It’s the end of the school year and I’m sitting with a young principal I coach who has deep expertise, heart, and know-how. Suddenly, she breaks down sobbing. “I’m miserable in this job,” she says. “I want to stay the course, but I don’t know how to get my head above water. I just don’t feel any joy in this work.”
When we live in constant stress, our brains start to downshift. According to scholars Geoffrey Caine and Renate Nummela Caine, downshifting is a psychophysiological response to threat that results in a sense of helplessness or fatigue. A downshifted person has a nagging sense of fear or anxiety and begins to lose the ability to feel excitement or pleasure.
The good news is that we can upshift our brains by actively infusing joy into our work life. Joyful experiences—even brief ones—flood the brain with chemicals like dopamine and serotonin that overwhelm our primitive stress responses. So how can we find more joy?
8 Ways to Reclaim Joy
Since my conversation with the principal, I’ve been practicing and modeling the reclamation of joy. Here are eight ways you can join me.
1. Get outside during the school day. Hold a collaboration meeting, coaching session, or class outdoors to shift the group energy. So many of us spend our days locked inside the school building—stepping outside for a five-minute walk or simply to feel the breeze or sun on our face can change our perception and our brain chemistry. Even a small dose of movement can release endorphins and provide a much-needed brain break.
Recently, I met an Oakland principal and her leadership team at a nearby lake to open their back-to-school meeting. The principal led three rounds of a community circle: “Share your favorite summer moment,” “share something we don’t know about you,” and “share an artifact that tells a story about your journey as a leader.” Afterward she randomly assigned partners for a lakeside walk and talk, inviting everyone to reflect on the legacy they want to leave behind. It was simple, mobile, and powerful.
2. Bring music. If your classroom or staff room feels solemn, enliven it with your favorite music. Better yet, invite students or colleagues to share their favorite song or artist on a rotating basis. Music releases positive neurotransmitters, calms the brain’s high-alert settings, and can build cultural proficiency as community members share their musical interests.
3. Model micro-affirmations. Researcher Mary Rowe defines micro‐affirmations as “tiny acts of opening doors to opportunity, gestures of inclusion and caring, and graceful acts of listening.” Micro‐affirmations can take many forms, such as offering a hug to someone experiencing a setback, giving a colleague some positive feedback, or facilitating an appreciations ritual that invites people to publicly celebrate one another.
4. Start class or professional development with a guided visualization. If people seem stuck in a downshifted state, help them access joy by leading a guided visualization. Ask participants to close their eyes or focus on a soft gazing point—not letting their eyes wander—and settle comfortably in their chairs. Then lead them to slow their breathing down and imagine a moment or place that brought them joy. Invite them to explore the colors, thoughts, and feelings that come up when they think of this place. Afterward, ask people to share how the experience felt and how they can bring those feelings into the school day.
5. Cancel a staff meeting. This might be my favorite joy hack, and it was my first piece of advice to that sobbing principal. Everyone’s feeling burned out? Don’t let your task list trump the reclamation of joy. Cancel a staff meeting and give the time back to teachers.
You might plan an alternative, just-for-fun activity like a hike or happy hour, but make it optional for folks who really just need a break.
6. Write a card to someone who’s had your back. It feels great to appreciate others. Think about a colleague in any capacity at your school who holds you up in ways big or small. This could be another teacher, the custodian who cleans your room, or the person who ensures that you’re paid each month. Write that person a card and tell them what you appreciate about them.
7. Practice three to five minutes of mindfulness. Consider starting your day with a few minutes of mindfulness. Just close your eyes, slow down your breathing, and notice the rise and fall of your chest, the sounds that typically act as background noise, the sensation of your heartbeat, your meandering thoughts.
8. Keep a joy journal. I often ask my own children, who are 9 and 12, “What brought you joy today?” Ask yourself that question at the end of each day, taking time to jot down your reflections in a journal. Writing is a form of story editing, as explained in the wonderful book Redirect by psychologist Timothy Wilson. When we take time to write or rewrite the stories we carry about our work life, we can change negative narratives into hopeful ones, and reconnect with our sources of joy and energy.
As you prepare to go back to school, remember that learning should be a joyful enterprise. Look for opportunities to laugh, breathe, and smile as an educator, and you’ll find your energy is contagious.