“Don’t smile until Christmas” vs laughter in the classroom

Laura Nimmo, a Physical Education Teacher, describes how she feels “don’t smile until Christmas” is outdated, and she believes that laughter makes learning more memorable.

The beginning

I was quick to learn that for learning and teaching to be as effective as possible, relationships are everything. Having only received full registration after completion of a successful probationary year last session, I started out as a very impressionable and mouldable newbie to the profession.

Throughout teacher training and placements, the phrase “Don’t smile until Christmas” was something I heard a lot. I was fully aware that this was not to be taken literally but meant presenting a no-nonsense, serious demeanour with high expectations.

Throughout my final student placement and at the beginning of my NQT year, this was something I thought about a lot, and experimented with. I concluded there must be another way to convey high expectations whilst making learning exciting and fun. I quickly discovered it was virtually impossible to express my passion for my subject and promote engagement whilst exhibiting a serious demeanour, instead I felt like I had undertaken the role of benevolent dictator of my games hall.

Having only worked in two schools to date, I can clearly recall my first days in my new role. I am a confident, outgoing person but first days are scary. I then began to imagine how I would feel if I had started and staff assumed this notion of not smiling until Christmas to their colleagues! I am an adult and the thought of this makes me feel very uncomfortable; imagine if you were a young person transitioning from primary up to high school, or even starting a new school where everything is unfamiliar. When you consider this, plus what research tells us about Adverse Childhood Experiences, young peoples’ declining mental health, and policy documents such as GIRFEC and SHANNARI, the phrase “Don’t smile until Christmas” is outdated and contradictory whilst potentially harmful to both learning and teaching.

Laughter in the classroom

Hopkins (2011) reinforces this obsolete myth by stating that teachers should never smile until their class’s behaviour is under control and rules are enforced. Whilst also going on to suggest kind and firm only works with ‘nice’ pupils of whom you have already established a relationship. This creates the notion of a strict and disconnected teacher, assuming the position of the fountain of knowledge, dictating and controlling all learning experiences. This perception contradicts everything the Curriculum for Excellence sets out to achieve.

Throughout my short time spent in this profession, I have come to realise that being yourself, getting your personality into lessons and not taking everything seriously requires a lot less effort and makes your job substantially more enjoyable. Donohue (2014) indicates that laughter makes learning more memorable. The paradigm needs to shift and we need to accept laughter and humour not as elements which are detrimental in the classroom but as features used to boost positive behaviour that can assist in creating optimal learning environments. Young people will seldom look back on their school career and remember your lessons; however, they will always remember how you made them feel.

On the other hand, I am not suggesting that teachers have to be funny to be effective, nor should they assume the role of class comedian. Research states that humour must be appropriate and not forced in order it to have a positive, desired effect. However, when there are opportunities for this, and if humour comes naturally to you, it is definitely something which should and can be used to enhance the whole learning and teaching experience.


The dominant psychological duty of humour is to relieve stress, and research proves that laughter reduces stress hormones. Therefore, if humour and laughter is incorporated daily into learning, mental health and wellbeing should be positively affected, with relationships significantly improved.

To conclude, the phrase ‘Don’t smile until Christmas’ is largely outdated, with research proving that relationships are better created in warm environments where respect is reciprocated and young people feel valued. When teachers smile, it conveys to their students that they are happy to be there and constructs a more approachable, relatable persona. Establishing your authority, especially as someone new to the profession does not require a lack of emotion and showing compassion and conveying your personality only helps to strengthen relationships with young people.