The Importance of Joy

I’ve been thinking recently yet again about how important joy is to classroom life and learning. My ten-year-old niece got me started down this path when she returned from visiting a school her parents were considering for her next year. When my sister picked her up, my niece breathlessly told her, “Mom, they don’t do any work at that school, except for a little math.”

My sister, naturally, was curious about what exactly had gone on that day. After probing a little more, she learned that during one period, my niece had imagined what kind of superpowers she would like to have if she could be a superhero and had written a story about what that would be like. Then, in the computer lab, she’d designed a brochure about herself while the rest of the class continued work on brochures for a social studies project. As details like these came out about the whole day, my sister saw that, of course, the students had done a great deal of “work.” It was just that their teacher had managed to imbue so much joy and engagement into their assignments that my niece, who rarely leaves school quite so happy, didn’t realize she was “working.”

That sense of joy and engagement is important for our studentsand for us. But, as I’ve been out and about visiting schools lately, I’ve been noticing how much pressure teachers are under and thinking about how hard it is to bring joy to teaching when under so much stress.

In many schools, spring is testing season, and more than ever, teachers judge their efficacy as teachers according to how well their students do on these tests. In addition, modern technology brings convenience but also its own stresseswho among us hasn’t received an upsetting email from a parent, colleague or administratoror one that, without the context of a face-to-face conversation, is impossible to interpret? In many parts of the country, teachers are also worried about possible layoffs or increasing class sizes for next year. We have many reasons not to feel joy.

But, without at least some joy and fun, how can we truly connect with our students, relax ourselves, or fully enjoy our work? And, if we don’t enjoy our work, how likely is it that students will be able to relax, take risks, and engage with their learning? Instead, they often seem to feel the same pressure and sense of drudgery that we do.

To counteract that, I want to offer a few small ways to bring some joy, fun and laughter into your classrooms this spring:

  • Smile more. I know it seems simplistic, but sometimes just forcing yourself to smile at and with children can make you relax and lighten the mood. It really works. (Of course, laughing helps, too.)
  • Read your class some jokes or short  poems. Many jokes or poems can be read in less than two minutes, and even if you’re under tremendous time pressure, that’s enough time for a quick joke or a funny or moving poem to bring smiles.
  • Add some choice to your lessons. When students have the power to choose which book to read, what topic to study, or even which of two worksheets to complete, they are more engaged and motivated. They feel more joy.
  • Play a game. Playing a noncompetitive, fun game is a great way to build community and a sense of joy and playfulness among your students. Games can build social skills, provide quick reviews of academic content, or be a mix of both.
  • Go outside a little more . . . with your class. As the weather gets warmer, flowers bloom, birds return, and the sky is bluer, spending even just a little time outside will lighten your mood and that of your students. Take a quick walk outside, play a game, or find a way to do some observation of nature or science.
  • Do something kind for your students or a colleague. Write students quick notes about something positive you’ve noticed. Or, write a card, note or email to a colleague just to compliment that person on some aspect of his or her teaching.

I’d love to hear some ways you keep the joy in your classroom!

Read “Our Passion for Teaching,” a follow-up to this post.

Margaret Berry Wilson is the author of several books, including: The Language of Learning, Doing Science in Morning Meeting (co-authored with Lara Webb), Interactive Modeling, and Teasing, Tattling, Defiance & More.

Tags: Joyful Classrooms

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