Skip to content
ascd logo

Join
September 26, 2022
Vol. 80
No. 2
Online Exclusive

Can We Still Find Joy in Teaching?

author avatar
author avatar
By recultivating and celebrating joy in their work, educators build resilience and remind themselves of what’s important, even while acknowledging what’s difficult. 

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

Social-emotional learning
Can We Still Find Joy in Teaching?
Credit: Yuganov Konstantin / Shutterstock
"If you carry joy in your heart, you can heal any moment."
—Carlos Santana 
Not long ago, the two of us were chatting on one of our regular Zoom check-ins. After serving as principals in the same district for several years, we’d moved beyond mere colleagues and grown to be trusted friends. At the time, Tracey was teaching at a university in Georgia and Jen was an administrator in Ohio, so we set up Zoom meetings to stay connected and discuss current research findings, news updates, book recommendations, and even the worries that kept us up at night. This time, we started with a worry. “It bothers me to see how hopeless teachers and school leaders feel these days,” Jen remarked. Tracey agreed, saying, “Collectively, we have forgotten how much satisfaction and happiness is possible in this profession. The constant battles about masks, vaccines, and COVID-related academic regression have overtaken our ability to find joy in our work.”  
We then examined our beliefs about joy and how it manifests in education. We spoke about our own experiences—both of us have served as students, teachers, principals, district leaders, and, in Tracey’s case, an assistant professor of educational leadership. As we talked, our worry turned to excitement. We saw potential to change the current conversation, away from “this is hard,” and toward “this is hard, but it is also joyful.” We could acknowledge the difficulty of being an educator while also bringing positivity, gratitude, and delight into our work. In other words, we thought, we —not just the two of us, but educators in general—needed to talk about joy.  

We saw potential to change the current conversation, away from 'this is hard,' and toward 'this is hard, but also joyful.'

Author Image

What Happened to the Joy?

Schools are deeply influenced by current political events and culture wars; this concept is nothing new, but in recent years, it has become increasingly palpable. The climate of a school is certain to be tested by, and sometimes suffers because of, these external pressures and events. Debates about appropriate safety responses to the pandemic, as well as surging culture wars, have increased stakeholder aggression and violence (Deagle, in press).  
These external factors have exacerbated concerns over our nation’s classrooms, and teachers have reported feeling attacked, called out on social media, and vilified for challenges outside of their control (Roy, 2019; Shea & Ceprano, 2013). Some also fear for their personal safety, even as national polling shows local support for teachers is holding steady (2021, PDK). In the face of these challenges, it is vitally important for school leaders to improve the workplace environment to limit teacher turnover and maximize student achievement. Doing so involves creating a teaching environment that finds, celebrates, and reproduces a climate of joy.  

What, Exactly, Does “Joy” Mean?

Joy has many definitions and synonyms. We can feel joy as a physical response, with our bodies flushing, relaxing, and giving us a rush of dopamine. It can also be a kind of mental peace, elation, happiness, or deep gratitude. Children seem to find it more readily than adults; however, that doesn’t mean adults must naturally give up on finding joy. On the contrary, we believe that as adults, and as educators, we can and should seek out the positive experiences that make the work worth it.  
When the two of us discussed our schemas of joy, we found ourselves thinking about hope, too. Though the two are intertwined, we would argue that “hope” asks us to wait, such as when we say, “Hope for a better future,” or “Let’s hope things improve next time.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have heard expressions such as: “We hope COVID stops being something to fear,” or “We hope we will not suffer for instructional decisions we’ve had to make as a result of mitigation strategies.”  Hope is what sustains us as humans, but there’s one thing we know for certain: No matter how hard we hope, tomorrow never comes the way we expect. For education leaders, our days never go according to our plans. Hope, then, is often a futile strategy for us. 
Joy is something different than hope. Joy is a place to be. It happens now. It is a personal, intimate, and precise moment with oneself. How does this translate to the work we do with students, teachers, and staff? In a 2018 survey by the Harvard Business Review, employees reported feeling more joy at work when they: 
  • Understand their role and its importance to the team. 
  • Feel strong bonds with colleagues. 
  • Believe their talents are utilized. 
  • Celebrate success. 
  • Are acknowledged by others (Liu, 2019). 
As school leaders, we often work to implement a culture in which our staff members feel valued, connected, utilized, celebrated, and seen. But we may now need to go one step further and actively craft a joyful work environment. Here are five ideas for starting that process: 

1. Shifting the mindset: Have to vs. I get to 

Our friend and colleague, Dr. John Marschhausen, is the superintendent of Dublin City Schools in Ohio. He speaks frequently about his work mindset. He says, “I don’t have to be the superintendent of this district. I get to be the superintendent of this district.” Repeating this “get to” phrase makes his mindset a habit, which can then become a routine. Instead of saying, “I have to go teach my middle schoolers today,” we can say, “I get to work with students who need me today.” Instead of, “I can’t believe we still have ten weeks until summer break,” we can say, “I get ten more weeks with my students.”  
In recent years, there have been many discussions about the need for resiliency and perseverance for educators. But resiliency alone doesn’t lend itself to gratitude and satisfaction. Resilient is something we have to be. Joyful is something we get to be.  
That’s not to say resiliency isn’t an admirable goal worth acknowledging and celebrating. Any teacher or leader who has worked through the transitions of the past few years deserves applause for their perseverance. And many teachers face demanding work environments that can be unhealthy, frightening, or emotionally exhausting. In those cases, finding joy may require more drastic changes—a different school, implementing a new PBIS initiative, or involving supports from outside resources that have the power to change a work environment. In other cases, the search for joy doesn’t need to be drastic, but can involve a concerted effort to be positive and grateful while remembering the “get to” mindset. All teachers deserve to feel the way they did when they first sought a career as an educator. Remember when you first walked into your very own classroom or the first time a student wrote a heartfelt note to thank you for your impact on their life? Those feelings—accomplishment, gratitude, elation—are what we can capture when we say we “get to” rather than we “have to.” Let’s walk through the halls of our school like it’s the very first time.  

Joy is something different than hope. Joy is a place to be. It happens now. It is a personal response, an intimate and precise moment with oneself.

Author Image

2. Take time to feel.   

For the two of us, spending too much time suffering through difficult times overshadows our ability to feel joy. When we get overwhelmed by, for example, too many discipline referrals, too many parent complaints, or a never-ending to-do list, we lose our ability to be mindful. Research shows that those who focus on mindfulness are prone to be more attentive and keenly aware of their surroundings; as a result, they are models of positive mental health (Lyubomirsky, 2008, p. 198). When educators are faced with difficult, stressful, or overwhelming emotions, taking time to pause, acknowledge, and truly feel can help move through the difficulty and back toward professional joy. In his book Mindful Work, David Gelles (2016) recommends the mindfulness exercise of using the acronym S.T.O.P., which stands for “Stop, Take a breath, Observe, and Proceed.” This exercise allows us to feel the full range of our emotions—including joy. We like this exercise because, after all, being an educator is an emotional endeavor. It helps to take time to fully experience positive feelings, much like sitting in sunshine—although, in this context, the sunshine comes from things like successful student achievement data or an exciting new way to structure a lesson. Joy comes from taking a still moment to rest in the pleasure of our work. This is, in itself, an action.  

3. Think of joy as a place, not a transaction.  

Often, in professional settings, we look at joy as an “if-then” equation. If I find joy in my work, I will not be as stressed or unhappy in my daily life. That may be true, but joy can also be the end game. In a school setting, it’s a mistake to think, for example, “I’ll celebrate when all students pass the end-of-course exams,” or “I’ll be happy when all my students behave as I ask them to behave.”  Working with students and teachers—or anyone— makes “if-then” transactional parameters difficult, because we cannot count on others’ choices or actions. We can, however, find and relish joy on our own. We can pause to enjoy a positive interaction with a student, relish a moment of effective workflow with a colleague, or sit in our satisfaction from a successful lesson, unit, activity, or event. These celebrations can be shared, but they can also be deeply personal and private, dependent on our own choices and mindset.  

4. Celebrate the joy in others. 

Joy is worth talking about. We spend so much time discussing what’s difficult, what we haven’t done well, and what might derail our work. This deficit mindset leaves no space for joy in ourselves or others. Educators should ask each other, “What brings you joy in your work?” or “Where might you shift the paradigm in your classroom?” 
Asking about joy is not without risk. Focusing exclusively on joy without acknowledging the challenges embedded in education could contribute to what some call “toxic positivity,” which ignores the challenging parts of being an educator. But we would argue that the presentation of positive thinking can help balance the difficulty of our work. If it is combined with gratitude and perspective, joy can overcome the things that burn us out and make us doubt whether we can sustain ourselves. 

5. Find a joy partner. 

When the two of us started considering our own schemas for managing the emotions of our work, we recognized something we hadn’t noticed before—our collaborative conversations were helping us stay focused on joy. Like many colleagues, we collaborate on ideas, solve problems, and plan our next projects. But we do something else, too. We regularly ask one another how we’re feeling and if we are still able to keep a positive mindset. “You’re my joy partner!” we say, in both revelation and relief. A joy partner, like any sort of accountability partner, should be someone you trust and who understands you. It should be someone with whom you want to discuss questions including, Are you still finding joy in the work? If so, how are you sustaining it? If not, where did it go? Can you find it again?   
For the two of us, our professional paths have been similar but never exactly parallel. This is key. Together, we have learned a great deal from one another about the different settings, environments, and mindsets facing educators today. In our separate journeys from classroom to leadership to academia and back again, we have continually discussed our role as women in leadership, and we have done it with an insistence on joy. This may have been challenged by the difficulty of the work we do, but we have not let go of our belief that joy makes the work worth it. We check in on one another—with texts, calls, and virtual meetings—because we believe there is deep value in finding and utilizing an accountability partner who will ask you, “Where is your joy?” 

Multilayered Benefits

Joy emanates. When we concentrate on being in a place of joy, we model for our team what it looks and feels like and help those around us feel happier and more fulfilled in their work. We can also improve our own well-being and the learning environment for our students. As we seek to recover from several challenging years in education, we encourage all school leaders to revisit what it is that brings you pure joy in working with young scholars and invested staff. Together, we can recommit to the important work of the heart. 
References

Deagle, T.R. (in press). Crisis management for school leaders. Handbook of research on activating middle executives’ agency to lead and manage during times of crisis. Thompson, C. & Wilmot, A.M. (Ed.), IGI Global. 

Gelles, D. (2016). Mindful work: How meditation is changing business from the inside out.Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The how of happiness: A new approach to getting the life you want.Penguin. 

Liu, A. (2019, July 17). Making joy a priority at work. Harvard Business Review.  

PDK Poll. (2021, September). PDK Poll of the public’s attitudes toward the public schools: Positive marks, high hopes for local schools’ pandemic response. Kappan Magazine. https://pdkpoll.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Poll53_final.pdf 

Roy, W. (2019). Teaching under attack. Routledge. 

Shea, M., & Ceprano, M. (2013). The attack on teachers and schools of education: Identifying the bullies and bystanders. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 49(1), 4-8. 

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Related Articles
View all
undefined
Social-emotional learning
Ready for The Real World
Educational Leadership Staff
4 weeks ago

undefined
Laurie Barron and Patti Kinney on the Power of Belonging
Naomi Thiers
2 months ago

undefined
EL Takeaways
Educational Leadership Staff
2 months ago

undefined
Re-Framing Teen Stress
Abby Wills
2 months ago

undefined
Lessons on Student Well-Being From "The Great Resignation"
Cathy Vatterott
2 months ago
Related Articles
Ready for The Real World
Educational Leadership Staff
4 weeks ago

Laurie Barron and Patti Kinney on the Power of Belonging
Naomi Thiers
2 months ago

EL Takeaways
Educational Leadership Staff
2 months ago

Re-Framing Teen Stress
Abby Wills
2 months ago

Lessons on Student Well-Being From "The Great Resignation"
Cathy Vatterott
2 months ago