Awakening Joy in Schools
Written by Brittany Cabrera.
Today’s guest author, Brittany Cabrera, is an Instructional Coach. Previous to becoming a coach, she taught in K-8 Bilingual and Regular classrooms across Urban and Rural settings. She brings 15 years of classroom experience to her current role where she is dedicated to serving the teachers and administrators in many ways. You can find her twitter @bccabrera2 or linkedin.

What would schools be like if joy was prioritized like accountability scores? Would so many teachers be leaving the field if joy was made a priority? How can I, as an instructional coach, bring more joy to the teachers and kids of my own school?

—Brittany Cabrera,
Instructional Coach

How Important is Joy?

Sometimes it feels like joy has become an afterthought, a fun thing we sometimes get to experience on weekends or this fleeting thing that comes and goes quickly. Our day-to-day lives are so busy – rushing from one activity to another or being exhausted from work – that it has become a rare thing to sit down and think about joy, let alone to purposefully build more joy into our lives. 

Honestly, it isn’t surprising that joy has gotten the shaft with the pressures of producing and achieving. When deadlines need to be met or scores need to be achieved, joy is not at the forefront of many of our lives. 

At the same time, there are also a staggering number of people seeking help to be happy. People are turning to self-help gurus and books, Netflix documentaries, and therapy all in an effort to answer their questions about how to be happy in our hectic world. Maybe it is time that we pay attention to these rising numbers. Maybe all of this is proof that this whole “Joy is essential to humans” thing might be real. 

This is what Ingrid Fetell Lee hopes to show people with her book Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness. She has found the way to weave in scientific research and historical information to prove the need for Joy.

 

Does Joyful apply to schools?

Lee has a way of taking small things and highlighting their big impact. As I read, I found myself remembering moments in my life that have proven the power of seemingly simple things like confetti and flowers. Times that I took for granted, not thinking about how much happiness they were bringing me because I was too busy being productive. By the time I finished the book, I was ready to make increasing the joy in life a fulltime job. I also started taking a closer look at a place that I hold so very dear to my heart as passionate educator: schools.

Every year we hear that teachers are leaving the profession.  We see the social media posts and articles in EdWeek about the teacher shortage due to the number of good teachers leaving the profession. In a recent study from Illinois State University 55% of teachers who had left teaching sited “Dissatisfaction” as their reason for leaving. Other published articles have sited stress, overbearing parents, standardized testing pressures, student behavior, and lack of resources as teachers’ reasons for leaving. 

As I read Lee’s book, I kept thinking about our schools. I thought about our teachers and our kids. What would schools be like if joy was prioritized like accountability scores? Would so many teachers be leaving the field if Joy was made a priority? How can I, as an instructional coach, bring more joy to the teachers and kids of my own school?

Is joyful a word that most kids would use to describe their school? Maybe on certain days. It’s easy to find the joy in schools around the holidays with special activities and programs – celebrations definitely bring joy. The end of the school year is another joyful time of year with end of year parties, springtime in the air, and hopes buzzing for summer break. However, on an ordinary Tuesday in November or February, are our kids describing school as joyful?

 

What would we need to do to make schools more Joyful?

A lot of the elements of joy that Lee describes have to do with décor and design. So, I started looking around at the modern buildings that surround me, particularly schools. Mostly box shaped rooms painted either white, khaki, or light grey, with small touches of color in the hallways, not exactly colors that “spark joy”. Schools are orderly and organized, well cleaned, and mostly not cluttered. All of these things are great for productivity, but what if we brought in more nature or happy (kid-friendly) colors?  How would it impact teachers and kids if we had living walls or rainbow colors throughout a school? 

Lee also talks about other things that increase joy like building strong connections with other people, giving further evidence to the push for building strong relationships in schools. Exploration, adventure, and the elements of surprise and magic were also explained as elements that increase joy. These brought back memories of projects and surprising my students by flipping the lesson giving them control to teach others. By the end of the book, I was filled with memories and also ideas for bringing more joy into schools. 

What would change for teachers and kids if schools were more Joyful?

If we start thinking about joy as an essential human need, then bringing it into our schools only makes sense. We all have heard “Maslow before Bloom,” referring to taking care of basic human needs before pushing for academic achievement. Bringing joy into schools would satisfy the need for happiness, excitement, fun, and silliness. With these needs met, keeping kids engaged in what we are teaching won’t be such a struggle. With one more layer of needs being met, achievement will be easier to grasp for more kids. In general, the place where we spend 7-10 hours a day would be happier, more fulfilling.

 

How do we Coach into Joy to Awaken schools?

Reading Joyful made me reflect on the many joyful classroom moments I had as a teacher and think ahead about how I could help my school bring in more Joy. Some joyful ideas are actual coaching moves, some are changes to our physical building and décor, but most of them aren’t really coaching moves per se. They’re more of a shift in viewing our role as instructional coaches. There is much emphasis on educators shifting their mindset for a changing educational landscape. Maybe we, as instructional coaches, can help that mind-shift along by having our own shift of mindset.  The following is a list of my Top 5 Ways Coaches can bring the Joy into their schools.

 

  1. Use the Coaching Cycle to build strong relationships one teacher at a time.
    Some of my most joyful moments this year have been during coaching cycles with teachers. Moments where we connect, I show them that I have flaws and make mistakes, we laugh together, or we talk honestly about a challenge and work through it are some of the strongest relationship building moments.  I am honored to be able to have those moments with my colleagues. 
  2. Find a place for Silly and make it work.
    There is a place for silly in the workplace. A little silly can even help people be more productive. It’s always fun when I answer the phone with “knock, knock..” or “Coaches Cabana!” or even better singing “Joy to the World!” The person on the other end is never expecting it and we usually end up both laughing. And laughing at work is often just what is needed to break through tough moments.
  3. Bring the excitement!
    Big things or little – show your teachers what you are excited about. I am pretty sure our art teacher thought I was a little crazy as I clapped in excitement about working with her on getting our first graders to make giant geometric mobiles to hang from the ceiling, but she ended up smiling and our mobiles are going to be awesome! It doesn’t matter how crazy they think you are; enthusiasm is contagious.
  4. Bring in the Color!
    Whether it is my bright lime green pants, or the cheerful astrobrights inspirational posters, I have always loved color. Color is happy, Rainbow colors especially. This is also the perfect window into conversations with the art teacher or Specials team about projects they can complete with the kids that will make a lasting impact on the whole school. With a little inspiration and some coaching moves, the vibe of the whole school can change.
  5. Celebrate!
    Coach teachers into setting goals with students…and CELEBRATING accomplishments! Help teachers to see that student goal setting isn’t daunting or overwhelming. Give them real, do-able strategies they can implement with their students to set goals. As a coach, you can help teachers to celebrate their students goal achievement in an even bigger way, making that celebration even better!

 

I have not taken confetti into school yet, but I have to admit that I am working on how I can. Most people laugh about my joyful antics at school, but I take it as a compliment because isn’t getting them to smile and laugh the point?

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