Why I'm prioritizing joy this year
Have I watched too much Ted Lasso?
In my opening session to staff on Monday, I tried to make the case that creating joy should be our priority this school year. I gave them three reasons: vacuum cleaners, blindspots, and masks.
Vacuum cleaners. Early in my education career, a mentor teacher told me, “People don’t buy vacuum cleaners from salespeople they don’t like.” I had always assumed most of us used the 20% coupons at Bed, Bath, and Beyond — and the teacher’s point was clear: if students don’t like their teacher, they won’t learn much.
Blindspots. I worry that joy — or the lack of it — could be a major blindspot for us this school year. All the talk about learning loss, learning acceleration, debates around masking, new curriculum guidelines, and goal-setting for statewide tests crowd out conversations around making school a joyful experience for kids.
Masks. For the last 18 months, the vast majority of our students could wake up late and sit behind a computer for a few classes each day, free to get up and use the bathroom, get a snack, take a walk outside, or catch a nap whenever they wanted. Now they’ll return to a crowded classroom, share space with 30 other kids, sit in desks, and be asked to cognitively engage for much longer periods — all while wearing a mask for 7 hours. And we expect them to be eager to do so?
Staff, too, have little reason to be excited about returning to buildings. Our school day starts an hour earlier this year, meaning early wake up times, commutes, and orchestrating the learning and behavior of 30 little humans all day. One teacher told me in our 1:1 this week, “I’m scared because I’m rusty.”
Both students and staff experienced a lot of loss, anxiety, and depression over the last 18 months, not only from the pandemic, but also from the country’s racial reckoning. Just today a staff member recounted all the family members he lost over the last year. The number floored me.
The pandemic is also still alive and well, with Delta pushing case counts up around the country. With news stories of hospitals filling with children, Southern schools closing and quarantining, and the masking debate, how could we expect students and staff to feel excited about coming back to school?
So I challenged teachers to prioritize joy — more specifically, creating opportunities for joy throughout the school day. And I shared ways I would support them in promoting joy.
We started with creating a joyful climate, emphasizing daily, well-planned community meetings that give students voice and prioritize their well-being and inclusivity. We discussed carving out time for quick games that build community and inspire smiles, like musical chairs and “freeze n’ clean.” And I made clear: prioritizing joy doesn’t mean we party all day, knock out a few worksheets, and give out A’s like coupons at CVS.
Instead, we talked about the joy we feel in mastery. I encouraged teachers to revisit grading policies, allow multiple attempts at assignments, and prioritize learning for mastery over learning for grades. I challenged them to craft their lessons around challenging, grade-level work while offering support and small-group remediation to students who missed prerequisite skills.
None of that challenging learning gets done if teachers and students are miserable.
In the end of year survey I gave to staff in June, I asked, “What are you looking forward to for next year?” One teacher wrote, “Coming back to school in person. Virtual learning was depressing by the end of the year.” Depressing indeed. The vast majority of students were empty squares on a Zoom call. When their faces did occasionally appear, they often looked forlorn. We’ve got an obligation to make sure this year is better. And all of our goals — a more equitable and inclusive school culture, accelerated learning, and efficient operations — are enhanced when foster joy in our students and colleagues.
I showed a few Ted Lasso clips to get us thinking about unique ways to infuse joy in our school, but I didn’t show any clips from the latest episode. In it, one of the characters loses his passion for playing football (soccer) and gets taken to play pickup games to recapture his joy. Maybe we need to play some pickup ball — literally and figuratively — in education. And just maybe I want to be the principal version of Ted Lasso.
Thanks for reading. Have a great weekend — maybe kick it off tomorrow with the next episode of Lasso.