Happiness in the Classroom

My first year or two as a teacher, I was a yeller.

My temper would get the best of me when my repertoire of classroom management skills proved too shallow. Unfortunately, it “worked.” The class of 14 year olds would go silent. They’d comply. When the bell rang they’d scramble to the door and away, gasping for the air my tirade had sucked from the room. It didn’t happen often, but that it happened at all was too much.

In hindsight, the yelling was the culmination of too many extremes: large classes, too few resources; kids with profound struggles, me with a dearth of strategies. That’s no excuse.

By about year four, I had weaned myself from my dependence on using “vocal dominance” as a go-to strategy. I had learned objectivity and control. I had learned to deconstruct the kinds of “misbehavior” that once set me off, and instead deal with the conditions that precipitated behavior (lack of strong teacher-student relationship, unclear structure and purpose in lesson activities, as well as the burdens that students carry with them that shape their behavior or raise their own raw nerves too close to the surface).

Managing the emotional environment of a classroom is a complex skill. On one extreme is the cold, don’t-smile-before-Thanksgiving camp. On the other is the hyper-enablement where trophies are just expected and every move is second-guessed for worry of damaging fragile egos.

As with everything, the truth is in the middle. For me, the truth is about happiness.

Though I’m currently out of the classroom as a new-teacher mentor and serving as our local union president, the trajectory of my classroom management has been markedly away from fear and toward happiness. It doesn’t mean frivolity or games or chaos or indulgence. It means genuine smiles, seizing opportunities for laughter, and intelligently well-placed humor . It means lightness because there are too many voices that try too hard to make high school achievement a little too heavy. It means knowing not to sweat small stuff. It means choosing battles by waving off most of them. As much as anything, it means modeling for the young men and women what adult happiness can look like.

The last year I taught seniors, I had one student, Jonathan, who often asked me what I did for fun. I would always laugh and say “I don’t have time for fun, quit avoiding your work.” His class elected me to speak in front of the 400-plus seniors at their graduation…one of the greatest honors of my career…and it was then that I finally gave my answer: I work for fun. I love my job. It makes me happy. And I hope that my students saw that every single day. And if they did, I believe that them seeing me model grown-up happiness did as much to help them learn about poetry and research papers and literary criticism as any of my most meticulously planned lessons ever did.

As we start this year, it will serve both us and our students to not only remember what makes us happy about our jobs, but to intentionally exude that happiness every day. The world has enough yelling. It can always use more happiness.

(Click on that link right there. That video changed everything for me. No joke.)



Image Source: David Lee from Redmond, WA, USA (Please stop yelling, I’m trying to think) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

4 thoughts on “Happiness in the Classroom

  1. Evelyn Cook

    I really enjoyed your article. As a new teacher, I’m constantly reminding myself that we all need grace and dignity in the classroom. We all have room to grow. At tge beginning of last year, I had the structure and I built the rapport. It hit me hard when a student would be disruptive. I took it personal. Many evenings I would drive home sobbing, wondering what I got myself into. I still have a lot to learn but I’m so much better now about recognizing the roots that dig deep. I really love your comment that the world needs more happiness because it truly does!

    1. Mark Gardner Post author

      Thanks for reading Evelyn! It is truly very hard to avoid taking their behavior personally…and not just their behavior, but their academic successes and failures as well. Those feelings still pop up well into your career, but the more you learn about these little humans, the easier it becomes to understand where their behaviors, successes, and failures come from…and what we do and don’t have control and influence over.

  2. Jan Kragen

    Thanks, Mark. I decided to have my students journal at the beginning of each day this year. Your post and the video both remind me of some of the topics I should use as prompts. “Write three new things you are grateful for” (for every day in November). “Tell me about one thing that made you happy this week.”

  3. Tom White

    I’ve been know to scold at high volume on occasion, but much less so now. For the same reasons you’ve identified.

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