On October 5th I presented at Discovery Education Network’s Ignite event in Etobicoke.

The theme of the even was around joy and this is the text of the talk I wrote called “The Joy and Pain of Teaching”.

I can’t think about joy without immediately hearing the 1988 Rob Base song Joy and Pain in my head. That’s the song where Rob end the rap with “you’re just a kid and you need to grow”.

But that’s a good place to start thinking about joy because you really can’t have joy without pain, and sometimes you have to go through pain to get to joy. And that’s the story I want to tell. How I found a way to joy through pain and how a 10 year-old girl showed me how.

It was probably my lowest point professionally. I’d moved to a new school and the first year went terribly. Nothing I did worked, I couldn’t connect with my students and I was questioning everything I did. It was awful. And then at the start of my second year I met Kelly.

Kelly was a grade 5 student and while she didn’t single handedly change everything for me she started moving things toward joy. And while it would be nice to think that she sat down and dropped wisdom on me, she was much smarter than that.

Kelly understood that the path to joy isn’t something you can understand cognitively. It’s something you have to embody. And that’s what Kelly did. She loved being at school and arrived each day smiling and excited to learn.

And for some strange reason, that I couldn’t understand, she seemed to like me. She’d hang around my desk, smiling at me and asking if she could do anything to help. And at the end of the day she’d be sad to leave class, so she’d come over and try to hug me, which was awkward.

Initially I resisted what Kelly was trying to show me. She was a kid. Clearly she was wrong. But like water torture she kept dripping that smile onto me day after day and slowly, over time I started to melt. Soon I was amazed to find that I was happy to see her.

Since then I’ve reflected on Kelly, on what she taught me and what she embodied. I’ve boiled those lessons down into a few actions that will help anyone find The Joy of Teaching:

  1. Be grateful: Today you are alive. You woke up and you can do things. You have an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others and help them grow and prosper. Very soon there will come a time when this won’t be true. Appreciate it now. If you’re a practicing educator with a job, like I am, you are doubly fortunate. Qualified teachers are crying out for work in Ontario schools and a terrific new teacher would give anything to be in your position. Don’t forget this. You are lucky. Appreciate it.
  2. Notice the small things: I don’t mean in your day plans, but the really small mundane things. Listen to the engaged chatter of a well run lesson, how the light falls on the floor in your classroom, the feel of a marker in your hand. Take it all in. These are the things help that keep you grounded.
  3. Accept change: My old teaching friend and mentor Barry Schneider taught the same grade in the same room for 25 years and I asked him how he could do that. He said “In teaching, you don’t have to go looking for challenges, the come to you. They walk through your door every day”. Remember that a classroom is like a river in that you can never walk into the same one twice. Every day, every moment of the day you and your students are changing, so there’s absolutely no reason to believe that what you did yesterday will work today. Change things.
  4. Smile proactively: We’re evolutionarily programmed to pay attention to negativity. It’s how our ancestors survived. But this implicit bias means we don’t always notice the positive even when it’s there. Smiling changes this and helps us to be more open to noticing the good. Smile like you mean it and soon you will.
  5. Adopt student mind: Embrace wonder like a student. Your students have never encountered this idea or thought before and they are amazed and excited by it. You should be too because it is amazing that we can think and learn about things. And if your students aren’t amazed because they’re cool and detached, those are the students that need you to be amazed and full of wonder most of all. Those are the ones that need you to connect them with the engaged and passionate learners they used to be.
  6. Connect: There are students in your class who need you. Today. Not to raise their math scores or improve their spelling but to notice them. To be the adult who sees them and cares about them. So take the time to look in your students’ eyes and see them, really see them!

If you do these things you’ll find something quite amazing. That when you thought you were helping students and teaching them, that actually the opposite was also true. They were the ones teaching you and helping you move forward. They are helping you remember that in every moment of every day we have to keep opening to joy. And that by being grateful, noticing the small things, accepting change, smiling, adopting student mind and connecting you’ll discover what on some level you already knew. That joy was waiting for you in your classroom all along.

Now when I’m feeling disconnected, or out of sorts, or in pain, I seek out my classroom. Because that’s where I feel grounded and it’s where my students help me find the joy through teaching.