New Teacher Advocate — Winter 2010
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Joy In Teaching
Patty H. Phelps

What do the following situations have in common? After school you hurry to attend a mandatory meeting. You make a phone call to an unhappy parent. You plan a lesson without adequate materials, and then it gets cut short by an unexpected assembly. You work diligently to prepare your students for standardized tests and soothe their anxieties when, despite their efforts, they did not answer all the questions.

Do they cause frustration? Anxiety? In short, all of these situations diminish the joy of teaching. Pressures such as these are very real in the teaching profession, and new teachers are especially prone to becoming overwhelmed by similar situations. Let’s examine what causes us to lose our sense of joy in teaching and explore ways to restore joy.

Joy Robbers

Many factors can take away our joy in teaching. Though some are outside of our control, we always are in charge of our responses to them. Primarily, four joy robbers exist in teaching.

Being bogged down. First, we—new Teachers especially—can become mired in administrative and housekeeping tasks. Finding more efficient ways to complete these necessary Tasks is critical. Enlisting the help of students is one strategy to employ. We also can add joy to repetitive tasks. For example, while entering grades electronically, put on some music or eat some chocolate! Pairing a pleasant task with an unpleasant one diminishes the lack of joy.

Toxic talk. Second, engaging in toxic talk causes our joy to decline. We might listen or contribute to complaining, whining, or other forms of negative communication. Yet such talk only takes away our sense of joy. We can resolve to avoid places and situations where this kind of talk is present.

Staying comfortable. Third, we often play it safe by not attempting anything new. We can become comfortable with a particular teaching routine and stick with it because it’s familiar, seemingly efficient, or easy. Yet even when the routine serves its purpose, long-term use leads to boredom, which decreases our joy. Additionally, if our teaching routines or practices isolate us from other professionals or we separate ourselves from learning experiences, our joy will be less.

Forgetting the big picture. Finally, when we mainly focus on covering content in our teaching and lose sight of the bigger picture, our sense of joy is lessened. In the midst of standards and standardized testing, it is easy to forget that our primary goal is to promote student learning. When we focus on student learning as The main outcome by looking for daily successes that may not be measurable on a standardized test, we can experience more joy. What goals do students have for their own learning? How can we help them achieve those goals? What progress has a student made in affective aspects of growth? Joy comes from watching students develop over time.

Joy Boosters

Joy in teaching emerges from the unexpected question, the unanticipated answer, the interesting insight, and a host of other surprises. It comes when we embrace the wonder of learning!

Working conditions that overshadow learning’s prominence make finding joy a challenge. Gretchen Rubin (2009) described her journey to joy in The Happiness Project. For one year, she searched for greater joy in life with a different concentration each month. Rubin found that joy comes from anticipation (looking forward to something we enjoy), awareness (being attentive to the moment as it unfolds), and engaging in an “atmosphere of growth” (seeking opportunities to grow).

Restoring joy in teaching requires us to look for unexpected treasure each day, be observant of learning as it happens and celebrate those moments, and continually place ourselves in growth-promoting situations. We can learn a new skill, read a different kind of book, watch an educational program, and locate many other means to stretch ourselves.

While we combat joy robbers and seize joy boosters, we should remember why we became teachers. Our Reasons for becoming teachers probably did not include the desire to experience frustration but rather to make a difference in students’ lives and to contribute to society.

Keeping a treasure box, drawer, or file of teaching mementos (e.g., notes, photographs) that we dig into occasionally reminds us of our impact and why we teach—and those are valuable gems that spark greater joy. A renewed perspective will get us through the lengthy meetings we still must attend, the unpleasant phone calls we must make, and the imposing tests for which we must prepare students. Building rapport with students and helping them make connections to the subject, to us, and to one another never fails to restore the joy inherent in teaching.


Rubin, G. 2009. The happiness project: Or, why I spent a year trying to sing in the morning, clean my closets, fight right, read Aristotle, and generally have more fun. New York: Harper Collins.

Dr. Phelps, a Pi Beta Chapter member and former academic editor of the KDP Record, is a professor and faculty development coordinator in the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Central Arkansas.


Summer 2011—Deadline: February 15, 2011.

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