As you enter Mrs. Miner’s sixth grade classroom you notice all students are on task. While they are spread out everywhere, they’re engaged in the learning target set forth by the teacher. Moreover, everyone seems happy! Students sit close to one another, smile often, and their quiet whispers are often punctuated by laughter.
When Mrs. Miner needs her class’ attention, she rings a bell and raises her hand. In seconds, all students but one turn toward her. Mrs. Miner politely asks the one student who has not come to attention to please follow directions. The student apologizes and looks at Mrs. Miner. She shares information with the students and asks for volunteers to summarize the work they have done. Many hands shoot up, as students are eager to share. In sharing, students are attentive, ask each other follow-up questions, make connections with one another, and often laugh (Platt, 2019).
What distinguishes the above classroom from less perfect learning spaces? Mrs. Miner has created a culture of learning, pairing hard work and joy, that permeates all tasks and moves. My new book, Working Hard, Working Happy: Cultivating a Climate of Effort and Joy in the Classroom will show you how to do this very thing! Get started now with the simple tips and hints below.
1. Laugh With Your Class!
Taking the time to let loose and laugh is critical to the climate of the classroom, and your own well-being. Even when they’re not funny, jokes are fun! I started each unit with a joke in 7th grade language arts. For example, before I started a study of science fiction, I told the following joke:
I went to visit my husband in his man-cave. Among the piles of papers, books, and balled up dirty laundry, I found a creature lying dead on the floor. My husband said, “It’s an alien.” I replied, “It must have been a brain-sucker. Too bad he found your room first - he starved to death!”
In addition to the giggles, outright laughter (and some groans), I had every student’s eyes on me when I said, “Guess what genre we’re going to study next?”
2. Do Less But Do it Better
Whenever possible, remove an assignment. Rigor does not mean doing more, it means appropriately challenging. For students to work hard and do their best, we have to make sure that the tasks we ask them to do are worth doing, and we must allocate enough time for that assignment to hold students to a high standard of quality work.
We simply cannot allow students to turn in less than their best efforts. When teachers accept low quality written work, they send powerful but most certainly inadvertent messages, like:
- Quality doesn’t matter.
- I don’t have to do my best.
- This assignment isn’t important enough for me to work hard on it.
- My teacher doesn’t think I can do any better.
- My teacher doesn’t care about spelling, punctuation, or neatness.
Conversely, when we ask students to do less, better, we send the following messages:
- Quality matters.
- My teacher believes in me.
- This assignment is important.
- If I try hard I can do excellent work.
3. Breed Success
If students are to work hard and be happy they have to see themselves as successful and capable of mastering content. Here are some ways to encourage and highlight success in your classroom:
- Celebrate successes and post student work.
- Even older students can get a kick out of a sticker or a star when they’ve done excellent work. Two-minute dance parties, a handwritten note, or just a pat on the back can all go a long way.
- Call parents and share positive stories about their children.
- Carry your cell phone in your pocket and call or text when someone does something amazing. When students consent to it, calling parents on the spot and in front of the entire class is fun, exciting, and motivating!
- Flip “failure on its head.”
- Teach students that failure is an often inevitable part of eventual success. I tell my students to think of FAIL as an acronym that stands for First Attempt In Learning.
- Emphasize the power of “yet”!
- Remind students: learning is incremental. When students claim they “can’t” do this or that, add the word yet to the proclamation. For example, if a student says, “I can’t figure out the answer,” ask her/him to say, “I can’t figure out the answer, yet!”
- Celebrate successes and post student work.
Remember, success breeds success, and success is a powerful motivator when it comes to hard working students.
4. Teach Growth Mindset
Growth mindset refers to the theory that intelligence and ability are changeable, rather than fixed. Dr. Carol Dweck (2017) concluded that people could actually make themselves smarter through effort, in fact, people have seen their IQ scores raised by several points! We need to convince ourselves and our students that every human being is capable of actually growing their intelligence. This is important for motivation. If students and their teachers have growth mindsets, they are inherently motivated to achieve more.
One important aspect of growth mindset is praising effort over ability. Instead of calling students “smart” when they do well, try saying, “Well done! You worked hard on this!”
Another is emphasizing the power of "yet." Teach students to add that little word to their vocabulary. When a student is frustrated that she can’t seem to figure out long division, have her say, “I don’t get long division YET.” Continually reminding learners that they can and will “get it” with time, effort, and practice even when things are hard.
5. Brand Your Classroom
The concept of “branding” has been around in the business world for years, but has only recently made its way into education circles. Branding is the practice of developing a unique identity for your product – in this case, your classroom. When something is branded, hearing its name immediately generates pictures in your mind, with positive and very specific associations. For instance, “TED Talks,” might remind you of thought-provoking speeches.
Brands are powerful and shape the way we think. Teachers can harness that power by developing a brand identity for the classroom. Those brands can drive students to work harder, achieve more, and enjoy school more.
My brand statement is below. I have used it in every classroom where I taught.
In Mrs. Platt’s classroom we work hard, we have fun, and we learn.
Once you develop a brand, continually incorporate it into your classroom talk, discussions, and daily interactions. Use it as a platform to discuss why you do things as you do.
In my class, I might start a lesson by saying, “Today we’re going to read an article on the rock cycle. It’s a challenging text, but I know you’ll all do fine because you always work so hard to learn! The article is super interesting, so it’ll be fun to read.”
Every teacher wants their classroom to hum with happy energy and hardworking students, growing and learning. I believe every teacher can cultivate that climate of effort and joy. Try the tips above and if you like them, try Working Hard, Working Happy: Cultivating a Climate of Effort and Joy in the Classroom. You’ll learn so much!