Joy Oozed From My Classroom When I Was a Teacher. As a Principal, I’m...

Voices | Teaching and Learning

Joy Oozed From My Classroom When I Was a Teacher. As a Principal, I’m Carrying That With Me.

By Damen Scott     Aug 15, 2023

Joy Oozed From My Classroom When I Was a Teacher. As a Principal, I’m Carrying That With Me.

This story was published by a Voices of Change fellow. Learn more about the fellowship here.

When I came to Achievement First Brooklyn High School eight years ago as the ninth grade literature teacher, it was my fourth year of teaching and my first time in a school that was unapologetically rooted in the “no excuses” model, which centers a results-driven culture that prioritizes strict behavioral procedures and academic policies.

Merits and demerits managed our students more than authentic relationships steeped in compassion and empathy. Excellence had a certain aesthetic: black shoes, buttoned- up shirts, dark pants and ties. As a teacher, I was held to standards that didn’t reflect my culture, experience or personal learning style. During a classroom walk-through, I was wearing a jean jacket over my shirt and tie, and was given the feedback that my attire was “not professional" and told to take it off. No one said anything about my instruction or interaction with my kids.

At my school, our students completed tasks as told and begrudgingly complied to requests from teachers and school leaders like, “Sit up straight,” “We are silent,” and “Move with urgency.” This was ineffective. We still had behavioral challenges, which we later realized were largely due to our overreliance on removals and suspensions — and our standardized test scores lagged behind peer schools in our network. Most importantly, our students were unhappy with their learning experience and they started speaking out about it.

During the 2019-20 school year, in response to racial unrest and protests around the United States, Black students and alumni across the country shared about their negative experiences in majority-white elite institutions on “Black at” Instagram pages. Many of our students, who are predominantly Black and Latino, found that these posts resonated and decided to participate in the movement by publishing blog posts about surviving charter school, exposing some of the harmful racist, classist and ableist practices they experienced in school.

Reading their words was like applying eye drops. The initial sting was followed by an immense sense of clarity and relief. These students verbalized what I was scared to say out loud with so much authenticity and conviction. I was moved. I was also grateful that my students didn’t have these negative experiences in my literature class. I built strong relationships with students and families, managed my classes with relative ease and really loved my content — and my students felt it.

What distinguished my teaching, and what led to my students’ academic success and their strong sense of belonging was the joy that oozed from my classroom walls, even within the framework of the "no excuses" model. The students I served were happy to be in the room and I was learning how to create the conditions to ensure they were happy every day.

Then the world shut down. My classroom became a Zoom box and I found myself at a critical juncture, deeply reflecting on my purpose and career. I kept asking myself, "Who am I? What makes me happy? How will I make a difference?" Then, during the height of the pandemic and before our return to in-person instruction, an opportunity arose to apply for a school leadership position and I seized it. In July 2022, I became the principal of my high school.

I had mixed feelings about it. One one hand, it seemed like it could allow me to scale my work to the broader school community. But it was a difficult time. We were still adhering to strict COVID-19 policies and guidelines, such as quarantining and contact tracing. Our staff was attempting to restore some sense of normalcy and structure for our students, but many of us were still processing the loss of loved ones. It felt like I signed up to move mountains and raise valleys. And in a sense, I did.

The pandemic illuminated and exacerbated many of the social, racial and economic inequities that have led to the educational disparities in public school classrooms.

Our students struggled academically, socially and emotionally. We saw a decrease in standardized test scores and curriculum-based reading assessment scores, an increase in negative coping behaviors and a clear need for more mental health resources for our students.

It was clear we needed to make some changes.

To transform academic and social results, my team and I decided to intentionally center joy in our school culture and to prioritize making decisions rooted in equity and culturally relevant practices. This shift has been critical for our community.

Our movement away from the "no excuses" model has created a culture where more staff and students are happy to be in the room, but it has been a journey that has required both a personal and organizational mindset shift.

How Developing a Culture of Joy Moved Our School Forward

While the past few years have been a period of uncertainty and ambiguity, they have centered my spirit and given purpose to my career.

As a teacher, I was focused on accelerating student growth in the midst of societal inequity, political unrest and restrictive educational philosophies by making my classroom a joyous place to learn. As a principal, I realize that my staff, just like my students, are better able to navigate challenging circumstances when the environment is a joyous place to be.

But to center joy in our school community, we had to develop a shared language to talk about joy and align on some goals.

First, we did our homework. There has been plenty of research that proves workplace happiness is directly linked to worker productivity, and a growing body of research that suggests this happiness must come from one’s own sense of self-satisfaction and worthiness.

My leadership team and I asked ourselves what conditions needed to be set in order for each staff member and each student to feel seen, heard and valued within our community. We discovered that developing a joyful culture required a blend of positive mindsets, thoughtful choices and equitable systems that created an experience that compelled staff to return and families to stay.

It was obvious that the “no excuses” model our school once subscribed to had caused harm. Our hope was that by centering joy, we could address it and make some changes moving forward. We established a culture of reflection by creating intentional space to think more deeply about our values and purpose for educating our students, particularly our Black and Latino youth. Two key members of our team stepped up to lead us in initiating more conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion. In turn, we were becoming more self-aware, more thoughtful about the way we perceived our community and ourselves, and more comfortable relating our life experiences to our work. To create the conditions for joy, we had to be extremely empathetic and sensitive to the human experience — and that started with the staff.

Creating conditions that promoted joy for adults and young people in our community has had results.

Over time, we used these takeaways to craft more inclusive school policies. For example, our pre-pandemic uniform policy reinforced gender bias, providing little room for personal expression. It did not reflect the diversity nor the developmental stages of our student body, and was often the root cause for negative teacher-student interactions and consequences.

Recognizing that school uniforms are a hotly debated topic, we dug into research about the benefits and drawbacks and ultimately decided that we needed some change. Using guidance on equitable uniform policies from schools that had gone before us, we expanded our options to include gender-neutral clothing items like hoodies, joggers, polos and pullovers and were more thoughtful about our feedback regarding length and fit. Then we revised our response to uniform infractions, working more with our families instead of issuing demerits on the spot.

These revisions decreased uniform noncompliance, reduced negative feelings about bodily policing previously expressed by some students, and empowered our students with more autonomy. In classrooms, teachers were no longer required to “look out” for uniform offenders and could focus on facilitating rigorous classroom instruction and maintaining positive interactions with students.

With more students receiving feedback centered around their learning rather than their appearance, our lunch and after-school detention programs were nearly empty and our team was able to utilize the time to provide office hours for students instead.

Our school’s uniform policy is only one example of change, but it didn’t stop there. We virtually eliminated classroom removals and repeat suspensions. We increased our organizational health survey results and most critically, students and staff started bringing their whole selves to school.

As principal, I am inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” There is no doubt that we are at a pivotal point in public education given the unpredictability of the times. The teacher shortage looms, school safety remains a concern , politics is interfering with curriculum and it appears the achievement gap may be widening.

When we prioritize joy, make it a core value and consistently champion the conditions needed to experience it, students and staff feel more seen and valued and a stronger foundation is set for success, even in the face of the challenges we’re facing.

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