“Don’t smile until Christmas,” I heard a seasoned teacher explain to a first-year educator while we were awaiting the arrival of the students on the first day.
It’s a common nugget of advice amongst educators – be strict in the beginning and then allow yourself to relax once the students understand (and hopefully follow) the rules.
It’s a common nugget of advice that I have intentionally ignored for the duration of my career. In fact, I actually aim for the opposite, trying to smile as much as possible in the beginning. Let me explain.
There are essentially two ways that you can get a gaggle of teenagers to do what you want them to do (for the most part, at least) – You can use a fear of consequences to hold them in place. Or, you can use the power of relationships to make them want to rise to please you.
The first approach is easy. At least in the beginning. You simply project an aura of power and dominance over your classroom domain and ensure that the students are aware that they are lacking in power. It takes no time, other than the investment needed to swiftly mete out consequences for any infractions. And it often works. At least to a point. To an outside observer, the students appear to be doing what they should.
But inside they’re often rebelling. Only they are too afraid to show it.
And so they wait. And in that first moment that their teacher shows any weakness, any vulnerability, they often pounce. Trying to regain some of the power over their own environment. It ends up a crazy dance with the teacher afraid of what the students might do if given space and the students afraid of the teacher. It’s a precarious balance.
The second approach requires an enormous investment of time and energy in the beginning. Rather than crown him- or herself the reigning sovereign, the teacher seeks to build relationships with the students from the beginning. Not with the goal of being seen as “nice,” but with the intention of seeing the swarm of students as individuals and allowing them to see their teacher as human as well.
And the effect of that relationship can be amazing. Students that never cared about their own schooling, all of a sudden exert more effort because their teacher cares about them and they in turn, care about how their teacher perceives them.
The most powerful consequence can become simply the words, “I’m disappointed in you.”
Not only does this approach require time, it also requires courage. It means that the teacher does not attempt to hide his or her vulnerabilities. It means that classroom power is not reserved only for the one with the biggest desk. And it means a release of control, accepting the limitations of influence over another.
Relationships of a different nature often follow one of these two pathways as well. I see so many people approaching dating with the, “Don’t smile until Christmas” attitude, laying down their requirements with an iron fist and staying safely tucked behind their walls. They seek to control in order to limit risk. They want to wield power in order to limit the potential for pain. They assume the worst and react before any action.
They believe they are in the driver’s seat of the relationship, but really fear has the wheel.
And maybe it can work for a time. After all, fear is a powerful motivator.
But it’s also a precarious balance. After all, fear keeps us small and often we’re rebelling inside. Just waiting for an opportunity to try to regain some power.
It’s harder to approach relationships from a place of less-than-complete control. It’s scary to accept the limitations of influence and the possibility of loss. But it’s also amazing what can happen when people are allowed and encouraged to grow.
Why wait until Christmas?
Assume the best of people.
And just maybe, you’ll get it.