In my 2006 interview for Assistant Superintendent of West Vancouver Schools I was asked to select two of the district’s values that stood out for me and talk about why they were important to me and my work. I had scanned the list as part of my preparation – it was a fairly typical list of school values: community, excellence, innovation, accountability. The last value stood out and it was one that I spoke about – it was joy. I thought that was such a funny word to be a value in a school system, but I liked it. It is a word that speaks to the contentment we want in our work.
I was reminded of this story in reading Dean Shareski’s new book, Embracing a Culture of Joy. I listed this late 2016 published book as one of my “Top 3” reads for last year. It envisions a wonderful state:
Joy isn’t about being happy all the time. It isn’t a fleeting emotion that comes and goes depending on changing circumstances. It is about contentment and satisfaction and expressing those feelings. Sometimes the expression is visible, and sometimes it’s not. But joy requires an awareness that things are right. While it’s a deeply personal state, it’s also something that, when given the opportunity, will spread. Creating a culture of joy applies to both the environment and the learning itself. As it relates to learning, it’s the outward manifestation of success, achievement, and being. It’s learning for the sake of learning, not because of grade or compliance.
Shareski makes the strong case that community and gratitude are powerful notions in our schools and gives ways that schools can infuse themselves with joy. He rightly argues that none of us pursued our passion for teaching and education because we were driven by rigor and student achievement. We all know of those moments in our life when we were in the flow with learning, they are the ones that stick out days, weeks and months later. A little bit of joy can go a long way to ensuring more of these moments.
Shareski shared one of my joy examples in his book:
Each year during the week before Christmas, our entire Executive Team loads up our sleigh and visits every classroom delivering a cookie to each staff member in the district. One year we were Santa and his elves, another year we wore our tacky Christmas sweaters and this year we wore our Christmas pajamas.
It is great and people are expecting us now and wondering when we will come and what we will wear – it helps build community. One teacher said to me “It is the second last day before Christmas break, I was worried you guys weren’t coming this year.” Another teacher said, “Now I have something to dream about tonight – our leaders in their pajamas”
Here was our photo from this past December:
I know some people see this and think, must be nice to have that kind of time. These are the choices we make every day with how we spend our time. We all know how to “look busy”. We walk really fast with our head down, carrying a file folder like we are transporting dangerous cargo. I always think the best leaders don’t look busy, and have time for joy. I loved to see photos and stories of former President Barrack Obama joking with kids, or playing basketball. I figured if he had time for joy, it was hard for the rest of us to have any good excuses.
I often think one of the nicest things anyone ever wrote in a reference letter for me – it was my first principal in a letter she wrote recommending me for a vice-principal position – she wrote, “he is a very serious thinker, who knows not to always take himself too seriously.” I use this notion as a regular reminder.
Just this week, there is a video making the rounds on the internet of a North Carolina teacher who shares a unique handshake with every student (it is a must watch!):
It is this kind of joy, the kind that Shareski writes about, that this teacher from North Carolina exudes, and we see in classes, and serves as many of the greatest memories of our school experience that must be as much a part of the modern school as so many of the other objectives we often obsess over.