Janet Goren
Janet Goren

No smiling allowed

It was a very long time ago. I was getting ready to walk into my first classroom as a real teacher, no longer a trainee. There was no one to take over if I couldn’t control the class, no one to guide me or remind me of what to do next. This was my class and my first job as an English teacher in Israel.

I came to teaching late and it certainly had never been my profession of choice. Yet living in Israel, with two little children and less than perfect Hebrew (which is an understatement), it seemed the ideal profession. I was sure that the two-year course for university graduates had prepared me for whatever was awaiting me in the classroom. Little did I know…

I spent hours preparing lessons for the elementary school classes that I would be teaching. There was no Internet, nor were there many ready-made cards, posters and pictures. I searched through every magazine and newspaper I could find, assiduously cutting and pasting, using real scissors and real glue. Every picture and printed word turned into a potential lesson. My imagination was working overtime as I tried to come up with inspiring unforgettable lessons. And believe me, many were unforgettable; they were colossal failures as I would struggle to hold back the tears that were rushing to break through the dam of my closed eyes.

Yet of all the countless memories, it was my first day that stands out. I approached my fifth grade class with a mixture of trepidation, excitement and happiness, toting posters, flashcards, colored chalk, an eraser and a tape recorder so I could save them from hearing my totally off-key singing.  When I became a teacher, the kids began learning in the fifth grade, having no prior knowledge of English. This was before the days of Minecraft, YouTube, TikTok and the endless variety of apps which expose today’s kids to English. So whatever they would know (or would not know)at the end of the year would be a result of my teaching and their learning.

The assistant principal accompanied me to my class. The first two words she uttered were, “Stop smiling!” I guess she saw my shocked expression because she went on to explain that there should be no smiling until Chanukah because the children have to feel that you are tough.

The truth is that I am not tough. I tried, but though my pupils may have come with zero knowledge of English, they were armed with an amazing ability to see through my feeble performance. And though I felt that I had been well-taught, Avi, sitting in the back of the room , would teach me a lot more than my two years of studying. It wasn’t just a question of teaching English; it was a matter of teaching students, all having their own special learning styles, needs, wants and capabilities.  His antics brought me to the verge of tears on many a day. Looking back, I realize that I never did reach him and I probably made him just as miserable as he made me.

Fortunately, life is a learning curve. The first year was sheer hell as I tried not to smile until Chanukah and by then I felt like an abysmal failure (an opinion I am sure shared by many of my first year students). By the second year, I decided to try things my way. On the very first day of the school year, I walked into my classes wearing a big smile. It wasn’t always easy, but I was being true to myself and my own teaching style.

I learned that an interesting lesson could go a lot further than a stern countenance. I learned that as much as I tried, there would be students whom I couldn’t always reach.  The road to smiling was covered in many a tear, but throughout the years of my career as an English teacher, I smiled from September through June and Chanukah returned to being a wonderful holiday rather than the start of a smiling me.

About the Author
Janet Goren grew up in the USA and has been living in Israel for more than fifty years. She raised her family here while teaching English in high school.
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