toward coming to school. I feel that everyday something fun and exciting should happen at school whether it the morning meeting, a field trip, or fun activity at the end of the day. I feel our students deserve to have a fun learning experience. I really enjoyed your posting!

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Fonda:

Well stated. When students feel that the teacher is having fun, smiling, and enjoying themselves in the hard work of teaching, then the students will be more prone to enjoy themselves in the hard work of learning. Not only this, especially for younger students, if they enjoy the learning, even if it was challenging and difficult, then that will leave the door open for the student to want to learn even more on the same subject. Typically math and science have been the casualties of the door being slammed shut because of bad experiences.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote=Fonda P.]Some of these myths hold educators back and they are not able to build a relationship filled with trust and respect between them and their students. I have to say I smile the whole year and show my students the first time we meet that I care about them. Students know when their teacher cares about them and I believe that we have to model behaviors we want our students to demonstrate. By not smiling until Christmas this can make our students have a negative attitude toward coming to school. I feel that everyday something fun and exciting should happen at school whether it the morning meeting, a field trip, or fun activity at the end of the day. I feel our students deserve to have a fun learning experience. I really enjoyed your posting![/quote]

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Jill

Is that like the wisdom of never going shopping when you are hungry? It makes sense, but some teachers would never teach at all if they followed your advise. That might be a good thing, especially since teachers tend to talk too much anyway. I enjoy your enthusiasm. You students are lucky!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[Quote=Jill from Sarasota]I can't help but smile when my students enter my classroom on the first day. I've heard the myth before that you don't smile until Christmas. I want my students to feel comfortable, safe, and at ease when they come to my classroom. Hopefully I will gain their trust and repect as they get to know me as a caring and fair teacher. I appreciate your positive outlook.[/quote]

Mr. Jun's picture
Mr. Jun
Elementary Teacher from Philippines

of course as teacher we have to imbibe good interpersonal skills. at the start of classes, it is always good to be firm and consistent to be able to create powerful impact to students. once we can be able to achieve this, we can be able to hold them or control them the way we wanted it to be up to the end of the school year on the other hand once we have established that power to discipline them, we can be able to make sorts of adjustments just to let them feel that indeed, you love them anyways. and the bottom line students would pay you back respect and love

Sign in and Join the Discussion! Not a member? Register to join the discussion.