I think we all know, or we had better, that the old advice of, “Don’t smile until Christmas,” is just bad.
In most classrooms, thankfully, those first few days of laying down the law and scaring the crap out of kids have been replaced by plenty of team building and “getting to know you” kinds of stuff. Many toothpick and marshmallow towers are being made. We are sharing summer adventures and school-year dreams, preferred pronouns and name pronunciations.
We’re learning about them, of course, but most students are also focused hard on figuring out what the person at the front of the room is all about.
Disclaimer: This Is Me
Often during this time, I give my new students a warning. I tell them, “I’m sarcastic. I will make fun of you, and I will make fun of myself. If you don’t want me to—for a day or for the year—just let me know.”
I explain that teasing is the language of love in my family. We are a German-Catholic family, terrible at expressing any emotion besides quiet upset. So, instead of expressing feelings, we just make fun of each other almost constantly. It’s how we say we care.
My emotional stuntedness has become one of my teaching trademarks. Mostly, that’s been OK. A lot of kids have that one uncle who teases them about stuff, and they know how to roll with it.
I don’t use sarcasm as a weapon when I’m angry, and I don’t make fun of kids when they are frustrating me. So, they generally understand that when I’m joking around like that, it means I’m in a good mood and everything is fine. I have had students approach me and ask if everything was OK because I hadn’t told them recently that they were my least favorite student of all time.
I promise, they know I’m joking.
Still, the joking and sarcasm and exaggerated grumpiness that has netted me almost two whole friends in my outside life has started to define far too many of my interactions at school, and I’m worried I’m becoming a caricature of myself. I’ve seen this happen to teachers a lot.
Be Your Weird, Wonderful Self—But Make Room For Your Kids.
As a profession, we let a whole bunch of weirdos act a whole bunch of weird ways.
Since we often build our own little universe to live in, our profession often embraces and encourages our eccentricities. We have the kindergarten teacher who likes purple and so their entire classroom is all purple everywhere, and the science teacher I had in high school who slept in his car and showered in the locker room.
We have our “purple” teachers and our weirdo teachers and our teachers who love whatever thing, act whatever way, play whatever exaggerated role. It’s generally OK, but I don’t want to be the “ha-ha, he hates us” teacher.
I’m not the teacher that kids are scared of, thank God. We’re only a week into school, and every morning I’ve had somewhere between 15-30 kids in my room. Most are the eighth graders I only met four days ago (though I don’t have a first-hour class). But every day there are also high schoolers from down the hall and kids I taught last year or the year before coming just to hang out.
Try as I might, many kids seem to understand that I like them a whole lot, that I’m willing to get in trouble with adults by advocating for students, that I really truly care how they feel and what they think.
But I’m sure there are kids who don’t. I’m sure there are kids who don’t love my loud performances of crankiness, my teasing or my jokes—and my room needs to be for them, too. When I have struggled with students, I sometimes struggle to find another gear because I’m often either goofing around or silent, and neither works well when a student genuinely needs emotional support, needs to trust you to be honest or needs to hear a difficult truth.
We should be ourselves, but not so much or so big that we don’t leave room for every kid.
Just like some students need a room that isn’t completely bright purple, or that isn’t fashioned completely after their teacher’s favorite book or band, or whatever our whatever is, I know I have students who need to know explicitly that I teach because I love them, that I am sad on the days they aren’t here, that I brag to my friends and my wife and my own kid about all the cool things they’ve done and said and accomplished, that I will go to bat for them, any time, if they ever need it.
So I have professional and academic goals this year. Last year I had some positives with students who came to me struggling to read at grade level, who made jumps in test scores two or three times more than expected, and I’d like to push that even harder. I’d like to grow a culture of reading and curiosity into my classroom even more.
But I’ve also got this big personal goal, this goal that may not push my students’ test scores one way or another, may not make for better grades or better work, but may well change how some kids see me, how some kids see themselves, how they remember this year and maybe even what it means for their next one or five or twenty. I’m going to be “Mr. Nice Guy” a whole lot more.