You can tell the depth of my fear based on how big my smile is. The bigger the smile, the bigger the fear. It’s an odd defense mechanism, but one that’s served me in all the places and in front of all the faces that scare me.
“What are you doing on this side of town, white lady. You lost?”
This, from a six-foot-tall, seventh-grader on my first day of teaching. It was almost like he could see the fear radiating from me in little shock waves, like a cartoon. And certainly, I looked cartoonish. Dressed in an ill-fitting “ladies suit” from a department store, I resembled nothing so much as a frumpy bank teller.
His question resonates, reminding me of so many things, not the least of which was how to stay when I wanted to run. Part of the staying was the smiling. When in doubt, when in fear, I smile like a big, goofy child’s drawing. To prove that, I included the image above. A first grader in an Amarillo classroom drew this picture of me meeting President Obama in 2015. Notice the smile. I grinned like a fool during the time I talked to him.
The smiling makes me feel less afraid while disarming the person I’m smiling at.
There’s actual research on why that works, I recently learned. Hattie and Yates devote a whole chapter of their book to research on smiling. “Your face, your voice, and expressive gestures are all tools in that you are able to communicate a positive view of the world. In effect, you invite your students to share your view of the world and in so doing you are providing a strong model for implicit emulation…” (p. 268).
I wondered why this would merit its own chapter, but then I thought about all the times I’ve been less than thrilled to go to school. And less than friendly toward certain students. Early on, I asked a teacher I admired, “How do you get kids to do all this great stuff in your class?”
“Oh, I just love ’em. They know I love ’em,” she said.
And I walked away thinking: But what if you don’t? What if you don’t even like them? Then what?
What I didn’t understand is that the smiling worked because it helped me to create goodwill in those times when I least felt like cheering the cheerless. Hattie and Yates go on to explain that the thing about smiling is that when smile at our students, they smile back almost all of the time. This is important because research “indicates that teachers’ liking for their students is linked to whether or not students exhibit responsive smiling” (p. 269).
My mentor, Elaine Loughlin, used to say to me: “Slap a smile on your face and get out there.” Now, I know why. Me smiling first started the cycle of goodwill. And that in turn made the kids smile back. Which made me like them more. Which made them like me more.
So, as you brace yourself for the return of Monday, slap a smile on your face and get out there. Chances are, people will return it and make things just a tiny bit better.0