The Top 3 Rules for Teaching in the “Hood” Rule #3: Live a little…or a lot

 
There are these unwritten nuggets of wisdom from practicing teachers that most or all new teachers swear by. When you’re new to the teaching profession, you listen to wisdom, knowing that your first few years will be exhaustive if you don’t. When you’re teaching in a high-needs school with highly underserved students, you take all the advice you can get, even unsolicited advice. 
 
We’ve all heard it before. “Don’t smile until Christmas.”  
 
I am a proponent of not making my life harder than it has to be. Therefore, after listening to a veteran teacher told me “You don’t have to grade every homework assignment you give each day,” I just knew not smiling before Christmas would work in my favor as well. 
 
So, I tried it. Once.  I started fresh one school year and didn’t smile. At all. And guess what? Neither did my students.  
 
It was the worst half year I ever had.
 
Children who live in highly disadvantaged communities that may be flanked with high crime and low-income need joy – more than the average child.  Many come to school to escape their lives momentarily, seeking solace in learning.  Refusing to smile or infuse joy can strip a classroom of learning, and not just the content.
 
Not smiling each day made the days longer than they already were (I taught in extended day schools) and more exhausting. Can you imagine how painful it is to refuse to smile or laugh when teaching middle schoolers? I exercised muscles in my face I didn’t know I had trying to ensure I kept a straight face. I’m a naturally happy, smiling person - so keeping this up took great effort. 
 
And it robbed me of my joy as well. 
 
Students spend the majority of their day with their teachers, learning more about who they are through the lens of another person. I’m sure that during that time, my students thought they weren’t worthy of a smile or happiness; that they were indeed what others might have seen them as. During that half-year, there were high incidences of misbehavior and low levels of student achievement in my class. 
 
Did you know, expectations are directly linked to performance? The Rosenthal Effect highlights the positive correlation between leader expectation and follower performance, whereas there is a “self-fulfilling prophecy” that is manifest. Unfortunately, it works both ways, when we expect more, we get more and vice versa. 
 
What was I showing my students by refusing to smile until Christmas?
 
Over time, I became sullen and uninspired, two characteristics that should never be a part of a teacher's personality. Not only did I expect little from my students - no joy means there’s no fun in learning - they didn’t expect much from me. Having joy in the classroom should be a requirement in all schools, especially high-needs schools. It’s not fun to walk through impoverished communities to get to school or have the countless worries many children in high-poverty areas have, such as hunger, violence, and crime. I spent my childhood years identifying the seasons according to what utility was off in my home - so I knew better than to rob my students of happiness. 
 
But I did it. Because as a young, naive teacher, I thought these nuggets of wisdom would help me win.
 
I lost way more than I gained that school year, including my authentic self. I tried to play catch-up when January came, but it was already too late. I learned a lesson that year that I never needed to repeat. Each year after that, I ushered my students into amazing growth in ELA/Reading because I changed my expectations of them and infused joy in each moment. Teaching and life are hard enough by itself. If we refuse to smile until Christmas, we’re showing children there’s nothing to be joyful about, even in the midst of life’s challenges and obstacles.

Marlena Little

Educator, visionary and leader.

Marlena Little grew up in the inner-city of Chicago in one of the worst neighborhoods of the city. Yet the contrast of her home and school life provided evidence to the statement, “it’s not where you’ve been but where you are going”. Having attended one of the best elementary and high-schools in the country, she was determined to live beyond the poverty and violence of her neighborhood, knowing education was the escape.

Marlena Little, a Memphian by choice, relocated to Memphis to fight for educational equity. As a teacher, it was important for Marlena’s students to see her as an example of that escape. As an administrator, Marlena challenged teachers and staff to illuminate education as the way out, yet as a visionary, Marlena has created paths of escape.

As Founder of Life Prep Academy Schools, Marlena Little has seamlessly merged her childhood with the standard of excellence imbedded in her educational experiences to provide students, regardless of any “label”, the limitless opportunities a high-quality education affords.  Her philosophical beliefs about education are the guiding principles of Life Prep.

In addition to her many roles, Marlena Little is also a mother and forever learner.  She is a Doctoral Candidate in Educational Leadership and has the pleasure of raising a nine-year-old daughter.