Significance of a smile is not always fully appreciated

Q: A few years ago my principal asked me if I would consider being the homeroom teacher for a Grade 7 class.

Grade 7 is in the midst of what are often called “middle years” and is considered by many teachers to be the most challenging of all grades to be taught.

I accepted the invitation from the principal, with admittedly some reservations, but not so now. I have been in that classroom for years and I would not change it for anything. Working with those young people struggling a bit with their identities, caught up in peer group pressures, confused by the whole adolescent thing and often as not defiant to almost any suggestion of authority, has given me a whole kit full of personal and academic rewards. It is great.

But something that always haunts me is the extent to which kids in preadolescence shun a smile. They sulk, withdraw, fight back, intermingle moodiness and impatience and do almost anything rather than break out in what could be a beautiful smile. Sometimes I think that we should put how to smile in the curriculum written for Grade 7 but I suspect that would be considered inappropriate. What can we do to get 12- and 13-year-old kids smiling a bit more than they might otherwise do?

A: Thank you for the observations. I suspect that you might consider putting together a course in How to Smile in the curriculum but I am not sure that you would win too many popularity contests in the staff room.

Teachers all over the place are complaining that too much is being expected from them and from their classrooms. They are being asked to work with their students on many topics that traditionally belonged in the home. Look at the list — cooking classes, human sexuality, driving lessons, religious studies, carpentry, photography and so on. Adding one more class to the list, how to smile, might be met with some resistance.

Nonetheless, you raise an interesting observation. Many people do not fully appreciate the significance of the smile or the extent to which smiling is learned behaviour.

Rather than enriching our lives with an exciting smile, we slouch our way through our daily chores with an occasional sarcastic snicker but otherwise the stoic commitment to disguised personal pleasure.

The literature through which I sifted says that we have two kinds of smiles. They are the forced smile and the natural smile. You can find any number of forced smiles through the family pictures in Grandma’s photograph album. Many people pretend in these situations and the only thing that suggests anything related to a smile is a somewhat limited parting of the lips baring forth a couple of teeth. Their mouths are otherwise depressed, their eyes are sad, and whatever pleasurable energy they might have is well hidden.

The natural smile is different. The whole face lights up, eyes are loaded with energy and the general countenance of the smile is an invitation to enjoy the world despite its indifference.

You are right of course. You cannot teach your students how to smile. If you teach anything you are likely to get a forced smile in return and the world of today is probably carrying too much of that already.

What you can do is give your students permission to smile. Give them mirrors so that they can see themselves as they practise smiling.

They can have classroom competitions to see who can come up with the most variations of the natural smile. And of course you are going to order in a pizza every time your health class hits a thousand smiles.

Have fun with the kids, smile a lot with them, let them know that the way to this teacher’s heart is through the smile, and you will have a curriculum unequaled by anything the department of education might figure out.

Jacklin Andrews is a family counsellor from Saskatchewan. Contact: jandrews@producer.com.

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