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Ed. Magazine

A Space for Joy

Educators talk about the impact COVID has had on school happiness
Illustration of a teacher with students
Illustrations: Julia Schwarz

Julia de la Torre, Ed.M.’06, is tired. The teachers, staff, and administrators at the preK–12 school she oversees in New Jersey are tired. Her students are tired and often uncertain. Now in our third calendar year of the pandemic, there’s still much to deal with and process, even as schools are moving toward the summer break.

“I am tired of COVID protocols and the endless emails and video messages that I send to our families about the changing rules related to the pandemic,” de la Torre says. “I’m wearied by carrying the emotional weight of people’s worst fears about their health.” But more than anything, she says she’s worried that during these chaotic years, her relationship with students, staff, and families has been rooted in crisis.

That’s where the ladybugs and joke book come in. They’re de la Torre’s attempt to upend the tired, the chaotic, the crisis with another powerful word — a word that’s normally easy to find in schools but has been in short supply these days: joy.

Erosion of joy

On top of her desk at Moorestown Friends School, de la Torre keeps a big book of kids’ jokes. A colleague gifted her the book recently and she uses it to bring kid humor into almost every meeting she attends.

“I spend a lot of time in meetings and on Zoom, and it can be easy to feel disconnected from our shared purpose,” this former high school French teacher and principal says. “The jokes keep things light and reconnect us with the innocence of children, the purity of their humor, and the reason why we love being in student-centered communities. The pandemic can sometimes mean we take ourselves too seriously, so I try to keep laughter as a central theme at school.”

For her students, especially the younger ones, that includes ladybugs.

“If there has ever been a time where I’ve witnessed the widespread erosion of joyfulness among children and schoolaged youth, it has been throughout the past two years.” – Decoteau Irby

“I have a tradition at my school where I hide little ladybug stickers all throughout the lower school,” she says. “Ladybugs bring good luck in German culture, and I like to share that part of my multicultural background. You’d be amazed to see the joy on a student’s face when they find one of these tiny hidden treasures.” As she walks down the hall, students love to update her on how many stickers they found. “They also learn to leave the stickers behind so that other students can discover the joy. I love that the ladybugs not only connect me to them on a daily basis, but they also encourage students to think about their peers and what will bring them joy in their day.”

Joy. It seems like such a simple word, but it was hard to find back in the spring of 2020, when COVID first sent learning online and took away face-to-face and “fun” activities like clubs, sports teams, classroom parties, recess, musicals, and chorus concerts. Even now, with students back in person and masks optional in many places, the push to make up what was “lost” is stressful.

As Decoteau Irby, an associate professor of educational policy studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago wrote last fall in a Harvard Education Publishing blog post, “If there has ever been a time where I’ve witnessed the widespread erosion of joyfulness among children and school-aged youth, it has been throughout the past two years. In March 2020, joy gave way to confusion, fear, and uncertainty as the world came to terms with the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Worm in apple illustration

Katie Salch, an ELA and math curriculum coordinator at Glendale Elementary School District in Arizona finishing the Certificate in School Management and Leadership Program at the Ed School, says part of the stress she has seen in her district has to do with the ups and downs of this long pandemic.

“Students are on edge with the unknown. Are we going to close again? Am I going to get quarantined today? Is this phone call to send me to the office to go home?” For teachers, “Navigating a classroom with students in and out for 5–10 days, and keeping up with who is out when it's like a who’s-on-first comedy sketch, is stressing teachers out. When the teacher then gets sick, all bets are lost with keeping up with where students are at academically for those 5–10 days.”

Personally, she feels stressed trying to come up with ways to support everyone.

“There isn’t a day that goes by in our schools that is normal,” she says. “It eats at your nerves and eats up your quota of coping mechanisms.”

De la Torre says the cumulative impact of operating a school in an unpredictable setting was especially tough when learning was both virtual and in-person. Educators had to learn new technology at lightning speed and figure out how to keep kids interested. It was definitely not an in by 8, out by 3 kind-of-day.

“The lines between work and home blurred and teachers were working harder than they ever have,” she says. On top of that, everyone was concerned about the health and wellbeing of every community member. “It’s an enormous emotional load to carry, and teachers have done it beautifully. [But], with every change in COVID guidelines, state mandates, and local case rates, I worry that we will crumble under the weight of it all.”

Last November, the Education Week Research Center found that nearly 75% of teachers say their morale is lower than it was before the pandemic. Talk to any teacher you know, and they’ll say either they’ve considered leaving the profession or know other educators who already have.

Jeff Durney, Ed.M.’21, is back teaching at the K–6 Boston Public School he worked at for 10 years as a STEAM specialist before coming to the Ed School. He says the vibe has been very somber this year, especially for teachers.

“It’s draining to have to put on the ‘everything is normal’ face every day,” he says. “At some point, we’ve all covered another class and/or lost a lunch block to support staffng shortages. In addition, we’ve had teachers give students rides home due to no coverage for bus drivers being out. As a teacher, you can often find yourself feeling like you’re on an island, but the pandemic has made it worse. Teachers have had to support the kids in their class while also supporting their own families as well.” Although he says he works in a supportive and understanding school, he is considering leaving the classroom, although even that takes its own kind of energy. “The workload and expectations for teachers have become too much. In conversations with various educators, a lot of us are too tired to look for positions outside the teaching profession. Furthermore, many of us are far too exhausted to sell ourselves during an interview.”

As Salch says, “I’ve had many teachers and coaches resign this year for several reasons. A majority are for health and safety and other employment in the private sector of education. Working remotely for almost a year really sat well with some educators and they are transferring to jobs where they can continue to do that.”

Bill Brooks, a Certificate in School Management and Leadership 2021 graduate, has seen the same trend as middle school dean of students at TASIS Portugal in Lisbon, where he also teaches English.

“I know several colleagues who have left or are thinking about leaving the profession,” he says. “In most cases, the cost of staying in the profession reached or is reaching a breaking point. It has simply become too much, and some reckon that a career switch is a better path, ultimately.”

Is learning even meant to be joyful? 

Anyone who has picked up an instrument or tried to learn a new language knows that learning can be hard and frustrating. As Irby pointed out, “Learning is not always a joyous undertaking. Pushing through a diffcult subject, topic, or painstaking assignment can be tough.”

But, he adds, “joy at school and in learning is a foundation from which students gain the confidence that academic struggle is temporary and worthwhile.” There’s also a very real connection to the brain. “The brain does not exist by itself,” writes Professor Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child. “Connecting the brain to the rest of the body is critically important. When we’re stressed, every cell in the body is working overtime.”

Students who appear joyless or unmotivated (previously on Zoom, now in person) may not be making voluntary choices, says Judy Willis, a neurologist who went on to teach middle school for 10 years. Their brains, as Shonkoff points out, may just be responding to what’s going on around them, like the ups and downs of the pandemic and our push to “catch up” academically in schools.

“The truth is that when we scrub joy and comfort from the classroom, we distance our students from effective information processing and long-term memory storage,” Willis recently wrote in the Neuroscience of Joyful Education. “Instead of taking pleasure from learning, students become bored, anxious, and anything but engaged. They ultimately learn to feel bad about school and lose the joy they once felt.” Neuroimaging studies and measurement of brain chemical transmitters reveal that “when students are engaged and motivated and feel minimal stress, information flows freely through the affective filter in the amygdala and they achieve higher levels of cognition, make connections, and experience ‘aha’ moments. Such learning comes not from quiet classrooms and directed lectures, but from classrooms with an atmosphere of exuberant discovery.”

Irby saw this with his own children. When school went remote, they were not happy. “On the best days, they were ambivalent. On the bad days, they were miserable,” he says. When they returned to in-person learning this past fall, things mostly got better. His son, a first-grader, didn’t like people being too close and didn’t want to be overly corrected for his efforts, but “they were very happy to return to school. They loved almost everything about returning, from packing their book bags, seeing their friends and socializing, to developing relationships with their teachers.”

Push to get kids up to speed

Hand painting illustration

Happy is great, but what about the important idea that we need to regain academic ground lost during the pandemic? As Professor Tom Kane and his colleagues at the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University (CEPR) reveal in their new Road to COVID Recovery project, using real-time data and working with school districts across the country, learning loss from the pandemic is significant.

“I don’t think there’s a broad appreciation for the magnitude of the declines we’ve seen,” Kane told Ed. — the equivalent of kids missing three or four months of school last year. As he said in a recent The 74 article, “School districts have never had so many students so far behind.” And especially for some students. The Brookings Institute reported in March that test-score gaps between students in low-poverty and high-poverty elementary schools grew by approximately 20% in math and 15% in reading, primarily during the 2020–21 school year.

CEPR has called for tutoring, extra periods of instruction, Saturday academies, and afterschool programs. Schools, they say, should focus for the next couple of years on getting students back to pre-COVID academic levels.

But what does catch up mean for the joy that tired students and teachers also desperately need?

In a Harvard EdCast interview in February, Susan Engel, a senior lecturer at Williams College and author of the new book, The Intellectual Lives of Children, said, “I heard a first-grade teacher say to me, back in August, when she was planning her remote teaching, she said, ‘The parents are so worried that their children aren’t going to keep up this year.’ And I said, ‘Keep up with what?’ And she looked surprised, and she said, ‘Well, with the standards.’ But I mean, the standards are completely arbitrary. Who made up those standards? Just a lot of people sitting in rooms. I don’t know. And I’m not sure they were good standards in the first place, but it’s silly to let those constrain you too much as a teacher right now.”

Which is why it was interesting, says Wade Whitehead, a fifth-grade teacher in Virginia now in his 28th year of teaching, that in the spring of 2020, when it became clear that we weren’t going back to in-person any time soon, “the first two things we threw out the window were grades and standardized testing.”

Why was that, he wondered? “I think it’s because those two rob students and teachers of joy. I think it was to keep students and teachers happy” as we shifted focus to everyone’s crushing social-emotional (SEL) needs. And there were other changes that at any other time would have seemed radical: Schools shortened the school day and cut back to just a few class blocks a day. “COVID was an opportunity for schools to go deep. People had the freedom to just learn. If you want to be around someone who is happy, be around someone who’s just learning something to learn, especially faceto-face. You’re just happier that way.”

Unfortunately, says Whitehead, a a Certificate in School Management and Leadership graduate, a year later, we “picked up those two apples” — grades and standardized tests — “and put them back in the cart. I’m not against grades or tests. I’m for amazing grading systems and amazing assessment and accountability systems.”

Durney agrees that the “normal” way of schooling wasn’t working for everyone and says that we can still rethink schooling.

“We need to use the pandemic as an opportunity to consider how we meet the needs of all our students through engaging tasks,” he says. “Students have access to apps, games, etc., and there are things that can and should be leveraged when designing learning opportunities. It isn’t just academics that students missed over the past two years. They need opportunities to engage in activities that allow them to build and strengthen their SEL skills. Rigor can and should be fun!”

Kane agrees and says that academics and emotional care go hand-in-hand. If students feel more comfortable being back in school, they are going to have an easier time focusing, just as finding success in the classroom can lead to positive e­ffects on mental health.

Irby also says it’s not an either-or as we move forward.

“I would say to educators who want to prioritize getting kids up to speed academically over joy that the two are not mutually exclusive. They should think about them as mutually reinforcing,” he says. “Not only do joy and academic rigor go hand in hand, but tactful educators plan to ensure both happen in tandem.” He noted that Gholdy Muhammad’s framework outlined in her book Cultivating Genius includes five pillars to consider when planning lessons, and joy is one of them. “An example is children’s museums, which off­er learning opportunities that center play and fun. Exhibit curators plan with joy and excitement at the center of their learning design, but they don’t forgo academic content. In other words, the same way a teacher can plan to have students learn a disciplinary skill, they can plan for students to experience joy while doing it. One priority doesn’t need to outweigh the other.”

He says this is especially important for students who experience “compounding killjoys” — students who “live with circumstances and experiences that make it very diffcult to be joyful. Some big picture joy killers include poverty, racism, social isolation, and concrete realities that stem from racial, social, and economic injustice such as hunger and food insecurity, housing insecurity, exposure to violence, health ailments, and living in a household or community where adults experience chronic stress. The more of these killjoys that students experience, the more concerned educators should be about using learning as a means to cultivate joy.”

For example, he says that if students don’t have access to safe green space, recess should become a priority. If they experience conflict with relationships in their lives, educators can create learning scenarios that are collaborative, “which provide opportunities to find joy in working with people.”

Ladybug Illustration

Keeping this in mind, Sandra Nagy, Ed.M.’02, managing director of Future Design School, says any e­ffort to get kids caught up and still feel joy needs to be intentional.

“In order for this important change to take hold in schools, there needs to be a space for joy,” she says. “That means balancing eff­orts to address learning loss with looking ahead to what we can do next and celebrating the way teachers proved their ability to innovate and adapt in the past two years.”

And Brooks says we can do something else to bring back joy that would once have been considered radical: We can slow down.

“We can engage with students where they are, whatever they’re interested in at the moment, because that’s the ‘stu­ff’ of the world they’re trying so hard to build normalcy from,” he says. “We can play with them on the field and court and laugh with them throughout the day. There will still be time for all that needs to be learned.”

Is joy still below the surface?

It’s all important — and it’s not all doom and gloom. Even tired educators say that below the frustrations, they see joy again.

“Given the circumstances, I have seen a lot of joy at school,” says Durney. “One of the many benefits of working with elementary-aged children is that they can find joy and humor in just about any activity.” Right before winter break, for example, they held an outdoor schoolwide activity where students were able to share their work and play games created by their peers and with parent involvement. “It felt like pre-pandemic times where we’d gather as a whole school community. The day ended with our principal jumping into the frigid waters at the M Street Beach in South Boston because as a school community we exceeded our fundraising goal. The smiles and laughter throughout the entire day were a great way to end the first stretch of the school year.”

Salch addressed burnout when students — and teachers — stopped using a diagnostic online program by creating a challenge where students would earn a popcorn party if they logged in for 10 of 15 days in December.

“We have a local chocolate factory that sells 10-gallon bags of popcorn for $6. We can feed a whole school for less than $15,” she says. “Students that earned the reward came out to the courtyard to eat a coffee filter full of popcorn and dance to Kidz Bop.”

She celebrates her teachers, too — even in small ways. “I do everything I can to keep my teachers joyful,” she says. “I write handwritten notes to them monthly thanking them or congratulating them on something they accomplished. I give random gifts of pens or stickies to show appreciation. I organize themed meetings that included engaging activities that show each other we are humans before we are our professions.”

Joshua Neufeld, a first-grade teacher at the American International School of Guangzhou in China and a participant in a Project Zero program in 2021, is part of a peer coaching network for international teachers called Positivity Playground. He found that regular staff socializing has helped morale.

“The pandemic has been challenging for everyone, and Positivity Playground reminded me that together, as colleagues, we can generate more positive emotions and manage negative emotions effectively.” With this in mind, Neufeld organized a weekly lunchtime tea party for his colleagues called Positvi-Tea. It’s a time for teachers to hang out and talk, he says, often about things other than school. “This is a time that energizes the participants and challenges them to continue the day with a positive outlook. I leave the meetings feeling recharged, viewing upcoming situations with a sense of realistic optimism.”

Beyond celebrations and gatherings, others say a focus on personalized learning and setting small, actionable steps (not just big lofty goals) can help bring joy back. Brooks says teachers and other educators can also pay more attention to self-care.

“I am striking a better work-life balance, taking time to be with my family and recharge,” he says. “Doing so allows me to be more fully present and increases the likelihood of finding and making joyful moments at work.” The same needs to be done for all educators. “It does not take anything extraordinary to bring joy back to the workplace of teachers. I would argue it comes down to acknowledging the difficulty of the work in these times, commiserating openly and honestly about these challenges, facing them together, and celebrating every small success of the professionals in the building. Impromptu conversations, dropping by to check in, and showing gratitude are a few other easy and regular ways to bring a sense of joy back to the workplace on a daily basis.”

With her ladybug stickers in hand and her joke book open and ready for the next meeting, Julia de la Torre is still tired, but she knows the joy at her school is there.

“Quite frankly, joy is the reason I come to work every day and why I love my job,” she says. “Pop your head into any classroom and you’ll see kids thriving, connecting, and enjoying school. They may have masks on, but you can see joy in their eyes and in their laughter. I’m always trying to remind my teachers that there is joy everywhere in schools, if you stop to look for it. It may be harder to find during these challenging times, but it’s the joy that keeps us coming back for more.”

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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