Opinion
Teaching Profession Opinion

Bring Joy Back Into the Classroom

By Jonathan Eckert — March 29, 2016 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

I teach to entertain myself. For the past 20 years, I have shared this key to quality instruction with elementary through college students.

They all look at me like I am a bit egocentric and a little crazy. I don’t think I am.

My own entertainment is only one ingredient of the whole recipe for a productive learning environment. But if I am not enjoying teaching, student learning will suffer. If I am bored, burned out, or beaten down, it is highly unlikely that my students will engage in vibrant learning. This is true for assessment, content, and classroom management—the three cornerstones of quality instruction.

One way to judge the quality of an assessment is: Do I want to grade it? If I get tired of assessing essays that try to persuade the principal to say no to school uniforms, I change the assessment. If I can’t bear to read another policy memo about a particular topic, I change the syllabus. If I do not enjoy assessing the assignment, my students rarely enjoy completing it. The quality of the work suffers.

BRIC ARCHIVE

What about teaching the same content day after day? I taught four sections of science to 7th graders for years. Photosynthesis, cellular respiration, and asexual reproduction were not what got me out of bed in the morning. The key for me was to focus on how 100 different individuals interacted with the concepts during the labs. Suddenly, asexual reproduction became fascinating when I heard students trying to make sense of it. “How can a potato get jiggy under the ground?” one student asked.

Classroom management also has to remain fresh. I posted a magnetic Elvis Presley replete with an extensive wardrobe on the front board of my 5th grade classroom. If the class got too loud, I would remove, for example, Elvis’ Hawaiian lei. This equaled one less minute of recess. A lei and the removal of his sunglasses equaled three fewer minutes, and so on. The students could earn these items back for quality work. At the end of the week, if Elvis was dressed like “the King,” we had 15 minutes of recess. Eventually, I only had to take a couple steps toward Elvis to quiet the classroom.

Admittedly, some of my techniques are a bit quirky, but that is the point. We should engage students in ways that we enjoy—a teacher’s enjoyment is a precondition for student engagement.

A teacher's enjoyment is a precondition for student engagement."

Teaching morale has declined over the past two decades. Promised K-12 improvements, meanwhile, have included increased rigor, more testing, and “teacher proofing” a narrowing curriculum. Many of these changes have taken the joy out of the classroom because teachers have lost control of what is taught, when it’s taught, and how it’s assessed.

This situation should not come as a revelation to anyone who has stood in front of students recently. In the schools I visit across the country, I hear a common refrain: “Teaching isn’t fun anymore.” This is a tragedy for all of us.

The only way to build better learning environments is through trust. I still find classrooms where trust exists, but they are becoming increasingly rare. A fear of testing, failure, and loss of control is now the norm. We know that safe learning environments are essential for students, but they must first exist for teachers.

School improvement has to start at the classroom level. The implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act could create more-supportive teaching conditions. States and districts could reconsider accountability policies that erode trust and support. Instead, they could support professional learning that promotes expertise and differentiated roles for teachers. However, our work is more human than many policymakers grasp. And so teachers and administrators must lead the way in prioritizing learning that embraces risk, inquiry, and hard work.

Principals and teachers need to take back their schools, so teachers can take back their classrooms. Teachers and principals must be fearless. Teachers have to stop blaming others—principals, district offices, and departments of education—for what they “have to do” in their classrooms. Great teachers find what works for them and their students, and they run with it. They beg, borrow, and steal ideas and then make them their own. They find their own versions of a magnetic Elvis and take a risk.

This is the only way to grow.

Many veteran teachers repeat the following mantra to their students: “I am not here to entertain you.” Maybe teachers should start telling themselves, “I am here to be entertained by my students’ learning.” If teachers find enjoyment in their students’ learning and growth, they will never stop learning and growing themselves.

Related Tags:

Follow the Education Week Commentary section on Facebook and Twitter.
A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2016 edition of Education Week as Finding Joy in Teaching

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Professional Development Webinar
Strategies for Improving Student Outcomes with Teacher-Student Relationships
Explore strategies for strengthening teacher-student relationships and hear how districts are putting these methods into practice to support positive student outcomes.
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
Transform Teaching and Learning with AI
Increase productivity and support innovative teaching with AI in the classroom.
Content provided by Promethean
Curriculum Webinar Computer Science Education Movement Gathers Momentum. How Should Schools React?
Discover how schools can expand opportunities for students to study computer science education.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession With New Grants, Teachers' Union Doubles Down on Partnerships With Parents
The American Federation of Teachers will invest $1.5 million in parent outreach—a counterweight to conservatives' parents'-rights narrative.
4 min read
Illustration of airplanes dropping money
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Teaching Profession Opinion 25 Reasons to Get Excited About Teaching
Let’s focus on the opportunities that teaching brings every single day to the classroom.
Louie F. Rodriguez
3 min read
illustration of a teacher watering a plant that is growing with students on it.
Nataliia Nesterenko/iStock/Getty
Teaching Profession What the Research Says The Big Connection Between Teachers' Burnout and Their Principals
Less-demanding principals make for less-stressed teachers, a new study suggests.
3 min read
Image of two adults planning in a school classroom.
E+
Teaching Profession What Teachers of Color Say Will Actually Work to Diversify the Profession
In a new survey, teachers of color pick the most effective recruitment and retention strategies.
6 min read
Image of a teacher in front of a high school classroom.
Drazen Zigic/iStock/Getty