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Happiness Before Homework: Focusing on Feelings in the Classroom

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Eight years ago, I was beginning to feel burned out. As a teacher at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, Calif., I first taught math and then moved onto algebra, AP economics, and history. I was tired of the amount of work it took to plan lessons, teach, create assessments, and grade, and I was frustrated with my students' obsession with working for grades, rather than their natural curiosity to learn. Conversations with parents about why their child earned a B+ instead of an A- drove me crazy. I began to lose touch with the real reasons I became a teacher.

But in May of 2009, I received a rude wake-up call. I arrived at school to an emergency meeting; one of my students had committed suicide. I was shocked and devastated.

As I sat in the first row at the student's funeral, I was overcome with emotions, bawling alongside my students, and the deceased student's family. He was in my class for six months and in so much pain, I thought. How did I miss this? How were we so disconnected that I had no idea?

Before my student's suicide, I was naïve. I looked at my students and made assumptions that they were fine. I would tell myself, "We live in an amazing place at a high-achieving school. These kids have bright futures—how hard could their lives really be?" And I would focus on the content of my teaching and my students' performance. But under the smiles and the high or low grades, my students experienced internal struggles that were not always readily visible.

Although I felt helpless in the face of my student's suicide, I suddenly felt a new purpose. I knew that something needed to change. If I were to continue to be an educator, nothing could stop me from putting my students' well-being first. I became determined to figure out how to connect more authentically and form stronger relationships with my students. I wouldn't worry about academic standards, content, or grades, until I made sure they felt like they belonged and gave them more skills to ride the waves of life.

I set out to create a course on positive psychology, the scientific study of what makes life most worth living, for juniors and seniors at my school. The curriculum focused on personal empowerment: We live life "choice by choice." I taught students that it's critical to be aware of our emotions as well as the suffering that can be caused by our thoughts. We don’t need to "buy into" what our inner critic is telling us, and treating ourselves with compassion is key to our well-being and resilience. In the first year, 107 students signed up. Year after year, I've seen hundreds of students pass through my classroom and change their behavior, including the debilitating nature of perfectionism so many students wrestle with in high school.

These principles were also useful in every other class that I taught. Incorporating just five minutes of mindfulness into my AP economics course saved instructional minutes because the students were more focused.

Coaching Emotionally-Intelligent Teachers

To train other teachers to use strategies of positive psychology with their students, I created EQ Schools, a California-based organization that empowers educators through positive psychology, emotional intelligence, and mindfulness training. In trainings, teachers learn about the neurobiology of stress, focus, and happiness, as well as the creative ways to incorporate play and social-emotional skills in classrooms such as playing games and doing yoga. Teachers say that they felt revived and inspired, and that bringing emotions into learning, as well as taking stock of how burned out they are, is transforming their classrooms.

Over the last few years, I've had the privilege of working with thousands of educators across California, and it's abundantly clear that our society’s obsession with academic performance and preparing students for tests leaves them, and many teachers, drained and empty. As teachers, we want our students to be well-educated, but when the balance shifts to focusing on educating students’ brains to the detriment of their well-being, students are at risk.

And it's not only students who are struggling. Teaching is one of the most stressful professions, and burnout rates are very high. But it doesn't have to be this way. It is time for us to prioritize and infuse our schools with more joy, connection, and a focus on well-being. Learning will deepen, academic achievements will improve, and we'll raise a generation of happier, well-adjusted, and creatively confident people.

Research shows that emotional intelligence is far more predictive of a person's future success than academic achievements. Happier students and teachers tend to be more productive, creative, and resilient. And happiness is a positive-sum game. The happier you are as a teacher, the happier your students and colleagues will be, too.

So, how can you work to bring more happiness into your classroom?

Be present. You know those times you are with a student or colleague, but you are actually ruminating about how your last lesson went or why some of your student scored poorly on a portion of a test? Or perhaps you’re fearing the evaluation that you will get from your department head? You're not being present and this diminishes your well-being. The trick isn't to beat yourself up when you notice your mind wandering, but to remind yourself to return your focus. Bringing your mind back when it wanders can go a long way toward strengthening the muscle of being present.

Connect deeply with others. According to Harvard University's Study of Adult Development, which has studied participants’ mental and physical health over decades, relationships are the No. 1 predictor of happiness and longevity. Before you begin your class, take three deep breaths and as your students enter the classroom, greet them with warmth and eye contact, and maybe even send them silent good thoughts. Ask yourself, what is one small step you can take today to cultivate or feed a supportive learning environment and connect with students?

Take time to experience positive emotions. Take a moment to think about one thing you feel grateful for today and savor that feeling. Give a colleague a compliment or write them a supportive note. Games, like "Pass the Sound," also help to foster joy and build community in your classroom. Have your students stand in a circle. Tell the first person next to you to clap, and then the next, and the next, until the clap gets all the way around the circle. Explain that this is timed and the goal is to "pass the clap" under a certain number of seconds. Tell them that if we 'fail,' we are going to celebrate our failure like crazy! In unison, shout "woohoo!" and throw our hands up in the air. If they are successful, up the challenge by decreasing the number of seconds. And so on. Cultivate a playful attitude. Cheer them on, and tell them you believe in them, even if we fail all together.

Feel your negative feelings. Some might think that the best way to get through difficult emotions is to ignore them and move on. But the more you suppress your emotions, the more problematic they become. As teachers, we must cultivate nonjudgmental awareness of difficult feelings so we can strive to be more perceptive to our students when they are down. Letting them know they are not alone in struggling with anger or sadness will help them feel more comfortable reaching out to others for support.

Invest in self-care. When I ask teachers what they do for self-care, they often chuckle, "Who has time for that?" But if you don't learn to put the oxygen mask on yourself first, you might unintentionally affect your students because you seem grouchy or distant. You might also burn out, which means your students would miss out on your gifts. Take a moment to think about what recharges your battery, whether it's going on a walk outside and appreciating the trees or taking a slightly longer shower—schedule it into your day.

Continue to grow and pursue intrinsic goals. Your professional development and growth should be meaningful. Take time to identify a personal or professional goal you have for yourself and break it down into steps. What kind of impact do you make for your students, and how are you going to do so?

Photo provided by author.

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation, at www.novofoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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