It’s important to purposefully create the conditions for joyful learning environments — it’s equally important to look out for common obstacles that get in the way (and work to eliminate them)!

1. Anything that alienates students from schools or learning. Bullying, teacher bias, ethnocentric curriculum, unfair punishments, policies that are inappropriate to the developmental level of the kids, sarcasm and embarrassing students in front of their peers…these are just some of the ways that schools can move away from joy. We should also look for challenges that might be worse for certain groups of students over others.

Alfred Tatum is a literacy specialist with a passion for improving literacy among African American adolescents. He advocates, “Texts connected to larger academic, cultural, economic, political, social and personal aims help these young males define who they are and what they can become; help them become resilient; and move them to engage positively with others for their own benefit and that of the larger society.”

Reflection Questions:

  • Do I try to correct and redirect students privately rather than defaulting to public corrections? Try putting a hand on a shoulder or whispering a redirection over an admonishment in front of the whole class.
  • Do I work to ensure my classroom is an emotionally safe space, where teasing and laughing at others are not tolerated and taking risks and learning from mistakes are the norms and expectations?
  • Do I try to get to know each student on a personal level and use my relationship with each of them to motivate and inspire?
  • Do I use examples and contexts that help each student build a positive identity of himself and herself?
  • Which students get less patience from me and how can I work toward giving them more patience and kindness?

2. Teachers who are exhausted, cynical or demoralized. We all love the adage, “Happy wife, happy life”, right? It’s just the same although it doesn’t rhyme: “Happy teachers, happy students.” Neila Connons’s light-hearted book If You Don’t Feed the Teachers, They Eat the Students offers many suggestions to making the school environment joyful for teachers. If you are a leader, check out our leadership section for more ideas.

Reflection Questions for Teachers:

  • Do I take time to care for myself physically and mentally, knowing that an investment in my well-being is important for my students? 
  • In conversations with other teachers and my family, do I emphasize the positive aspects of my students more than complain about their faults?
  • Am I an energy creator rather than an energy drainer?
  • Do I try to see things from my administrators’ points of view? Do I open up communication with them rather than complain behind their backs?

3. Imbalance of structure in the classroom: Too Little Structure = Chaos. Too Much Structure = Boring or Dehumanizing.

We should try to increase the structure around directions, materials and tools used to aid or promote thinking (such as graphic organizers, thought-provoking questions, sentence starters, criteria). At the same time we should aim to decrease the structure around intellectual work, putting the ownership of figuring things out on the students. It’s a tricky balancing act — and it starts to move into active-processing of learning which is also in Stage 2 of our Framework because they go so well together.

Reflection Questions:

  • Is the classroom environment well-organized, bright and visually pleasing?
  • Do I establish routines so students know what to expect and how to move about in the classroom?
  • Do I use a variety of learning activities to keep things fresh and interesting?
  • Do I pose open-ended questions and let students think for themselves?
  • When I pose high-level questions, do I think of ways to help them reach the higher-ordered thinking such as giving them things to categorize, criteria to evaluate, graphic organizers to put ideas into categories or phases?
  • Is student thinking paramount while I’m lesson planning? Check out this post for more information on this idea.

What are other obstacles? Post below.

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