Ways to Reclaim Your Joy in Teaching
Teaching is a stressful job, but these simple steps can help build happiness in the profession.
Somewhere between “School starts next week, but the entire county is piloting a new literacy program,” and “I’m sorry. We tried to cap your classes at 28 but now you have 35 students,” your teacher joy can become depleted. A few key strategies can help steal back your joy.
Slowing down and reflecting can help not only to restore joy but also to benefit classroom culture. When students struggle to understand a topic, look at it as a way of honing your craft. How can you improve the lesson, break it down, and reteach it in the next class? While a slower pace can cause anxiety about covering all the material, thorough comprehension is an outcome worth the patience it requires.
For example, writing an effective thesis statement is difficult for many students. As an English teacher, I know they have practiced writing these for years, but when they come into my class, many admit feeling insecure about their abilities. Instead of moving directly to essay writing, I check for understanding and scaffold their thesis statement writing until they can demonstrate mastery. It is time-consuming at the outset, but it saves time down the road because their essays are much more effective.
Take a break from the bell work for relationship-building activities. We often do these icebreakers at the beginning of the year, but then we stop. Embedding them weekly into your plans lets students continue to get to know each other. When teachers participate, it gives an opportunity for relationship building.
Deliberately investing time in each student yields big dividends. Write positive, encouraging, specific feedback on their papers, using their names and acknowledging their effort. This type of personalized attention shows students that you care about their individual well-being. I also share that same feedback with their parents or guardians via email.
A power struggle with a student can lead to feelings of anxiety and tension, for both the teacher and the student. Setting clear, fair policies and implementing them with love demonstrates a belief that every student is capable. Developing a student’s intrinsic motivation starts with establishing the belief that everyone matters. If they know educators are coming from a place of love, they may be less likely to challenge rules and expectations.
I explicitly tell my students about my approach. This year I implemented a no-cell-phone policy rule in my classroom. During the first two weeks of school, there was pushback from some students, but I reminded them that I wasn’t trying to control them—I was trying to set some healthy boundaries so that we could learn and build relationships. They trusted me, and face-to-face conversations replaced texting and posting. Being explicit about my motivations helped students to understand my intentions.
Our colleagues are some of our best resources. Seek out the guidance of others—a school counselor, other teachers, colleagues. One of my colleagues is very logical and pragmatic, whereas I tend to be a big-picture thinker. Sometimes, when I’m lost in my own entertaining though hazy imagination, she can decipher exactly what I need to do in a quick, between-classes debrief. Colleagues with different perspectives can be important assets in regaining our joy. Colleagues can also remind us why we became teachers in the first place. It is encouraging to hear that while we all struggle, there are others who are committed and passionate even on difficult days.
Keep It Simple
Rekindling our joy may be found in simple solutions for daily aggravations. For the student who is frequently without a pencil, Velcro one to his desk. For the student who likes throwing things, plan a review game where the kids get to shoot baskets in the trash for every right answer. Create an environment where students feel valued, where they take risks, where they aren't afraid to fail, and where they know they are loved. Within the walls of my classroom, when I see kindness, empathy, and compassion, I know I am doing more than just teaching thesis statements and reading-comprehension strategies.
For stressed, overwhelmed, or demanding parents or guardians, collaborate on strategies to help their child. Ask them what helps their child at home and what has helped in the past. As a parent, I see how each of my children struggles in different ways and finds successes in different ways. Like my children, my students are all different and unique but seek the same validation, acceptance, encouragement, and permission to be their true, authentic selves. Steal back your joy. Bring it with you into the classroom. Give it to your students, their parents, and your colleagues.