I was recently working with middle school educators and asked them about the biggest challenges they are facing. Without skipping a beat, they said dealing with discipline issues, students who at times just don’t seem to care, and their own lack of motivation.
This made me think about the struggles of maintaining a positive school culture, how students often do not get what they need, and how exhausted these educators must be. Whether we are talking about life in general or education specifically, it’s very difficult to adjust, see different perspectives, and find joy when you are in the thick of it.
But, it’s not impossible.
Joy is an interesting emotion. In her recent book, Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown defines joy as “an intense feeling of deep spiritual connection, pleasure, and appreciation.” This is different from happiness, which Brown defines as “feeling pleasure often related to the immediate environment or current circumstances.”
Educators and students are often asked to “be happy,” which isn’t always feasible when they are facing daily struggles. However, joy – the feeling of deep connection, pleasure, and appreciation – can really move the needle in the classroom.
Brown says in order to experience joy, people need to be vulnerable because joy is one of the most vulnerable emotions one can experience. And, often times when we are experiencing true joy, our brains stop the emotion to protect us from getting hurt. Brown calls this “foreboding joy.”
Experiencing more joy
With this understanding of joy, let’s go back to the exhausted educators. How can you as school and district leaders support educators (and students) in experiencing more joy in schools and classrooms?
It first starts with creating the conditions and providing permission for joyful moments to happen.
As a leader, do you allow yourself time for joy? Do you approach your day finding moments of connection and reflection? Brown has found people who avoid foreboding joy do so by practicing gratitude in moments of joy, and by being present and focusing on how grateful they are for the moments they are in.
The first practice as a leader, therefore, is to notice when you are feeling joyful, and then taking a moment to think about why you are feeling this way before honoring and appreciating that moment. It’s a simple mind shift that can make a huge difference.
With this mind shift you will be in a better position to create more opportunities for joy and connection in your building. And, you’ll be in a better position to have a more playful mindset as a leader.
In his research, Stuart Brown, who wrote the book Play, found that play is integral to a healthy life. It fosters empathy, connection, and greater sense of joy. We don’t play enough as adults, and we certainly are not playing enough in school.
Play does not always mean extra recess (although that is helpful!). It can be a condition and a culture you create as a leader.
Below are some ideas on how to create more playfulness and connection in your buildings.
Strategic use of music throughout the day. Do you have a pump-up song you love? What if you played some music each morning as students walked into the building and encouraged educators to use music in a variety of ways? This can include having students come up with their own playlists for class activities, using music to cue transitions, or asking students to submit different pump-up songs that will be played at assemblies.
Start the day with a smile. Do you have morning announcements? Is it just you talking or do you have students announcing? What if you included a funny picture, a joke, or even a clip from a movie (if your announcements are a TV show) each day? You can have a contest and invite students to submit joyful stories, pictures, or something that is important to them, and highlight those during the announcements.
Create posters about joy. Consider asking teachers what they love about their jobs and lives and writing those items on a poster in the facility room. Teachers can then ask students what they love and hang those posters in the hallway!
Dance parties. Yes, you read that correctly – dance parties. Movement is so important for so many reasons, including learning and connection… plus it helps to get energy out. You can have a school-wide dance break during the week, such as “Wake up Wednesdays,” where everyone starts the day with five minutes of dance. Or, you can encourage educators at all grade levels to have movement moments in their classrooms.
Fun Patrol. You can also have a contest where you encourage educators to come up with ways they can have fun, be playful, and connect with students by asking students what they like. The educator who incorporates the best activities can win each month. And, to celebrate, you can go to their classroom with balloons to recognize how they have prioritized connection.
You can always also use funny YouTube videos, save silly memes to your phone, or use a number of different happiness apps – the sky really is the limit when it comes to fun and play! The hardest part of it all is realizing that having fun and being joyful is the essential foundation for everything we do as educational leaders. It’s not fluff.
If school leaders can collectively shift priorities and focus on how to connect just a bit more, I believe students’ academic performance will continue to increase. Students want to feel connected and have school be a place of joy and fun, too!