I have a very bright, quick-witted, downright funny 11 year old son, Ryan, who absolutely hates school, most of the time. From kindergarten through second grade, he would wake up angrily every morning for school, complain loudly about it being a complete waste of his time, and trudge through his morning routine. I’m an educational nerd (#EduNerd), have always been, so this situation was not in my wheelhouse. I knew my son wasn’t unique in his distaste for school, but for him to feel this way every single morning was disheartening. I knew why he felt that way, why thousands of kids everywhere feel this way. Then in the third grade, he connected with a teacher who helped him like school. Now, every teacher who follows her has a shot.
Unfortunately for many teachers out there today, the answer to the question posed by Dave Burgess, bestselling author and speaker in the picture above, is yes. I’ve taught in five districts and 2 different states since my husband’s job for 20 years required some relocating. So, I have seen students bail out of high school classes at the end of the first semester, leaving the teacher with an empty room. There are teachers out there who seem to forget that elective classes are just that, “elected to be taken” by students. I’ve heard some teachers blame their students for dropping the class, saying that those students just didn’t want to work hard. Sure, we can blame them, but a little self reflection in this situation never hurts. If all of your students drop your class, or would if they had the option, maybe your class is lacking in joy, happiness, and/or fun. Now, I need you to actually do some deep self-reflection here, because the joy, happiness, and fun I am talking about ultimately starts with you, with me, the teacher. One other thing to think about is that the class is about our students. It’s not about us, the teachers.
Now the world famous Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle, Washington has taught the world a lot about how to be successful while working hard. Their secret? HAVE FUN. They didn’t start out as world famous, but they decided that would be the goal, and then they set about accomplishing it. The ways they do that each and every day are the same things we teachers can do. It starts with us. Folks, if you don’t cultivate joy within yourself for your students and the work you do FOR them, then you will always struggle to have a classroom full of joy, happiness, and fun. Do not sit back and say, “Well it isn’t all fun and games. It’s hard work in my subject/class.” If for one second you think that working in a fish market is all fun and games, then you have never been to a fish market. It is extremely hard, smelly, cold, exhausting work. If you have never worked in customer service (other than as teachers with students as customers), then listen to me–It is HARD work. The work, in this case, is actually irrelevant (stay with me-I’ll get there). Pike Place employees have to agree when they are hired that they will find ways to have fun doing their hard work. That part is up to them. They make the fun happen. The employees must agree to try to make their customers’ day. Every day. The work stays the same daily, so they all agree to find ways to make what they do fun each day AND to support each other when they find those ways to make it fun. They are committed to giving customers a fun experience and meet their customers’ needs at the same time, while working with cold, smelly, dead fish. Hundreds of dead fish. Think about it. Do you think those employees, who make significantly less money than teachers (I assume), wake up every single day in great moods ready to go work with fish and customers? Nope. They are humans, just like us, but while at work, they go all out for the customers or they aren’t working there long. They fake it until they make it. They act happy until they are happy. The work is hard every day, but this fish market has proven to the world that fun can be had anywhere while doing anything (See? I got there…the type of work is irrelevant).
So what’s the secret? The MAGIC answer? The COOL tech tool that will automatically give my classroom the fun, joy, and happiness that can grow thriving students? Quite simply, it’s you, me, the teacher. Find the joy in yourself, in your work, your students, then find as many ways as you can to share it. All of the ways I do it work for me, but may not work for you. Actually, they work because I have refined my strategies with each year I teach (going on year 22). There are failures. Learn from them. Every teacher must find the joy they have for what they do and share it. Here are my tips:
- Watch how you react, talk to, and treat your students every second of every day. Sure, you are busy between classes or at times when a student wants to tell you something they are interested in but you are not. Stop and LISTEN. Be engaged in that moment with that student.
- Smile. You can show true or fake enjoyment. It’s okay. Try it.
- Give creative fun titles to hard work to make it seem more fun that it is (this works with my high school students so it will work for your students). The goofier you title an activity and the happier you act about getting to teach it (like seriously over act if it’s really hard work), the more your students will find fun in it too. You can even change up the seating or routine in some way to do really hard work, add the fun title, act super excited about it, and the students will start having fun with it too. Don’t quit if you try it once and they don’t go “ga-ga” over it. Keep it up. This is WORK, so don’t give up. Find your FUN.
- Be honest with your students. Let them help you refine lessons so that they work.
- Laugh at their stories or jokes. Tell your own. Stories are a great way to engage students, adults, humans, and some pets (but not hermit crabs).
- Act like you care. That last one may sound harsh, because of course you care for your students. Well, to refer to my previous post, Thought It Was A Weed, keep in mind that those difficult students need to know you care for them too, even if you don’t like them. They are not weeds. They are flowers. Say it. Mean it. There should not be a student in your classroom at any time that is convinced you don’t like them. They need to think you like them, even if that is a student you have trouble getting along with personally. They are kids. Be the adult.
- Find nice things to say to those students you have to correct constantly or find yourself correcting several times during class. Even if you can’t find much say, try. Things like “I like your jacket,” or “Hey, that’s a cool shirt,” are good places to start. Find something. Maybe ask how they did in whatever activity/event they are involved in, and if you don’t know what they do outside your room, start there. Ask. Discover. Use it.
Finally, I teach by the philosophy that if I am bored, then my students will be bored. Some of my subject matter is completely snoozeville for a lot folks. What I nerd out about doesn’t always translate to things my students will also enjoy. Not every story we read appeals to me , much less to my students, but I can make the journey through it seem more like an adventure than a trip to prison. Want your students to grow and thrive as much as possible while they are with you? Me too! So, I work hard to add fun without compromising the work. Look for ways to add more engagement, and always remember to act like a teacher having fun until you are one. You’ll be surprised at the growth of your flowers when the soil of your classroom, rooted in you, me, the teacher, is deep, rich, nutrient-filled top soil. Find your joy and happiness and the fun will follow. No more fill dirt. Be the top soil.