Early childhood professionals often enter education because they appreciate the reciprocal joy that working with young people entails and strive to make a positive contribution to children’s lives. But too often, teachers are overworked and underpaid and experience low morale. These factors contribute to teacher shortages and high levels of burnout, leading teachers away from their purpose.
Administrators and other educational leaders can play an enormous role in supporting teachers by making space to foster the joy that initially brings many educators to the profession. Though activities cannot replace systemic change, the following reflection exercises support all adults in the learning community as they seek to celebrate their work with young children.
Reflect on Joy
Studies show that early childhood educators like being around young children; they find their work fascinating and rewarding and derive a great deal of pleasure in their interactions with children. Knowing this, consider the following: What formal and informal moments do you offer educators to conceptualize the joy that initially brought them to the profession? How and when do you ask teachers to reflect on the personal strengths that they bring to their work and that contribute to the presence of joy in the learning environment? Do you identify and acknowledge the joy that each educator has brought to children and families, and to you? Do you name moments of joy that you notice among your staff?
There are a multitude of opportunities for you to create moments for celebrations of joy: in casual conversations, in staff meetings, during professional learning, at social events, in newsletters, or by creating a community “joy board,” a wall that documents and illustrates school-based joy through images, drawings, and writings contributed by students, faculty, and staff. This practice can also be adapted online through the use of tools such as Padlet.
Interact with Children
Do you and your staff have enough time to interact with children? Because children are often the source of teachers’ joy, and relationships are essential for early childhood development, we need to prioritize meaningful time spent with children in our learning spaces and engage together in play.
In my research, educators have noted how a lack of time limits opportunities for experiencing joy with children. One participant, for example, expressed frustration with the school’s calendar for curriculum planning, saying that she felt children needed more time to learn about unit topics and form their own understandings.
Play is essential for children’s meaning-making and deeply connected to joy. For this reason, it is essential to carve out time amid curricular content to follow a child’s lead in play and observe them as they interact with new materials, in new environments, and with new people.
Maintain your sense of wonder instead of expectation; forgo the checklist or the calendar for a few moments, and adopt a stance of curiosity. What interests the children? How do they play in ways that are uniquely their own, and in what ways can you support them in their endeavors? Wait for children to invite you into their play, and see how you can expand on their interests by using props or sentence frames such as “I wonder what would happen if…” to inspire inquiry and exploration.
Keep a Joy Journal
A joy journal is a tool that can help you recognize experiences of joy and expand that joy in your future work. It’s a great space to document conversations and classroom moments such as those described above.
Take the time to jot down moments of joy at the end of each workday. Acknowledging joy can have benefits similar to those from expressing gratitude and can make you more aware of the uplifting and positive parts of your day.
Be specific in your journal entries about the source(s) of your joy. Was it a look on a child’s face or the words they used to outline their thinking? Did they surprise you, make you smile or laugh, or change your mood? When did this joy take place—outside, inside, during a shared reading, or while making art?
This practice will give you rich material for curriculum planning and help you create learning experiences that honor children; one joyful moment can lead to a sequence of joy.
Make a Sunshine Trolley
Administrators and teachers can add joy to their days by making a “Sunshine Trolley,” a cart filled with the staff’s favorite snacks and treats—chocolate, water bottles, fresh fruit, crackers and cheese, samples of hand creams, body lotions, or sunscreen.
Leaders who maintain the Sunshine Trolley can also use it as a space to keep paper and stationery for teachers to access, or they can decorate the trolley to deliver a birthday cake to a celebrating teacher. Doing so brings joy to the adults in the building by making staff feel special and appreciated.
To feel joy, we need to be present, in the moment, and open to possibilities for play and meaning-making. Meditation is a great way to cultivate these skills. Schedule a time for children and adults to come together and practice meditation together. Talk about what it feels like to be in the moment, to release ourselves from the demands of a busy early learning environment.
Through the above practices, we can see how “joy is that kind of happiness that does not depend on what happens,” as monk and author David Steindl-Rast says. Together, we can allow joy to become embedded into our day—even, and especially, during the busiest times in our learning environments.