February: the month of Valentines and chocolate, love and flowers. For many educators, though, February is a long month spent in the slow descent towards testing season, and we can certainly feel tested! Typically, it is our patience and grace that gets tested, by students, by bosses or co-workers, or by parents … or all of them at once! Have you, too, lost your loving feeling at work? Looking for ways to rekindle the joy and love you have that brought you to this noble profession in the first place? The good news is, you can rediscover your love and purpose; it isn’t gone for good, it’s oftentimes just buried under some heavy day-to-day challenges that easily block the joy from our sight. So if your joy is out of sight and out of mind, read on to learn ways you can rekindle your passion for meaningful work.
“Joy has many definitions and synonyms,” write Jen Schwanke and Tracey R. Deagle in a recent ASCD online blog, Can We Still Find Joy in Teaching? “We can feel joy as a physical response, with our bodies flushing, relaxing, and giving us a rush of dopamine. It can also be a kind of mental peace, elation, happiness, or deep gratitude… Joy is a place to be. It happens now. It is a personal, intimate, precise moment with oneself.” So if joy can mean so many things to so many people, how do we rediscover our joy, especially if we’ve forgotten what it looks or feels like?
Schwanke and Deagle remind us that our language is a powerful tool to help us reframe our mindset — from “I have to” to “I get to.” Instead of “I have to go to work today,” tell yourself “I get to go to work today!” It’s a subtle shift in language but an impactful shift in mindset, moving us from the weight of responsibility to the freedom of privilege. Re-phrasing each have to thought to a get to thought develops into a habit, and gradually impacts our emotional state to help us feel cheerier and more joyful. Schwanke and Deagle suggest, “Instead of, ‘I can’t believe we still have ten weeks until summer break,’ we can say, ‘I get ten more weeks with my students.’”
Reflecting on what brings you joy and where you find support is also a key factor in rediscovering your joy at work. You might also reflect on what takes your joy away from you. Do you find yourself complaining in the staff room about your students? Do you hear your colleagues do the same, or bemoan their students’ laziness or lack of care? Do you allow yourself to wallow in these negative feelings, or do you seek to provide an alternate narrative? Take some time to ask yourself questions such as,
- “What do I love about teaching? Am I doing enough of this right now? How can I create more time and space to engage in what I love about teaching?”
- “What am I doing to connect with my students? My colleagues? Might I be more intentional about creating authentic personal connections at work?”
- “When I’m feeling frustrated, angry, overwhelmed or sad, do I know what preceded these feelings that might have triggered them? Is there something about my response that I have control over?”
Psychologist Rebecca Newton outlines in a 2021 HBR article four practices you can implement right now to help you rekindle your joy at work. The first is to Build your strengths into your day. Newton says, “Some positive psychology scholars posit that our strengths can be catalysts to cultivating joy. These strengths are your natural energizers, and building them into your working day can give you a big boost.” First identify what strengths you have at work and how you feel when engaged in them, similar to the reflection activity mentioned above. Then, find ways to build those joyful moments into your day. If your strength is conferencing one-on-one with students, how might you create more opportunities to do that?
A second practice, according to Newton, is to Focus on your professional growth. “Ethnographic research into how children learn shows that the joy of learning results from the effort they put in — from persistent work through difficulties that leads to success in achieving meaningful goals…Working hard towards important goals and courageously overcoming impediments can fulfill a need to learn in the context of your profession and refresh your passion on the job.” Have you established professional goals you’d like to work towards this year? It’s never too late to set a goal and strive towards achieving it. It’s often a joyful practice to set goals alongside your students and colleagues!
The third and fourth practices are both about connection and relationships, and align to what a lot of researchers say helps us defend ourselves against depression. Practice three is to Share with a trusted colleague, and practice four is to Rebuild relationships at work. Again, Newton states, “Joy is not just an individual phenomenon; it’s also what psychologists call “affiliative,” which means that it has to do with strengthening our bonds with others through positive behaviors such as being kind and friendly or actively peace-making. Some psychologists even conceptualize joy as our response to being in a situation that we feel will bring us closer to people who are important to us… Identify a few people you trust to open up to at work. Reflect on what’s happened and how you’ve experienced the last year. Reveal what was challenging but also what you’re grateful for. (Some evidence suggests that gratitude and joy may mutually enforce each other.)”
You don’t have to engage in each of these practices in order to rekindle your joy. Start with just one thing. Just one practice to help dispel the darkness you might feel some days and shed a little sunshine into your heart and soul. Now is the time to intentionally seek out joy, because the alternative is bleak: if we don’t invest in our own joy for our own work, then we are essentially choosing to leave this noble profession, and none of us — our schools, our state, our nation — can afford that.