Don’t Smile Until November?

Congratulate yourself. It is almost the end of October and you haven’t actually quit your job yet. That also means you are still teaching. Which also means you are a few weeks away from that infamous month in teaching called November. Ah, at last…the month that you can actually crack a smile. This, according to teaching folklore and “traditional” classroom management etiquette is actually a thing. Yes, it is actually a practice used in order to preserve a guise of sternness with students during the first few months in order to, I guess, get them to behave. Pavlov’s theory. Dog training transformed through a few nuances to fit the classroom. But, I really need to know, what is it like not smiling for those first two odd months of school? And, what does it really mean when we tell our new teachers, don’t smile until November?


I know, technically the metaphor that is meant to encapsulate classroom management and student-teacher relationships is not supposed to be taken verbatim. But, even still, if the philosophy behind not smiling holds true, and you navigated the first few months by projecting a standoffish, impersonal, objective and robotic demeanor, I need to know how life in that classroom has been for you. Has firm compliance led to better, more productive, more diligent and engaged students? When veteran educators offered this axiom to me as a new teacher, I always thought that it was somewhat ironic. How can you pull someone into learning by pushing them away from you as the “lead learner”? To me, there is a difference between routinely establishing and re-establishing classroom expectations and “coming on hard” at the beginning of the year simply to make the job easier for you as teacher. When it comes to establishing a balanced student-teacher relationship, ultimately there is a fundamental difference between respect and its simpler form, compliance.


One of the (many) issues with education is that we have somehow slipped into this notion of belief that espouses compliance over relationships and engaged learning. Unfortunately, this compliance trend has affected principals, teachers, and ultimately students in their capacity to lead and to learn. I can’t sit here typing this and lie to you. It is great for me as a teacher when my class sits in complete silence while working through some math questions or a language activity because I explicitly established that expectation in the early weeks of the new school year. Even more troubling, is that I often fail to catch myself when I think that a quiet (the real meaning of compliance in the teacher setting, I guess) is the way that learning ought to be done every day. You know, no communication, every individual for themselves. But real learning cannot happen like this every day of the week. It shouldn’t. Real learning is about banter, spontaneity, challenges and challenging. And yes, real learning even involves breaks that take us back to the reality of acknowledging that we are all tangled in trying to help each other find our best selves. Not smiling sends the opposite message to your students. Real learning ultimately requires inquisitively challenging the norms. And, the “Don’t Smile Until November” mantra is one norm of schooling that must be constantly questioned.


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Matthew R. Morris

Educator, Speaker, Writer

Matthew R. Morris is a writer, speaker, and elementary educator in Toronto. He has an M.A. in Social Justice Education from OISE at the University of Toronto and is the author of the forthcoming book, Black Boys Like Me. 

Matthew R. Morris

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