Be a Heartless Automaton Bent on the Bottom Line, or Be a Teacher

Students haven’t even gotten into our classrooms yet, and I’m already feeling as though it HAS TO BE NOVEMBER, right? In the last few weeks, I’ve worked with nearly 1,000 teachers in more than a dozen schools, so it’s hard to believe the Carnegie Unit clock hasn’t even started yet. Still, amid the back-to-school exhaustion, I notice I keep using a word I’ve not had in heavy public rotation for quite some time.

Photo by Jared Sluyter on Unsplash

I keep talking about joy — joy of learning, joy of teaching, joy in planning. Joy. We haven’t had much time for joy in the last few decades of public education. It’s been a bit of an onslaught of policies, measures, and manufactured crises seeded by our identification as a nation at risk.

Still, here I am, talking about joy and encouraging joy. Yesterday, I told a room of teachers I wasn’t doing my job if they weren’t finding moments of joy in our time together or thinking about how to make their classrooms places of joy for themselves and their students.

I’m supposed to be talking about standards, though, right? Where’s my rhetoric around problems of practices, data-driven decision making, and instructional design?

What nerve do I have shunning my innovator’s mindset; deciding not to teach like a champion, a pirate, or my hair is on fire and focusing on something as ephemeral and un-quantifiable as joy?

Iconoclast that I am, I’m tired of leveraging buzzwords and reactionary practices that peddle gimmicks over the simplest and most direct act I’ve found for building schools where people are driven to learn, finding the joy in one another and in the learning. Most of what we’re spending time on or throwing up on screens makes us sham magicians waving one hand maniacally hoping to misdirect our audience from a trick we built or bought assuming they were broken and not intelligent enough to see we weren’t treating them like people worry of the joy of the learning. The thing about joy is we don’t need pilots, programs, or initiatives to ask, “What is the simple act I can take to make this more joyful?”

This is not an argument for joy alone. I’d hope you know me better than to be as simple-minded that. We will need assessments, we will need remediation, we will need to ask our students and ourselves to do difficult things. None of these is mutually exclusive of joy. To act as though they are is to be in the business of producing widgets. Hell, it is to be in business. Joy reminds us public education is not a business. It is a public good, one in which we act in the interest of our communities to care for and foster the learning of all those in our care.