Are You Sacrificing Your Joy and Playfulness?

I’m at the age where I think a lot about retirement. I’m not that close but many of my friends are either already retired or close to retirement. The other day I was talking with a doctor friend and it was somewhat of a heart-wrenching conversation. He described how he has been so consumed with his job and how he regrets how that has gone and the struggle he’s facing about if and when he can retire. It was a combination of a flawed system as well as his failings. I didn’t know what to say.

I don’t know anything about the medical profession and can’t imagine the times when you’re literally dealing with life and death. While it’s hard to relate to the life of a doctor, I did think about those in education who may face some similar challenges. It’s not hard to see that many educators are not thriving. They aren’t experiencing the joy of the profession and the system at times makes it difficult.

While I’ve spent the last decade or so talking about joy, I’m always somewhat hesitant with that message. I don’t know how much of it is based on individual experiences and circumstances. and how much of it is based on personal dispositions and personalities. I’m always suspect of anyone who tells you to “get over it” or “be happy”. I’ve always prefaced my message but saying, I’ll share my experience and I trust you can determine what and if it applies to you.

What I can tell you is that when it comes to my relationship with my work, joy has always won. I’ve certainly been blessed to work with people and organizations that have supported me for the most part. But there have certainly been times when it’s been difficult, when people have been challenging when I’ve felt like quitting. Like everyone, it takes time to get over those moments but I think because I decided a long time ago that play and joy were not ideas that were only for the young they are the basis of who I am today. There’s no question that the amount of time I’m able to spend with my grandchildren makes this much easier but I know even before that, I knew these things mattered. When I wrote my book, it was before any grandchildren and it was my desire to help educators get back to their own childhood and keep it with them. I’m still committed to that work and am grateful for any opportunity I have to share that message. While I’ve been doing it for a while, I forget the message remains and in fact is likely more important to share as time goes on.

I used to think this was just about a lack of joy but it’s also about the need to justify our existence through our work. Many times those that either act like work is the most important thing or think that work is the most important thing sacrifice joy and play in pursuit of…I don’t know what. Unlike my doctor friend we rarely are dealing with life and death issues in education and while I know many things are serious, I’m not willing to take myself that serious.

I was prompted to write this after a friend shared this video with me. It is eerily similar to the doctor friend shared with me and it serves as a reminder to remain playful and joyful no matter what age we are or what we do. It’s not easy but it’s what I believe makes for a beautiful life.

Who is Thriving?

For the regular readers I have, you may have noticed an increase of late in my blogging. This is not a result of any resolution or real intention but likely a by-product of less time and engagement on social channels and a desire to better flesh out my thinking and ideas and seek out those interested in providing more thoughtful feedback and interaction.

It’s obvious to anyone that education right now is a tough place to be. I suppose that’s true for many industries and organizations but any data, report or story you hear says education is not a profession that is very appealing. We all can list a number of factors, many outside of our control, some are long-standing systemic challenges and others might be new due to societal unrest. I can tell you my colleagues and I at ALP are working to support communities with long-term solutions around workplace wellness and leadership specifically to work towards a better future.

But no matter the challenges and circumstances, there are always those who thrive. This is essentially the definition of a positive deviant. Positive deviants are folks who have the same resources as others and yet succeed and thrive while the majority of those around them do not. They typically use uncommon approaches but also are likely unaware of their approaches as they assume others are doing the same things they are. They’re the ones who, when you ask them about something that’s working well, often have difficulty identifying what it is they’re doing. I’ve been seeking these folks for decades.

So today I’m more curious than ever, about which educators are thriving. Which teachers, principals and leaders are excited about their work, feel energized and satisfied with the work they’re doing? Obviously, this doesn’t mean they are oblivious to the challenges that exist. They aren’t toxically positive but overall they love their work AND would encourage others to join them. This speaks to the fact that they don’t see themselves as special or different than their colleagues. They assume anyone can feel the same way they do about this work.

If you fall into that category, please share. If you don’t but know someone who does, either tell them to post something and share or maybe you can speculate on their behalf. I’m not simply curious about who is thriving but why. What is it about your circumstances and situation that is giving you hope? What have you done to get there? What are others doing around you to support you? And finally but of lesser importance, what uncontrollable events or circumstances have impacted you and your workplace?

Protecting the Sacredness of Childhood

A major theme of my work over the past few years has been a push back to the efforts to accelerate children to become adults. This is an extremely challenging and nuanced conversation. On the one hand, we know children are typically anxious to get older and become adults. We foster some of that with conversations about “changing the world” and becoming “future-ready”.

The expectations we’ve placed on children, I believe are contributing factors to the increase in anxiety and stress among young people. On the other hand, we have a responsibility to prepare students to become healthy, contributing adults. But I think we might be leaning too far in one direction at the cost of them losing out on what it means to be a kid.

Not every child gets the full experience and not everyone agrees on what the childhood experience should be. However, I think it’s pretty universal that these formative years need to be full of wonder, innocence, exploration, and a gradual increase in responsibility. So many factors determine how much each of these tenets is preserved, many of which schools and even parents have little control over. Today’s world is a constant barrage of messages that exposes children to adult themes and issues at a far younger age and with far more intensity than ever. We all are aware of the source of these messages and the challenge of balancing access with safety. Once again, it’s complex. But I wonder if schools might take a more active role in preserving and honoring the sacredness of childhood. What if we truly believed that this time in a human’s life is so precious that would actively work towards ensuring that children get the full benefits of a healthy childhood? Here are a few suggestions that I think may be helpful in protecting childhood:

No grades until high school. I’d probably argue for no grades period, but at least ensuring that a child’s first 13-14 years of life can be grade-free. We pretty much have a universal agreement that grades shouldn’t happen until at least grade 1 and many have postponed that further. To those who think this doesn’t mirror the real world, what is the correct age to begin evaluating students’ work? It seems arbitrary at best. When I look at effective sports programs, the goal is skill development and engagement in the sport. Competition is fine and can be a good thing but it should be relatively low stakes and invitational. Kids are being forced to compete on something they never asked to and I believe this contributes to the mindset of “will this be on the test?” rather than the love of learning. A good learning experience should provide enough opportunities and evidence of success and failure that it’s intuitive for the learning and they don’t require an adult to write a number or letter on a paper to determine their level of achievement.

More cross-grade interaction. I have no better mechanism to remind me of the precious nature of childhood than the time I spend with my preschool grandchildren. Watching little ones interact with the world can take us back to a time when we saw the world more simply. Children that don’t have younger siblings, pass by early childhood and transition into adolescence at such a pace they forget that only a few years ago they were playing with Lego and dolls. Having older students work regularly with younger students provides a sense of community and empathy but I’m looking at the added bonus of subtly reminding teens that they used to be 6. I fondly recall doing this with my first-grade class and a group of 8th graders and allowing them to play on the playground together. You could see the looks on the young teens’ faces who were being reminded of the joy of going down a slide and swinging on the monkey bars. Kids need to know that playing with Lego and dolls has no age limit.

More play or experiential days. Similar to the idea above but a concerted effort to get creative in providing experiences that focus on play. While there will be those who argue, that this should be embedded into the daily experience, there is something important around school-wide events that once again build community and culture. Gary Stager talks about introducing things to children that they don’t know yet that they love. This is a time to widen the horizon of childhood.

No homework. Lots have been said about this and the research, particularly around elementary students is clear. Given we already have children scheduled to death with extra-curricular activities, schools don’t need to pile on. I don’t think I went to a particularly progressive elementary school in the 1970s but I rarely remember having homework. After school was for pickup games and the odd ABC after-school special.

Watch your messaging. This is really tricky. I’m thinking specifically about the messages around “changing the world”. I’m thinking about placing the burden on children to solve world hunger, climate issues, and racism. I know young people can do great things and even within these big problems, young people and children can lead and create significant change. There is a time when natural curiosity and opportunity exist to address big problems. But the degree to which we inadvertently suggest they are the ones who should fix these problems can be a contributing factor to a loss of innocence and indeed their childhood.

Like all of us, but especially children, they need to experience beauty, play, wonder, and time and space to get to know the world around them and make sense of it without being told about all the dangers and evil that exists. That comes soon enough and there is no shortage of information to support that perspective.

As you can well assume, the influence of my grandkids has helped shape and solidify my beliefs about learning and life. Keeping in mind, that while it’s easy to think that childhood ends at adolescence, it’s just as important to protect them as teenagers as well. The acceleration to adulthood is a speeding train that’s nearly impossible to slow down but don’t you think it’s worth it? You only get to be 7 once. (Insert any number you like). What might we do as educators, leaders, and parents to preserve the sacredness of childhood? More than anything, I’d love for this post to start an honest conversation for you, your school, and your students.

From Despair to Hope

No matter who you are or where you’re from, the past few years have done some damage. It’s by no means the same for all of us and I count myself as one of the fortunate ones in so many respects. Yet even as fortunate as I am, every once in a while I find myself going down the rabbit hole of despair. Whether it’s the implications of the pandemic, political unrest, the rise of conspiracy theories, racial injustices, climate change, and the list goes on. Then there are the stories of friends and connections who have been hit hard by these things and it becomes more personal. Some days any of these issues weigh heavy and depending on who you are listening to, reading, or watching, it can make these seem insurmountable. You can certainly make the case that these issues are unresolvable and over time that mindset and consumption of fear and dread can lead anyone into some level of depression.

It’s partly due to our extra time to linger and wade in murky waters of sadness and negativity and partly due to the endless stream of voices more than willing to feed your fears, it’s at times difficult to see any hope or light. I can’t and won’t ignore these issues but I also can’t and won’t spend my precious and limited time on this earth wallowing in despair. So I think about what small contributions I might make to bring joy, delight, and hope into the lives of others. I believe that’s my thing, some would say calling. My job is a great conduit to do that and no matter who I work for it’s been increasingly my MO. While on the surface my work is couched in academic pursuits around assessment, engagement, technology, leadership, and curriculum, I view those as simple conversation starters to what I’m really offering…hope and joy. At times that seems lofty and maybe even arrogant that I think I can be a vessel that brings hope and joy to folks but while I’m not always sure to what degree I can foster that, it is what I think I need to do. My belief is that community, curiosity, and conversations are the foundations for joyful learning.

When we consider how divided we are as a society in so many ways, I think about how we can double down on the unfair advantage schools have in bringing diverse people together. Spending any time on social media and even mainstream media there are few if any spaces were meaningful, intelligent, and honest discourse takes place. Every approach I see is about how to denigrate and vilify others and bolster arguments. Very few reach a point of at least understanding other points of view. I recognize it’s complicated and some are choosing to remain vigilant in their worldview. Many have given up on those who view the world differently and have bought into a belief that polarization is inevitable. However, I have not and perhaps I’m naive but this is my approach and it’s one I’ll continue to advocate for in the pursuit of joyful learning.

Curiosity: For me, this is lumped into ideas of engagement and it’s in large part at the core of what it means to be human. To ask really good questions and wonder without always seeking solutions or answers. It’s also about acknowledging all the things you don’t know. I want to create spaces where asking questions, even ones with difficult and unknown answers take priority over what is known. See also the Dunning-Krueger effect. In some instances curiosity trumps literacy when it comes to reducing tribalism. Curiosity is fueled when we know enough to know we don’t know very much.

Community: This is the core of why we have schools. Not to instill knowledge or even curiosity, but to learn and live socially. Again, you can disagree but this is my belief. The past few years is making this clear. Celebrating being and learning from each other is a true gift. The best part of my work is learning from others. While I enjoy spending time with others who share my interests, I find it equally delightful to learn from those who come from a different space. This is largely how I’ve been introduced to issues and ideas that aren’t in my daily life. I’m grateful for that kind of community that challenges me.

Conversation: This is perhaps where curiosity and community merge. Once I’ve been able to share my curiosities and spend time in community, I naturally have a space where deeper learning can occur. That sentence represents an extremely complex and challenging thing to build but it is something I believe is what schools can do and should do. In Canada, schools are working hard to try and address the inequities and racism that our Indigenous people have and are experiencing. Admittedly, it’s not easy work but I’m grateful to know so many are making this a priority. And as important as it is, it is not just about a select group of people. It’s about hope for the future where we work towards a community that lives and works together with understanding and appreciation.

As naive as all this might sound, I do recognize it sounds like I’m seeking world peace. I write all of this as a reminder to myself of why I get up in the morning and try to design meaningful experiences for those I serve. I’m well aware of our limitations and my own small contributions won’t make much of a dent in these colossal issues. But I do have hope in pursuing a remarkable life, a life that experiences joyful learning through curiosity, community, and conversation. I think schools can do this as well.

Why Am I Still Using Social Media?

Since the inception of social media which emerged in and around 2005-07, it has gone from something as silly and useless to essential and powerful to dangerous and divisive. Perhaps all of those elements remain in some respects but certainly, the danger and divisiveness is the dominant narrative. If you’ve watched The Social Dilemma or done any other extensive reading, you’re quite aware of the harm it has and continues to cause our society. There isn’t a current issue that isn’t ripe for controversy, misinformation and vitriol. We’re overheating everywhere.

When I joined Twitter in 2007, it was definitely a silly and seemingly useless space. There were no such thing as followers, hashtags or mentions. As someone interested in the power of connectivity and networking, I found it to be a fantastic way to find interesting people. While some were already using it as a space to share serious and useful content, I just wanted to get to know others. As an educator is was a virtual staff room. A place where educators would come together to try and get away from the challenges of teaching but like any teacher will revert back to the job and look for support from colleagues. When I did work in schools, my personality was such that I tended to be the one to lighten the mood. I intentionally would tell stories about my family and life that usually had me as the butt of the joke. As a group we also loved sharing stories of students that were generally endearing and funny. It was rare that we shared stories that demeaned students. I was fortunate to spend my career surrounded largely by caring, thoughtful educators who loved children. But I also found a role to create a culture of joy and laughter. As I gained confidence in my own leadership, I began to see this more clearly and purposefully over the course of my career.

This same disposition is what I tried to do with my social media experience. Early on, this was pretty easy and it was the way I began to connect and relate to people from around the world. I think one advantage of those early days was its lack of status and metrics. Everyone was equal and I think it made things less competitive as there was nothing to compete for. Over time, of course, it did become more structured and promoted as a place to share resources and ideas. This wasn’t something that was particularly exciting to me as my resource and ideas were coming from longer form sharing via blogs or subscriptions to others’ bookmarks. But Twitter and Facebook (I’ve never used this much for professional purposes) began to evolve and become more mainstream and my viewing it as a “virtual staffroom” began to dissolve. I realize many were able to maintain it’s purpose and value, I was not. As a result, I would occasionally venture into political and educational tweets that were nothing more than my version of the “airing of grievances“. Even my more thoughtful questions and wonderings often had divisive qualities to them. The bottom line is I wasn’t staying true to my nature of building a culture of joy.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t want to engaged in deeper conversations about education and politics. I do. But in the same way that barging into the staffroom and going on a rant about something was usually seen as inappropriate, I don’t want to do that anymore. Again, it’s not about ignoring issues or toxic positivity but rather protecting spaces. When certain staff began to dominate and bring their grievances and problems into the staffroom during a 15 minute break, we would see others choose to stay in their rooms. On the occasion I was perceptive enough to notice this shift, I would work hard to change the narrative and return the space to a time where we could rest, laugh and be re-energized.

And yet it’s become more difficult for me to make Twitter great again. I would blame the platform for much of it and it’s also about how folks choose to use it. I don’t blame anyone for wanting to voice their opinions. debate and change people’s minds. There are examples for sure of how social media has influenced and supported change both positively and negatively. Some would argue it’s my privilege that allows me to avoid these conversations. Perhaps, but as I said, I’m not opposed to having hard conversations in fact I welcome it but hard converations, in my opinion, require relationships and spaces where ideas can be shared in full and civil discourse is prized and promoted. I don’t think social media is that place.

All that to say, while I understand why many have deleted their accounts I still find value and take pride in making someone smile. That’s not a small thing. Laughter and joy are something we’re running short of and my privilege and blessings suggest I share them with the world. This doesn’t mean I never ask a question or tweet something more serious. I just want to be more careful that it doesn’t divide but encourages. But my best work comes from sharing my grandkids, sports, my wonderful marriage and my own unique sense of humour. I want to believe social media can still do the things I thought it could do in 2007. Connect me with smart folks and provide a space for me to share joyful things.

If you don’t follow me on Twitter, here’s a treat for you.

I can’t do much for folks during this really challenging time but maybe i can bring a smile or two to the world. I’ll take that as a decent contribution. These comments today validate my efforts. Thank you.