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March 1, 2018
Vol. 75
No. 6

Joyful Leadership in Practice

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Four steps leaders can take to become positive mentors and enact a happy and productive school culture.

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Leadership
Research shows that our happiness as human beings leads to greater success and higher achievement (Lyumbomirsky, King, & Diner, 2005). When school leaders understand that fact and embrace it, their schools often exude positive energy. They are the kinds of schools where bold artwork lines the hallways. Where students browse the library books that are current Caldecott Award contenders, trying to decide for which picture book they should cast their vote. Where teachers know the value of making mistakes and learning from them. Where, just maybe, on a Friday morning, you might hear the guidance counselor over the loudspeaker encourage everyone—even the family members who've come to volunteer—to have a quick dance party to Pharell Williams's "Happy."
As teacher-educators, we work in a variety of preK–12 schools where we teach field-based courses and support teachers and school leaders with professional learning experiences that strengthen practice while instilling the value of joy and happiness. We work in different states, in urban and suburban settings, in schools with dual-language programs, in after-school community-based programs, and in independent schools with high tuitions. No matter the school's location, size, or demographics, we've discovered that there are certain characteristics that successful schools have that draw people in, make learning meaningful, and compel students and teachers to return day after day. We have found that leaders who inspire learning and create change have four common traits.

1. They believe in a strengths-based approach.

In schools where students and teachers thrive, the message is not one of competition or improving perceived deficits. The emphasis is on becoming the best version of yourself that you can imagine. In the introduction to their text on positive psychology, Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2000) explain, "Raising children … is vastly more than fixing what is wrong with them. It is about identifying and nurturing their strongest qualities, what they own and are best at, and helping them find niches in which they can best live out these strengths" (p. 6). This can be achieved when school leaders focus on the strengths of teachers, students, and the community.
Strengths-focused school leaders notice and name what is going well and commit to a routine that celebrates these moments. This approach then becomes the model for teachers, who begin to positively frame their discussions with students. These type of leaders encourage teachers to use "yet" when describing what students have not yet mastered and support teachers in giving students guidance on the steps needed to obtain mastery, fostering a growth mindset (Dweck, 2008). Similarly, author Patricia McGee (2017) suggests teachers use the phrasing, "Because you are ready to …" to name what students are already doing well, before giving them targeted ways to move forward. This type of language ensures students are continuously viewing their learning from a positive, strengths-based framework. Students, in turn, begin to use that same approach to talk about their own strengths and challenges.
School leaders can also adopt a strengths-based approach by encouraging the celebration of small successes. Joyful leaders promote the good things they see in their teachers on a weekly or biweekly basis through memos, email blasts, and personalized notes. They encourage faculty to celebrate one another's successes at the start of faculty meetings and to incorporate reflection of one's strengths as part of closure for the day in each classroom and at the end of every unit of study.

2. They develop an "attitude of gratitude."

When adults model gratitude, young people follow. In our work, we have found that school leaders who simply emphasize saying "thank you" before every faculty meeting often have the respect of their teachers. Researchers Adam Grant and Francesca Gino (2010) studied the impact of saying a sincere "thank you" on work environments. They found that this simple act creates a stronger sense of well-being in the thanker and a higher level of self-worth in the thankee.
Joyful school leaders find ways to practice gratitude in their own lives. Based on the tenets of positive psychology, the Five-Minute Journal (2013) was created by a team of thinkers who support leaders across industries. The Five-Minute Journal offers the same prompts each day to help sustain a mindset of "seeing the good" in oneself, in others, and in life situations. Every morning, the prompts are:
  • I am grateful for …
  • What would make today great?
  • A daily affirmation: I am …
Every afternoon or evening, the prompts are:
  • Three amazing things that happened today are …
  • How could I have made today even better?
In her research, Katie found that when teachers committed to using these prompts for three months, they grew in their awareness of themselves and their students and found new ways to use positive framing when challenges arose in the classroom. When the teachers used the journal techniques with their students, they found that their students had a newfound sense of control over their thoughts about their day. The journals became a touchstone for personal reflection, gratitude, and self-worth.

3. They create and nurture a culture of collaboration.

Effective leaders surround themselves with individuals who have diverse strengths and talents. Leadership is about building teams. It is about trusting your faculty in their expertise and decision making. It is about providing the time, space, and ownership for collaboration and risk taking—even if that means teachers make some mistakes.
Each member of the school community has an important and meaningful role at the school, and a good school leader understands and nurtures that. Research has shown that how people perceive their occupation matters (Wrzesniewski et al., 1997). Those who perceive their work as a "calling," rather than a job, find greater significance and lasting happiness in their professional lives, no matter what their position may be. Having everyone from the office assistants to the volunteers define their role at the school and the meaning of their work can make a significant impact on the ways in which they perceive and complete their work. For example, a janitor who sees her role as providing a clean and healthy environment for the children and faculty at the school will not only keep the school clean and healthy, but will also be happier and healthier herself.
But for meaning to extend beyond single school members, collaboration is essential. Leaders who want to re-energize schools must find and prioritize creative ways to build collaborative structures. In a recent report, The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), found that educators in the United States spend more hours teaching in the classroom than teachers in almost every other OECD nation (2017). Teachers in countries like Finland and Singapore have more time available in their work day to prepare lessons, assess students, participate in professional development, and collaborate with colleagues.
The hours and minutes of the school day are important for both student learning and teacher development. A few years ago, Kristin collaborated with a new principal as she transitioned from an assistant principal position. Keeping the needs of the students and teachers in mind, the principal created a leadership team, which consisted of faculty with various strengths. This diverse group of teachers was purposely chosen with the hope that each of them could support their colleagues and attain the goals they had defined for themselves (in short, build a learning community).
For this kind of collaboration to be valued, leaders had to re-envision the schedules and time commitments of the teachers' school day. This new principal and the leadership team carefully created a schedule that mapped out shared planning times for grade-level teams at least three times a week. In addition, faculty meetings were transformed into team professional learning based on teachers' self-identified goals for learning. This shift in scheduling, a tedious but incredibly worthwhile task for a school consisting of more than 600 students and 45 teachers, established the faculty's vision as a priority, and empowered teachers as decision makers, thinkers, and doers.

4. They establish and foster positive relationships.

In his national bestseller Blink, Malcolm Gladwell (2005) discusses a research study that compared successful surgeons who were involved in malpractice suits with those who were not. The study revealed something interesting: It wasn't that the doctors who were sued made more mistakes than their counterparts. The difference was that the doctors who did not have malpractice suits tended to spend more time with their patients, listen to them, and communicate what they hoped to accomplish in their time with them.
In short, relationships matter. How we talk to and make other people feel matters. Successful school leaders form, maintain, and grow relationships with each participant in the community. This can be achieved in small gestures—from being present at the start and end of each school day to greet students and faculty to honoring their birthdays with a card, announcement, or song. These small gestures, which take a minimal amount of planning and time, have a strong and lasting impact on the relationships leaders build. Everyone wants to know they are cared for and that they are valued as an important member of the community.
Relationships with teachers are nurtured when school leaders ask about their daily lives. We see this when leaders notice the unusual body language of a teacher at a faculty meeting and follow up with them afterwards by asking, "How's it going?" Compassionate school leaders know when a faculty member is taking care of a sick relative or when another faculty member has just become an aunt for the first time.
Learning 800 names is a daunting task, but we know energized and effective school leaders who create their own flashcards with students' photos on them to learn as many of the students' names as they can before the school year begins. James Comer (2005), founder of the School Development Program, championed the importance of students' sense of belonging. His work in New Haven, Connecticut, showed that positive relationships between teachers and students could lead to children feeling more comfort, confidence, competence, and motivation to learn. Yet education reform initiatives continue to focus on test-based accountability and administrative mandates, rather than on the power of human connection and the importance of relationships.

The Power of Joy

In a conversation Kristin once had, a retired superintendent questioned whether an emphasis on happiness in schools makes any difference to student outcomes. He said, "I am all for joy and happiness, but the pressure is around results. Enough of the warm and fuzzy." Yet research in positive psychology is clear that by nurturing existing strengths such as gratitude and human connection, authentic happiness is possible, and, in turn, that authentic happiness leads to higher levels of success and achievement (Lyumbomirsky, King, & Diner, 2005). Rather than focusing on finding weaknesses or deficits in schools, transformative leaders concentrate on creating joyful spaces for teaching and learning. With the right commitment to practicing gratitude and celebrating strengths, relationships, and collaboration, we've seen time and again that leaders will produce positive progress and results. Bring on the warm and fuzzy!
References

Comer, J. P. (2005). Child and adolescent development: The critical missing focus in school reform. Phi Delta Kappan, 86(10), 757–763.

Dweck, Carol S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books.

Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. New York: Little, Brown, and Company.

Grant, A., & Gino, F. (2010). A little thanks goes a long way: Explaining why gratitude expressions motivate prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(6), 946–955.

Intelligent Thinkers. (2013). The five minute journal. Intelligent Change Inc.

Lyumbomirsky, S., King, L., & Diner, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131, 803–855.

McGee, P. (2017). Feedback that moves writers forward: How to escape correcting mode to transform student writing. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2017). Education at a glance 2017: OECD indicators. Available at www.oecd.org/edu/education-at-a-glance-19991487.htm

Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5–14.

Wrzesniewski, A., McCauley C., Rozin, P., & Schwartz, B. (1997). Callings: People's relations to their work. Journal of Research in Personality, 31, 21–33.

Katie Egan Cunningham is a professor of literacy and English education at Manhattanville College.

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