Happy in school

6 min read

Voice of the Educator

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“We think the workplace has to be tough, but happiness is the key to success.”  — Emma Seppala

I overheard a conversation among principals describing how they approached teacher evaluation. These were caring school leaders who were skilled at reducing the threat level of their supervision. Teachers talk in a similar manner about helping their students cope with the anxiety of testing. These educators’ conversations must be similar to ones that dentists might have in discussing how to minimize the pain of root canals. Sadly, the experience of learning, in most schools can be tantamount to quickly taking some bitter medicine and moving on. Schools, as ”tough places,” have traditionally been justified as a necessary preparation for the harsh reality of the workplace.

This tough version of school is firmly rooted in our minds and persists in practice, even as workplace environments are now radically changing. Most school improvement efforts consist of adding different programs, rather than reconsidering the validity of this tough design. As a result, education policy seems to be on a merry-go-round of seemingly good ideas — character education, social emotional education, behavior management, self-esteem and grit — that often fail to produce real progress. What these have in common is that they try to change students without changing the tough design. Unfortunately, the “change within the design” approach cannot overcome the profound impact of the tough design itself on students and staff.

Conversely, in the world outside of school, social psychological research has discovered that people become more creative and more productive in environments that support their well-being and happiness.

This type of happiness is not simply about making people comfortable by giving them want they want or removing problems and challenges, i.e. the version of happiness depicted in most commercials. This version is the one most teachers and students have inherited from being in a tough environment; hence, their happiness comes from being out of school on snow days, holidays and summer vacations.

The happiness, as defined in the research, means something very different: It is not an escape or a temporary feeling of satisfaction. This version of happiness comes from being safe, doing meaningful work, finding social support and a sense of continuous improvement and growth.

Amy Edmondson, a Harvard researcher, has analyzed a multitude of work environments and has identified two critical components for an optimal learning/work environment: psychological safety and accountability. These types of environments create social norms of support and hard work. In these environments, people learn a lot, stay a long time, appreciate what they do and report that they are “happy.”

Here are two key starting points, supported by research, for changing school environments and students’ experiences from tough to happy:

Find the human why

One of the biggest obstacles to positive change in schools is that fact that most students do what they are told without requiring the meaning, value and purpose (MVP) of what they are learning. Because they are so cooperative, many teachers forget to provide it. Since cooperation without MVP becomes the norm, those students who don’t readily cooperate become the ones who who need to be changed or fixed. These students need to become more like those students who cooperate without MVP. Ironically, these “problem” students are just waiting for their learning to be put into the human context of helping others and their school.

Research has demonstrated that people are more motivated to learn when they can see how their learning can help others. One study found that health workers washed their hands more frequently in restrooms when the sign reminded them it would keep their patients healthy rather than a sign that reminded them about their own health. Another study demonstrated that urban high-school students with a low interest in math were more motivated to learn it when they found out how it benefited others, no just them. Students are happier helping others than they are from receiving individual rewards.

Connect the “I”

Most classrooms consist of a group of individuals instructed to think primarily about their own learning. In such an environment, the social/competitive aspect of learning is a way to motivate individual performance. Getting help in this environment is a sign that a student is not as competent as one who learns without assistance. Failing, therefore, can have painful consequences when students are disconnected in this way.

Many educators, taking the current idea that failing is part of learning, try to help students overcome their fear of failure. They forget that children are not born with a fear of failure; they acquire it from the tough school environment. It’s failing in comparison to their peers that they fear. In this type of environment, success is a zero sum game distributed across the bell curve. Asking students not to fear failing, without removing its social consequences, is unfair (and impossible).

Replacing competition with cooperation doesn’t diminish individual achievement, but enhances it. Research has demonstrated that the best way to learn something is to teach it to others. When people feel they have things in common with others, they feel safer, take more risks and are able to learn from mistakes without worrying about being judged negatively.

Helping students discover their connections creates an environment where students learn from each other not just from the teacher in charge. Students learn by cooperating with others and by competing with themselves to improve. Students are happier and learn more when the “I” becomes a “we.”

These two shifts in direction don’t require large-scale plans or initiatives. Changing how we view and treat students is the best way to redesign tough environments. For example, instead of a team of educators trying to figure out how to get individual students with problems to change, they can discuss what they can do to provide meaning, value and purpose and how they can build stronger connections among students.

Educators will discover that as they shift their direction and attention toward creating a happy work environment for their students, they will be creating one for themselves too.

Jim Dillon (@dillon_jim) has been an educator for over 35 years including 20 as a school administrator. He is currently the director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He has written three books, Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden), No Place for Bullying (Corwin) and Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities (Corwin). He writes a blog at www.jim-dillon.com.

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