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Teaching Profession Opinion

How I’m Putting the Joy Back in Teaching This Year

Three steps for rediscovering your purpose in the classroom
By Domonique Dickson — August 08, 2022 4 min read
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Teachers have always had to contend with low salaries, uneven support from school and district leaders, and the heavy burden of off-duty preparation required to teach effectively. But this past year felt different.

Now with school districts across the country scrambling to fill vacancies left from teacher turnover, it’s essential that we understand the many challenges pulling teachers out of the classroom. I would argue that the main one is the loss of joy in teaching. How can we rediscover that joy?

1. Remember and re-evaluate your “why.” Every teacher has participated in some training that asked us about our “why”—the philosophy of education that drives us to do what it is we do.

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Prior to the pandemic, my “why” was to catalyze a lifelong love of learning. I believed that the best way to creating positive change beyond my elementary classroom was to help my students develop a yearning to grow and understand the world around them. This belief carried me through the most challenging of times in and out of the classroom.

However, that “why” no longer meets my full purpose post-quarantine, because the needs of my students have evolved in unforeseen ways. This past school year, I experienced new struggles, particularly related to my students’ ability to communicate their feelings and understand different perspectives.

When returning to in-person learning after months in isolation, many students could not collect themselves enough to even verbalize their own thoughts and feelings. I realized that they are really reflecting us, all the adults around them, as we ourselves struggle to work through our feelings about living through the pandemic.

These muddled feelings can impede our ability to have a growth mindset, learn, and be flexible. They make it more difficult to be empathetic, good human beings.

Going into this school year, my purpose—my “why”—is to build a culture of trust and support that equips my students to express themselves effectively and understand each other. Knowing my “why” brings me joy because it gives me purpose.

Think about your own purpose. Write that “why” down and post it on your desk. When the year gets tough, because it will, let it drive you.

2. Use your creativity. One of the biggest joys in being a teacher is the creativity. For some, that means designing your classroom from top to bottom, right down to pulling out the Cricut machine and crafting specialized seat coverings. For others, it looks like sitting down with your calendar to meticulously plan out the first two weeks of school and how to communicate each transition, reward system, and procedure.

Every year I can remember, I would start visiting every school supply section, teacher store, and bookstore looking for all the particular items that would make my classroom a space students wanted to be in.

The thing is, the assessments, the district changes, and the school protocols aren’t in my control; my joy and excitement in preparing my classroom is.

Last year was different. I was, of course, excited to see the students back in the school building, but there was a pressure that hadn’t been there before the pandemic or even during virtual learning. Although I did give thought to making my classroom space nice, I was more consumed with the district changes, the school protocols, and the abundant number of assessments heading our way. Instead of my usual antsy excitement, I felt dread.

The thing is, the assessments, the district changes, and the school protocols aren’t in my control; my joy and excitement in preparing my classroom is.

This year, I am taking back that joy. I am currently deliberating among three classroom themes (travel, boho, or newsroom), and I am studying the new curriculum with optimism. I am planning out all the creative ways I can engage my students and build a positive classroom environment. This brings me joy.

Start planning for your classroom. Think about the aesthetic and how you will start fresh with a new group of excited students. Visit a few school supply sections and teacher stores. Find a book that would be perfect for the first day of school and let the excitement of the coming year return to you.

3. Be all about the small. When I graduated from high school, one of the many gifts I received was a journal. When I graduated from college, again, one of my gifts was a journal. At my very first job teaching, I received another journal, and when I moved to a new school in a new state, one of my first gifts was—you guessed it—a journal.

Now, these journals were not given to me by the same person, but I think all the gift-givers had the same idea. Every day is filled with so many events that it is important to take the time to sit and reflect. In education, that reflective practice helps us refine our craft for the sake of our students. This is essential to being an effective educator.

However, it is easy to get lost in reflecting all that could have gone better and leave out what went well. This past year, I found I was so hypercritical of myself that at times I shut down because I felt defeated. This level of self-criticism is unproductive and is a false reflection of your current ability and potential.

In the new year, I will be flipping this impulse on its head by focusing on the small moments. The moment I see something click for a student. The comical moment that brings laughter in the class. The moment at recess when I race a student and the whole class cheers.

Collect the small moments, write them down, and reflect on them. How can you create more authentic, positive moments? Of all the things a student will remember about us and our classrooms, those “small” moments will probably be at the top of the list.

Last school year was challenging, but with some intentionality, this new school year can be filled with joy. Rediscover your joy in teaching because each student coming into your class deserves to experience the joyful you.

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A version of this article appeared in the August 24, 2022 edition of Education Week as I’m Putting the Joy Back in Teaching

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