I asked my aunt, a former teacher, for her sage advice before I started teaching. Auntie was a regal woman who prided herself on being able to send icicles down the spines of her students with a mere glance. Her 40-plus years in education had taught her myriad lessons, many of which she passed on to me. She’d laugh when telling me how she was christened “the Meanest Ol’ Math Teacher in Cumberland County,” a moniker she wore like a badge of honor. To her, “mean” was a code word that meant her teaching embodied a no-frills type of education, filled with discipline and respect. She was the general in her classroom, and her children dared not challenge that authority.
Without hesitation, Auntie proclaimed, “Don’t even think about cracking a smile before Thanksgiving.” Then suddenly, the Meanest Ol’ Math Teacher held up a finger and amended the advice she’d just given me: “But with the way kids act these days, I’d say not to smile before Christmas!”
I consider myself to be a jovial person. In order to be convincing as a big meanie, I spent several hours practicing my scowl in the mirror before I felt ready to put my aunt’s tactics into practice.
In my first teaching gig in a Brooklyn middle school in 2017, I proceeded to furrow my brow at my students from September until the end of December. I didn’t even address them in the hallway because I needed to show them there was a new sheriff in town.
They didn’t buy it.
That first semester was quite difficult because my students were not interested in learning anything from the school grouch. Despite my best efforts to channel my auntie’s poise in the classroom, some of my students were defiant.
The worst part was my students didn’t even think of me as “mean.” They just thought I was a bore. It wasn’t my sour face that was having a negative effect on them. It was my methodology.
All of the frowning in the world couldn’t divert their attention from my unstructured lessons. I had strived to be “the Meanest Ol’ Math Teacher in Kings County,” but I ended up being baptized “the Big Snoozefest.”
What had gone wrong?
Well, I found out that students like predictable yet dynamic lessons. They actually look for structure. I learned from fellow teachers that each lesson should start with an immediate activity (like a Do Now) that segues seamlessly into the next.
I also found out that I talked too much and should make time for students to share ideas among themselves, like a think-pair-share activity.
Lastly, activities have to make sense to them. You have to meet them where they are because they can easily detect when a lesson has little validity to their own lives.
I had to learn how to keep students focused through effective lessons. An engaged student is a well-behaved student.
Armed with lessons that are more structured and laced with recognizable objectives and routines, I started my second year successfully last September with very few behavioral issues. In fact, I actually smiled well before Rosh Hashana.
And I’m not the only one. I know my aunt, who has since passed away, is smiling down at me, proud that I am continuing our family legacy in education well into the 21st century.