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Focusing on Happiness in the New Year

By Gravity Goldberg
 | Jan 03, 2017

shutterstock_3086314_x300As I set my New Year’s resolutions and intentions I can’t help but think about happiness and joy. These two words are at the heart of what I want for myself, teachers and, of course, student readers. This might seem obvious; who doesn’t want to be happy? But most school initiatives, reading programs, and professional development offerings focus solely on content and skills, not well-being and joy. Although I wholeheartedly support this focus on content and skills, spending much of my time on these very things, I think we could all make a little more space for happiness. The research is clear: People who are happy are more productive and successful than those who are not happy. In fact, every top-notch, high-impact reading teacher I have ever met has one common quality: Each is a happy teacher.

In this post, I highlight four shifts we can all focus on to become happier teachers and, therefore, more productive and successful reading teachers. If we focus just a little more on teacher joy, we can more effectively implement all of those important reading skills and strategies with a bit more impact.

Shift from looking for what readers can’t do to what they can do

When we “fill up,” so to speak, on positives, we are much happier people. I call this having an admiring lens when it comes to our students, because the word admire comes from Latin and means “to study with wonder and awe”. This does not mean we ignore readers’ challenges but we have a clear perspective on them. Shawn Achor’s research in The Happiness Advantage shows that when people are happier they are more successful at their jobs. However, it is nearly impossible to feel happy when we spend all day looking for what our student readers cannot do. Instead, what if we looked first at what student readers already could do or almost do and fill up on that? When we build from strengths, our student readers are often more willing to dive into new and more challenging work and we, in turn, feel ready for the challenge.

Shift from predicting what won’t work to becoming curious about what might happen

Living in the future and spending time generating all the reasons why a lesson or strategy won’t work with this year’s class of readers can be tempting. Instead of putting all that energy into why something likely won’t work, we can focus on how to revise a lesson or tweak a strategy so that it is more likely to have an impact on student learning. Whenever I find myself saying things like “Well this won’t work because…” and “These kids probably won’t be able to…” I pause and remind myself that this is just a prediction and not a reality. Predictions can be revised easily in our teaching just like in our books. Why not revise those negative predictions to make space for possibilities? In this way, our curiosity brings us joy as we look forward to seeing what happens in a lesson.

Shift from making everything feel like it is win-or-lose to creating space for taking risks

Another happiness enemy is judging everything students do (and we do as teachers), making each moment feel like it is win-or-lose. If every day, every lesson, every decision feels like a test, that creates a lot of pressure. All that pressure builds up, stresses us out, and causes us to play it safe rather than take an instructional or reading risk. Yes, some parts of our jobs as teachers do have high stakes, but most day-to-day moments do not have to feel that way. Whenever I find myself saying things like “I should…” or “I can’t try that because...” I am not leaving any room for myself to learn and grow as a teacher. It is often my fear that I won’t be able to help my students that causes me to reject any strategies that I have not yet tried before. It takes courage and curiosity to take the leap. How can I expect students to feel safe to try something new and take a risk if I don’t model that myself?

Shift from reading all of those heart-wrenching stories to something funny that makes you laugh

I am a sucker for a good tear-jerker book. In fact, most of the YA books I pick up are filled with trauma, abuse, and major social issues. Although these books draw us in, they can also be depressing. Why not balance our book selections with texts that make us laugh? There is a reason why Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey and the Pigeon books by Mo Willems are so popular with younger readers—they are really funny! Studies now show scientifically that laughter makes our bodies and minds healthy. There is even something called “laughter yoga,” where people gather in a room to laugh together, as a form of well-being and happiness-boosting. Seek out your librarian and ask for some joke books, silly books, and laugh-out-loud books. They can be your own version of laughter yoga.

Bonus Tip: Regularly ask students to write down three specific, positive things about themselves as readers. For example: “I can break up big words into parts and figure them out,” or “I can think about the character’s motivation.” This will help readers develop more happiness and mirror back all your hard work as well.

Happiness is not a luxury but a necessity when it comes to being the most successful reading teacher you can be. Only 10% of your long-term happiness is predicted by your external circumstances, and the other 90% comes from how you teach your brain to process the world, says Achor. We really can choose to be happier this year.         

Gravity Goldberg is author of Mindsets and Moves: Strategies That Help Readers Take Charge(Corwin, 2016) and coauthor of Conferring With Readers(Heinemann, 2007). She leads a team of literacy consultants in the NY/NJ area and presents to teachers across the United States. At the heart of Gravity's teaching is the belief that everyone deserves to be admired and supported. She also can be reached on Twitter.

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