Don’t Smile Before Christmas

I remember clearly the thoughts running through my head (what I was thinking about) the week before beginning my first job teaching at a high school. I was terrified.

One of a high school teacher’s greatest fears is losing control (not being able to keep order) of his or her classroom, with students talking loudly and behaving (acting) rudely (not nicely). Your first concern as a new teacher in almost any elementary or high school classroom is therefore discipline, the ability to control your students.

Since my father had been a teacher for more than 30 years, naturally (logically) I looked for advice (helpful suggestions) from him.

“What should I do to keep control of my classroom?” I asked.

My father looked at me with a serious face and said, “Don’t smile before Christmas.”

“Don’t smile before Christmas” is the traditional advice given to new teachers, the idea being that you can’t be nice to your students at the beginning of the school year (the school year starts in September in the U.S.). If you are, then your students will not respect you and won’t listen to you.

Recent research has found that whether you smile or don’t smile is, in fact, related in some ways to your position of authority and power. In one study, scientists looked not at whether smiling would make people fear and respect you (like your students might), but whether you smiled if someone else smiled at you.

The researchers found that if you do not think of yourself as very powerful, as having a lot of influence or importance, you usually smile back at anyone who smiles at you. This is something you do unconsciously, without really thinking about it.

However, if you think of yourself as an important person with a lot of power, and another person who is powerful smiles at you, you typically will not smile back at them. You will suppress (not allow yourself) your smile.

This is probably due to the competition you feel with another powerful person in the room. Perhaps you don’t want to seem like you are weak by indicating any kind of friendliness to another powerful person.

Choosing to smile or not to smile communicates how powerful we are in relation to those around us, so perhaps my father’s suggestion was a good one. Luckily for me, I didn’t have any problems with discipline with my classes that year, even if I did smile once or twice before December.


Photo credit: Two children with diving goggles, Ortwin Eversmeyer

This entry was posted in Life in the United States. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Don’t Smile Before Christmas

  1. Vito says:

    Dear Jeff.

    Thank you very much.
    You inspire me and make me feel great because ESLpod is my drug.
    Of course a good one. 😀
    I’m truly better in English now, after two month of listening to podcast and reading your magnificent articles and stories.

    Nothing suits me like this site really.

    Have a nice week.

    Your huge fan.

  2. Peter says:

    Dear Jeff,
    I feel you bro
    Managing a classroom full of students who come from different walk of life is not a cakewalk. It takes soome courage. You walk in the classroom with ,say , 20 , 25 people  you never met trying to work some disciplinary metod to have them behave.
    Well, my man ,it is not gonna work. 

    U as a teacher should make them a whole,another words,a classroom with a synergy ,a sense of cooperation. You know what I mean.
    I  don’t think that smillimg is all it takes to get a class full of rowdy ,rebilious students:) to  not throw tantrum or sth. 

    You know ,carot-stick policy ain’t work either,it is a thing of past.

    I believe ,it  Is all a matter of right 
    personality. I mean, you are supposed to behave in a way that students can relat to you. they should feel that you are one of them not some authority figure  who is there to lay down laws  . You see what I mean ,boss.

    Unless you make a rapport with them It doesn’t matter what your classroom face is , it duesnt work.
    you can’t manage the class. 



  3. Myo ko ko says:

    In today’s post you let us know a traditional need-to-follow motto for newly-become teachers in U.S.
    But what about for non-teacher group like me?
    Now I’m totally in hot water.
    You see, the two girls in the photo you put up there are smiling at me.
    Should I smile back at them or not?!
    However, I don’t know their status, I mean, are they great, powerful, or influential? Do they have high-profiles, etc.
    Honestly enough, I really want to give them my really big smile (as big as I can! 😉 )
    But you know, now is before Xmas.
    So, what is your advice solely for me, Jeff?

    Hey, I’m just trying to be funny!
    Thanks Jeff for this post. It is light, but with a lot to take from it.

    Myo ko ko
    From Myanmar.

  4. Val says:

    I fully understand you, Jeff. I was teaching at the university for a while about 2 years ago. At that time I was 25, and, you know, it’ so difficult to show your influence and importance to the people, who only 3-4 years younger than you. I was smily and friendly to my students, I should say I didn’t notice any disrespect, but they definately weren’t afraid of me at all. I guess I should have been less friendly and more strict to them.

  5. Nele says:

    I don’t agree with this reserchers.
    For me, smiling to a person is body language, also a sign of goog manners and friendliness. And anybody who don’t smile back has no good manners, equal how powerful he or she ist. I knew some powerful people who can smile, equal who is the other person.

    And, if anybode don’t smile back, sometimes the reason is his or her uncertainty – and again equal how powerful he or she ist.

    Ok, sometimes there a persons who don’t smile back in negotiations, perhaps they are very concentrated. But I suspect they have studies body language and they think it’s a sign of power and give them help in the situation. I think theiy are unfriendly and also uncertain.

    Best regards

  6. Fayçal says:

    Without further ado, EslPod is what the doctor ordered, I am takling on behalf of anyone taking an advatange of your second to none lessons that we are gratful to your impeccable efforts that are presumably bearing fruit.
    I myself benefited a lot and my learning processe is really improving so my appetite is whetted to better myself off further due to your incentive dialogues.

    In a nutshell, I only lack for words that suit your high calibre but you are magnificient the least i can say.

    Fayssal, from Algeria

    salam “peace”

  7. parviz says:

    Hi Jeff,
    similarly, I remember the thoughts running through my mind when I wanted to enter my class for the first time. As a student, occasionally, I gave a short lecture or a seminar in front of the class. but I had no I idea how difficult it was to be a teacher, until 2010, when I started my own teaching business, for a small group of college students. I couldn’t say that I was losing my control, but my heart started to beat very fast and my skin turned pale. Luckily one of my students, who was actually a friend of mine, whispered in my ear, before the class started said ” don’t worry I won’t ask a question you don’t know the answer.” And I remember started thinking ” may be I give other students this impression, too. Then I try to get my thoughts acted. Although, It was difficult for me to enter a class I barely knew the students, it turned out to be a sweet look out. I didn’t smile entering the class. and I tried to show myself very strict.
    Any way, this is the first time I ever hear “Don’t smile before Christmas” , But i think it worked for me before I knew it.


  8. Val says:

    I remember, the first class I had to teach. Actually, it was practical lesson on Engineering Graphics. I clearly remember how fearful it was=) All these eyes, which are looking at you, more than 30 faces, which are smiling to you… These are not children, these are young adults, people with their own formed opinions and views… It’ was terrible feeling. The good thing about it that you can overcome this fear through everyday practice. And you pretty soon become more confident.
    This problem is common for young teachers all other the world. Every teacher must work hard in order to be respected and liked.

  9. Tania says:

    Hi! Good topic, good lesson for young teachers and not only.
    I think the pupils do not like too much sobriety, but with a smile, a joke and much competence, ability, understanding…you can”cross the sea”.
    I am not a teacher, but I know we loved all teachers of this kind.

  10. Tania says:

    Hi! Thanks to the internet, when any pupil can access all aspects of a problem… of course , a teacher can be in trouble any time.
    Val is right: a terrible feeling.

  11. Tania says:

    “The silent withering of autumn flowers
    Dropping their petals…
    In the smell of grapes on the autumn table…”

    The Dry Salvages by T.S.Eliot

  12. Tania says:

    Hi! It’s autumn…a walking in the park…yellow leaves, sound of sad trees…

    The Sound of Trees

    by Robert Frost (1874-1963), American poet

    I wonder about the trees.
    Why do we wish to bear
    Forever the noise of these
    More than another noise
    So close to our dwelling place?

    All the best to you all,


  13. Tania says:

    Hi! Dear Emiliano, how are you ?
    You have to know we miss you very much.
    Please, send a word.

  14. Yuri says:

    Great post (as usual), Jeff!
    It seems to be true that more powerful people try to look even more significant.
    But in general that’s not good I guess.
    Let’s smile and, as others survey said, our life become a little longer!

    Thank you for your good positive posts!
    Wish you all the best,


Comments are closed.