George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teacher Wellness

How to Nurture Your Joy in Teaching

Teachers can find enjoyment at work without ignoring real challenges, and doing so may help them and their students continue to learn and grow.

September 25, 2023
SolStock / iStock

“There’s this spark of joy where everything feels possible.” I said this to a friend over a decade ago when, after I spoke about being a first-year teacher, they asked why I was going to stay in the classroom. 

As with many teachers, my first year was rife with my failures. So, when my friend gently prompted me to think about why I was staying, I was surprised by how easily I remembered moments of joy: a student writing a great paragraph or a communal reaction over a short-story twist. When these moments happened, my heart would burst with joy, and they far outweighed the struggles I faced. Eleven years later, I’m still chasing that spark. 

There are times when joy feels harder to find, though. Being an educator has its share of challenges—particularly given the pandemic—and finding sparks of joy can be difficult after navigating through the struggles. They are even harder to find when the narrative around our profession has become increasingly focused on what some see as the impossibility of our work.

Joy is an Integral Part of Teaching 

While it’s important to acknowledge existing challenges, it’s also essential to remember that a key aspect of our profession is joy. Joy isn’t only found when things go well. It’s about a deep sense of fulfillment, trust, and hope we can hold on to, even in times of struggle. Joyful moments with my students aren’t just “good things,” but positive things that are contextualized and made richer by knowing the moments when we struggled together too. 

Centering joy isn’t the same as “toxic positivity,” though. Toxic positivity glosses over challenges by insisting they don’t really exist. Centering joy asks us to acknowledge our struggles, attempt to transcend them, and perhaps even reframe our perspective. Joy can help us cultivate a strong community, encourage us to seek resources and connect with each other, and energize us to transform the challenges we face.

Whether we’re adjusting back to classroom routines, or we just need a reset at any point in the year, here are some practices to help us center joy in our work.

Finding Our Stars 

One mistake I made as a young teacher was treating my classroom as an island. It may seem easier to retreat from others and assume that the work within our walls is a solo endeavor, but isolation ultimately leads to burnout. Instead, we can identify “stars” in our community: people who not only guide us, but also bring happiness by existing as lights in the darkness. Stars are our mentors, but they might also be the teacher we collaborate with or the person in the office who always makes us smile. Identifying who they are and why they’re important helps us feel less alone, particularly early in the year or during a bout of “Sunday scaries.” 

One way to center the joy our colleagues bring is to make space to cultivate our connections with them. At the beginning of the school year, I stop by their classroom or office to check in and offer any support they may need. Doing so helps me focus on this positive connection at school and also shows the other person that they’re a valuable part of my community. 

Tap Into Our Authentic Selves 

Research shows that our students learn better when they can make connections with ideas, concepts, or practices they are passionate about. Students feel more engaged and excited when they feel like their authentic selves are connected with what they are learning

This excitement can start with us as teachers. That passion can stem from our work as educators, as well as parts of our lives. When we share parts of ourselves that bring joy—music we love, a hobby we have—students sense how we feel and connect with us as people. By sharing our authentic selves with our students, we create a space where they can do the same. Even if they don’t necessarily like the music or hobby we love, they can still connect with it in a way they may not have if they only see us talk about content. 

It’s also important that we stay connected with our nonteaching identity. Our work as educators can take over a substantial part of our lives outside the classroom. This is understandable, but when it’s done in the extreme, we can burn out more easily. Bringing our out-of-the-classroom passions into our work can ensure that we don’t lose sight of ourselves and the things that bring us joy beyond our profession. 

Cultivate Self-Care

It is essential to acknowledge that teaching, while fulfilling, is also emotionally draining. We give of our time, energy, and care to our kids, and while we may not want to burden others, we also deserve some time and care. That might look like drawing healthy boundaries on our time and work, making sure we make space for our personal passions, or implementing mindful practice into our daily lives, which can sometimes be done with our students as well. Practicing gratitude, for example, is beneficial for both students and teachers. 

Cultivating this self-care space is important for helping us lead more joyful lives, and it also helps us model cultivating care for our students and community. When we give ourselves permission to care for our needs, we signal that others should consider taking the time and space to care for their own needs as well. Joy has a ripple effect: When we center joy for ourselves, it affects our students and the school community around us. Ensuring that we set up space for ourselves to find joy, like making time for self-care, will help everyone thrive. 

When we prepare for a semester, new week, or new day, it’s easy to see centering joy as a less practical part of our process. While it may not have the immediacy of some of our other work, taking time to create a joyful practice can have a positive effect on student outcomes and our ability to thrive in our work. Even if the moments of joy are small, they can provide the spark needed to incite rewarding growth, connection, and change for ourselves, our classrooms, and our overall school community.

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