Teach Happy (from 7-31-13)

I ended my recent post about depression with this comic strip.

Perhaps it seems simplistic, but I maintain that teaching happy is not just a good idea for teachers and their well-being. The idea of teaching happy is good for kids, too. To take it a step further, the converse is true, too. Teaching unhappy is not only bad for the unhappy teacher, it is bad for the student unfortunate enough to be in the unhappy teacher’s class.

Think back to teachers you’ve had. You’ve had good ones. You’ve had… less good ones, no doubt. I would maintain that most of the good ones loved teaching, and that many of the bad ones, for whatever reason, hated it. Maybe this won’t be the case for you, but the good teachers I had throughout school taught happy; the bad teachers taught unhappy.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the good teachers were all overly perky Pollyannas who told us students we were doing great work even when we weren’t and never criticized us. Some of the best teachers I knew came across as sardonic, and were very, very demanding. But underneath their gruff exterior, you knew that they were demanding because they cared deeply about their subjects– and about you. If they criticized your work, it was to make you better. And no matter how grumpy they might have seemed on the surface, you knew, somehow, that they were enjoying themselves immensely. My ninth grade Algebra teacher knew I could succeed, and she kept me in the class, even when I wanted to go crawling back to pre-Algebra after the first quarter because I’m a Math phobic. (How I wound up with a son who is about to major in Mathematical Physics in college is one of life’s great mysteries.) She taught happy, even when it didn’t make me happy.

Of course, there are the teachers who teach happy and come across as happy, too. But the ones who are really happy aren’t putting on a show of fake enthusiasm like some terrible children’s show host. They have an infectious enthusiasm for their subject and an obvious sense of fun that makes students want to learn. My third grade teachers, Mrs. Bittel and Mrs. Gottung shared this trait, though Mrs. Gottung was willing to take my doodle paper away to make me focus better. Of course she made up for this later by letting me create a series of dittos teaching the other students how to draw cartoons.

There is a similar spectrum of unhappy teachers. There are the gruff, negative teachers who seem to resent the fact that there are even students in the building, who seem to criticize you not to improve you, but to make you know you will never measure up. There are even some teachers who might appear to be “teaching happy” on the surface, but who are basically cynical about the students. They hand out treats and have lots of fun in class (at least on the surface), but they aren’t really concerned about whether learning is taking place. This is not what I mean by teaching happy.

Ultimately, it is not appearances that count, but what powers your teaching, and this is where the reformers have gotten it so wrong.

I suppose it goes back to the old idea of Hard America/Soft America, explored by Michael Baron in his 2004 book. There is a perception that American schools have grown too “soft” in their approach, coddling kids and giving lessons in self-esteem, and not demanding anything of them. Perhaps in some places that is the case, but in their desire to get rid of the Soft approach to learning that leaves kids pleased with themselves but not very bright, the reformers have gone for the Hard approach in an all out, no holds barred kind of way.

The Hard approach seems to have a couple of components. First, what goes on in classrooms must be rigorous. I’ll leave Rigor for a later post– I’m about to draw some comic strips about it. More important to the idea of teaching happy is the second component of Hard approach education: motivation, which in the reformers’ world seems to amount to DO THIS, OR PAY THE CONSEQUENCES.

In other words, the Hard approach is negative.

The main tool of this negative, Hard approach, is testing, because testing is seen as Hard. Hard data. No wimpy ambiguity, creativity, or touch feely stuff. Black and white, one and zero, easy to analyze, easy to use as a tool of punishment and reward.

Once this tool is put into place, schools become places of negative energy. Teachers feel pressured to get higher scores, and to teach only what will improve those scores. Their enthusiasm and sense of fun is drained away.

This negative energy is, of course, passed on to students. Because their teachers are powered by stress and fear of failure, they too become powered that way. Individual schools, the entire system really, has all become negatively powered, by stress, by fear, by risk aversion. This is where the Hard approach, all by itself, breaks down.

What we are seeing now is a new kind of unhappy teacher. The new unhappy teacher is a teacher who used to be happy, used to be enthusiastic, used to be motivated by love of her subject and love of her students. But now she’s motivated by stress and fear of being fired, and learning is defined only by what improves test scores.

Powered by negativity alone, all teachers become unhappy teachers. All teachers become… less good.

The reformers’ negative approach focused on getting rid of “bad teachers.” Maybe they should have looked at what good teachers did instead, and tried to build on that. The problem of course, is that good teachers do more than raise test scores, but these non-score-related things they do are not things that are not easily measured, so they don’t fit into a Hard approach mentality.

But if the reformers were really concerned with students and improving schools, they might have asked good teachers what motivated them. They might have tried looking into current ideas about motivation. If they had, they might have found out what Daniel Pink did in his research for his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. They might have found out what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered in his decades long work into human motivation and happiness. 

They would have discovered that carrots and sticks are not the best motivators, and may actually undermine motivation. They would have discovered that having a sense of autonomy, mastery, and purpose are more motivating than threats and bribes, and that threats and bribes actually undermine autonomy, mastery, and purpose. They would have discovered that people do their best when they are in a state called flow, where they are intensely focused on the task at hand, and that worrying about test scores actually distracts you from the real work of teaching and prevents flow from happening.

Powering teachers with stress has very practical implications. When you are stressed, you are thinking about yourself, and your focus narrows inward. It makes it harder to make the connections with students that make learning happen. Also, when you are stressed, you tend to not think as creatively– which means you are less likely to find novel ways to deal with students’ learning difficulties. When you are feeling happy and expansive, it’s easier to think of a wider array of options for dealing with a given situation. There is research on this subject, but I’ve experienced it myself. I’ve always been good at coming up with great, engaging lessons. When I was depressed, my output of new ideas decreased dramatically. I focused on just holding onto the ideas I already had in place. Now that I’m over being depressed, the ideas are coming fast and furiously again. 

Of course, the reformers think creativity is Soft, and don’t value it. 

Powering teachers with stress ultimately affects our students, too. It sends the message that learning is so unappealing, such a terrible thing, that it must be forced upon you; that learning is not an activity to be embraced and treasured, but to be avoided for the drudgery it is. Stress just sends a bad message about learning – it is also directly, physically bad for learning. Stress hormones negatively affect cognition and memory; this obviously impedes learning. Teachers who really want their students to learn will create an classroom climate that is primarily positive. It is hard for teachers to create a positive climate when they themselves are being bombarded with negativity.

Teaching Happy means, quite simply, being powered by love of your subject and love for your students; being powered by enthusiasm and joy, not stress and fear. Teaching happy does not mean teaching easy or just making people feel good about themselves. Look at some of our most creative, successful businesses like Pixar, and what you find is a culture that is extremely positive and creative, but also extremely willing to be critical of its own work and to push to higher levels of achievement, but not out of a sense of stress, but out of enthusiasm. When you care about something, you want to do it well. 

Pixar made its own metaphor for this idea in 2001 when it produced Monsters, Inc. At the start of the film, the monster society is powered by the screams it generates from scaring children – by negative energy. When the screams start to die out as children become more sophisticated, the monster-reformers’ solution is to suck the screams out of them with a machine. Even more negative energy. What our heroes discover, though, is that laughter, positive energy, is more powerful than screams ever were. 

By changing the way they operate, they get more energy than ever, and they turn children’s worlds from places of fear to places of laughter and joy. If only we could learn to use the same kind of energy to power our schools, our teachers, and our children with enthusiasm, joy, and love instead of pressure, stress, and fear.

In the meantime, the best thing we teachers can do is to take back our own positive energy, and teach out out of our joy, to pass love of learning on to our students. The best thing we can do for our students is to Teach Happy.