The Pursuit of (Teacher) Happiness: Purposefully Creating the Joy We Seek

Summer is winding down, thoughts of school are slowly winding up.

Summer break is winding down and I’m doing the usual stuff in preparation for the upcoming school year – scheduling lunches with teacher-friends who’ll be at different schools for the upcoming year, late summer trips to see relatives, thinking (not ready to actually work yet) about what I want to do with my new students, and buying new eyeglasses. There’s no special rule or unique tradition with my eyewear. I typically get a new pair every two years and just before the school year begins. While at the optometrist I had an enjoyable conversation with a clerk who also worked as a preschool paraeducator during the school year. In addition to glasses {who knew Shaquille O’Neal had a line of frames?} we talked about after school programs – she was a cheerleading coach, salaries – paraeducators are grossly underpaid, and the usual topics that occur between fellow educators. I eventually asked if she planned to pursue her teaching license and run her own classroom one day. Her response was swift — OH NO!

As someone who began their journey in education as a preschool paraeducator, I was intrigued but not surprised by her response. I wasn’t surprised because her “no” response is a common reply when aides, paraeducators, and support personnel are asked if they intend to pursue teaching positions. When I asked why, she began to list some of the topics that many in education identify as challenging: long hours, tough parents, tough students, pay, principals, other teachers, etc. I didn’t attempt to change her mind because those things and more can make teaching very challenging — like testing, endless meetings, short notice requirements from the state or district, ineffective professional development, etc. Of all the items mentioned during our discussion, the most troublesome reason for her decision to not pursue her license was the impression that many teachers seemed unhappy. Again, I could not fully disagree because I’ve also occasionally questioned the level of enjoyment of my peers in their daily work with students. Challenging, stressful, tiring, frustrating, and thankless are a few of the terms that every teacher has used at some point to describe our profession – I’ve certainly used those terms. The problem isn’t with accurate descriptors of the difficulties associated with our profession – every profession has difficulties. The problem occurs when those things result in the impressions of others, and our own realization that we’re not enjoying what we do.

A few of my 5th grade crew: Joyful teacher…joyful students…joyful learning!

Students and adults who’ve worked with me will say that everyone works hard in my classroom, but we also have a bit of fun every day. It’s something I learned while working as a preschool paraeducator supporting a significant number of children with autism. It was a challenging environment at times, but there were overwhelming instances where we (teacher/paras/therapists) would be in tears from laughing with the students and at each other.  Although it was unspoken, I think the ability to have fun was a requirement for anyone working in Miss Suzanne’s classroom.  I still smile when I think about those pass-the-mic talent shows with our students. Those 3, 4 and 5 year-olds were fearless!  When my paraeducator experience ended, I vowed to always maintain that level of enjoyment in my own classroom, particularly since it’s the area where I have the most control. For me, it has always been a conscious choice. I think a mistake many of my fellow, selfless educators make is to only consider the impact of actions on students when engaging in various activities. For example, I often played classical music in my room after lessons and while students were working independently or in small groups. It hit me one day that I rarely listen to classical when I’m not with students, and I needed to hear something that I enjoyed. I made the switch to jazz and old school R&B and recall thinking how cool it was to see my guys and girls working hard while bobbing their heads to Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. That moment put me in a happy place. All too often, we see great lesson ideas on Pinterest or read about a technique that promotes learning and immediately get to work on thinking of ways to make it work for our students. What about asking if it works for us and whether or not we’ll get enjoyment from an activity that may take a significant about of time and other resources to implement? How often do we make conscious decisions to integrate our own interests and hobbies into learning activities for students? In my opinion, it doesn’t happen often enough.

This past school year was unique because it occurred in the midst of a general election, and many are aware of my politically active classroom. Not from a partisan standpoint, but from a standpoint of making sure 5th grade students were engaged in topics related to voting and elections that impacted their lives. In addition to the research, debates and protests, it was fun to see my student council candidates learn the art of “Schmoozing for Votes.” I purchased donuts and orange juice and required the candidates to serve them to their classmates, and to share why they deserved their vote. It made the 2016 election more concrete for my students, they had fun, and I was in a happy place. I was able to integrate another interest (cooking) into math lessons. With the support of our cafeteria staff, my guys and girls researched recipes, created good food they enjoyed, and made the concept of fractions concrete for a number of students. Most importantly, that moment, as well as many others like it throughout the year put me in a happy place. Granted, I may have gone overboard by choosing to occasionally wear my Jedi robe while teaching a few lessons; but it didn’t matter because the Force was with me! Yes, there’s a Jedi robe hanging in my classroom closet.

How do our students see us?

When I shared with friends (more paraeducators) in April of 2016 that I was planning a switch from special education to becoming a 5th grade classroom teacher, their muted responses were somewhat surprising. They didn’t try to convince me to stay as a full-time special education teacher or question my reasons for the move. They simply stated that they hoped I didn’t change. I wasn’t completely sure what they meant, and they never fully explained their answers, but I get it now. Teaching and all it requires can be very challenging, especially when you’re continually working to meet the needs of 30 students on a daily basis. Whether we admit it or not, those challenges can become overwhelming and result in the appearance and feeling of suffering through the work. Continual overwhelming challenges without the counterbalance of enjoyment and simple fun can result in tired, frustrated, and seemingly unhappy individuals. That was their concern. We can’t continually give to students, parents, team members, and administration while neglecting our own happiness. If we do, then we become the types of individuals seen by the optometry clerk and others who question that very basic principle of being happy in what we do. If those outside of our rooms question our happiness, it’s fair to assume our students could have similar doubts.

Don’t rely on others for your joy

So, before we spend too much during these last weeks of summer break thinking and researching how we want to integrate mindfulness into our classrooms or how to devise the world’s greatest method for math and reading centers, we must consider what can be done to establish and sustain our own happiness.  Although they can share in it, don’t wait on principals or fellow teachers to create it for you. The rationale for that act of independence is very simple. If you don’t rely on others to create your joy and happiness, then others will find it nearly impossible to take away.

Here’s to a fun and joyful 2017-208 school year — on purpose!

  2 comments for “The Pursuit of (Teacher) Happiness: Purposefully Creating the Joy We Seek

  1. Charity
    July 23, 2017 at 10:26 pm

    What a great read!!! Very inspirational!!!

    • elmerharris
      July 28, 2017 at 5:54 pm

      It comes from my awesome students!

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