Schools As Places of Joy: We Are Responsible For the Cultures That We Create

“Why are our schools not places of joy? Because too many of us respond to outrageous edicts by saying, ‘Fine.'” – Alfie Kohn.

In his book, At What Cost?: Defending Adolescent Development In Fiercely Competitive Schools, psychologist David L. Gleason offers substantive evidence that there is something seriously amiss with the learning environments we have created for our young people. Despite the best intentions of educational leaders, students are typically processed through a system of educational compliance in an environment that is “frequently characterized as one big educational arms race.” There is an abundance of testimony that depicts schools as places bereft of joy, crucibles of profound stress and anxiety. Though educators want better for students, the tendency is still to relentlessly increase the levels of pressure on adolescents, with the result that they are exposed to these stresses at ever younger ages. Fireproof them in advance by exposing them to the pain that awaits later on, the flawed logic goes, and they’ll cope better. No one really believes this to be true. And we have a choice. Gleason reminds us of the wisdom of a colleague’s words. We are responsible for the cultures that we create.

Most educators believe that schools should be places of joy, this is why they enter the profession. So, where have we gone wrong? Gleason sums it up thus:

“In our shared efforts to educate and provide for our teenagers as effectively as we can … we seem to have gone too far. We have put the educational cart before the developmental horse and, in so doing, have lost sight of key aspects of our most important responsibility: to foster our teenagers’ healthy growth and development, which includes their sound and balanced education. Not only is that what our students expect of us, that is what we, their educators and their parents, collectively, at our most basic human level, want to give them.”

While educators tend to agree that learning contexts should be developmentally appropriate, schools have, increasingly, given way to what I term “preparation creep”, a phenomenon in which current levels of ability and achievement are illogically measured against future expectations and ominous pressures. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard judgments such as, “if he’s like this now, in 7th grade, I can’t imagine what he’ll be like in a few years, when it counts.” And there they are, the pernicious, toxic words. When it counts. For when does learning count? It depends on what we value, on what our priorities are. If we value developmentally-appropriate approaches and contexts for young people, nothing counts more than the here and now, nothing matters more than creating the human ecosystems and nurturing environments in which young people can grow and prosper at their own pace. This is not about lowering standards, coddling kids or protecting them from inevitable stress. I’ve worked with thousands of those 7th graders and you can never make assumptions about their development. In fact, we must protect them from assumptions and predictions. The very real crisis facing schools today is the dysfunctional thinking described by Rick Wormeli as:

“The sense that the primary purpose of each grade level is to prepare students for the next grade level ….Thinking that we have to enact the policies and practices of the grade levels above us in order to prepare our students for those levels is deeply flawed. Drawing from the factory metaphor, it is as if each station on the curriculum conveyor belt is built to make sure the products are ready for the next station on the conveyor belt.”

This is the world of pedantic mechanisms, designed by people who are not teachers, to measure where learners should be, how they will cope when it counts. Preparation Creep means that the here and now – the developmental realities of young people – are callously neglected. For Gleason, the response required is clear: “We must challenge ourselves to do things differently. We have a moral obligation … to reclaim our primary mission ‘to meet students where they are,’ ‘to educate our students in healthy and balanced ways,’ ‘to have healthy children above all else,’ and ‘to love our kids no matter what’ before this perfect storm gets any worse.”

Schools should be places of joy. Anything less is not fine. We should respond to edicts that compromise this obligation to our young people with nothing less than outrage. And this must take the form of the revolutionary courage described by Vicki Abeles. We must say out loud – against a tide of skepticism that mumbles “real world” excuses – that:

“Education is not a race. That busyness does not equal betterment. That a perfect transcript is not worth the cost of a lost childhood. And that no battery of tests can assess what most matters in life: Integrity. Determination. Empathy. Resourcefulness. Connectedness. A thirst for knowledge. Passion. Creativity. Adaptability. The aptitude to read not just books but also faces. Confidence and kindness. Respect. These are the qualities that adults who are truly prepared and engaged possess. They are beyond measure. And they are what we must actively cultivate in our children.”

We neglect this obligation at what cost?

We are responsible for the cultures that we create.

Kohn, Alfie. Feel-Bad Education: The Cult of Rigor and the Loss of Joy. Education Week. September 15, 2004.
Wormeli, Rick. We Have to Prepare Students for the Next Level, Don’t We? AMLE Magazine. February, 2017.
Gleason, David L. At What Cost?: Defending Adolescent Development In Fiercely Competitive Schools. Developmental Empathy LLC, 2017.
Abeles, Vicki. Beyond Measure: Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation. Simon & Schuster, 2016.

Image Credit: Photo by José Martín Ramírez C on Unsplash