Let them laugh (at least a little)

“I love subbing for your classes. Your classroom has such a great culture; you must be doing something right.”

A colleague who has filled in for me six times this spring (so far) gave me this unexpected compliment today, when we crossed paths in the early morning copy room. It was a great start to my day, and her words stayed with me.

How could I not enjoy my students and treat them generously, knowing that they have been so good for a substitute, a woman doing arguably the most unappreciated job on earth?

Her comment made me wonder: What have I done to shape this culture?

I give the students a lot of credit. Most of them are freshmen, and freshmen are usually a little immature, but these students funnel that into positive energy.

Yes, they like to come in and push the “easy” button (from Staples) on my desk. Yes, they often lose their train of thought mid-sentence when answering a question. Yes, I’ve had to stop them from playing chess on their Chromebooks on occasion. Yes, there are 30 of them. In one room.

But they are so good natured and so willing to play along that it’s hard not to love them.

When we did a brief banking simulation a few weeks ago and I chose students at random to play bankers or borrowers, they completely oversold it, spontaneously creating a formal dialog about loan applications. I was dying of laughter.

When I give them weird analogies — like comparing monetary policy to changing my dog’s diet — they smile knowingly and share stories about their own overweight dogs.

When I show them dorky econ nerd Youtube videos, they always laugh and ask for more.

If I’ve contributed anything to this environment, I think it’s just my willingness to laugh along with them. I always rein them back in quickly — so many standards, so little time and all that — but not so quickly that we lose the sheer fun of enjoying something ridiculous together.

I’ll concede that it’s a fine balance, figuring out how to have fun and not lose control or focus. In my first few years of teaching, I was (like most new teachers) pretty bad at this. Teaching middle school language arts in west Wichita, I had a lot of pranksters, and if I gave them an inch, they took a mile. Some days, I flat-out failed at classroom management. They had fun, but they didn’t learn enough.

I remember deciding one day in my first year that I had to clamp down; I talked to my students in a stern voice about appropriate behavior. They looked at me sheepishly, and one of them asked me quietly, “Are you mad at us?”

I realized in that moment how little discipline I had ever imposed. I had to do better.

Thankfully, years of experience with all sorts of teenagers — hardcore studiers, Snapchat enthusiasts, nonstop talkers, frequent flyers to the nurse’s office, all of them — has helped me learn to gauge when I need to squelch the fun and when it’s OK to let it go on a little longer.

I think — I hope — that has helped me create an environment where kids feel free to be kids, even while learning remains the clear priority. As a result, there is no need to act up when I’m not there.

In any case, it is a relief to know that my colleague really enjoys my classes — and it was very kind of her to say so.