6 Ways to Spread Happiness in the Classroom

It’s an exciting day here at Teacher Habits Headquarters! We have our first guest post! Paul Ellsworth (aka Profe Pablo) is a high school Spanish Teacher and a writer. He loves trying “out of the box” classroom management techniques to create a fun and productive classroom. He writes about his classroom at ProfePablo.com. There you can download his Top 25 Teaching Tricks or even tune into his podcast Schooled Radio. Today, he writes about spreading happiness in the classroom, a subject near and dear to my heart, and, not-so-coincidentally, the subject of my next book, Happy Teacher, available on Amazon by the end of the month.

6 Ways to Spread Happiness in the Classroom

When analyzing the classroom often we look at test scores or students’ grades. Grades are important, but what if grades were not a true indicator of success?

Instead of looking at the grades first, what if I asked you about your students’ happiness?

You would think I was crazy.

However, in his book The Happiness Advantage, positive psychology expert Shawn Achor proves that success doesn’t lead to happiness, but happiness leads to success. Instead of looking at results and asking our students to simply try harder, maybe we should prime them for success through happiness.

To have a successful classroom, the question then becomes, “How happy are your students in the classroom?” and equally important, “How happy are you in the classroom?”

Here are 6 ways that you can spread happiness in the classroom.

#1 Smile more.

Just by smiling at the students, you are showing them that you are happy to be with them. You are also tapping into students’ mirror neurons. These neurons tell the brain to copy what you see. Furthermore, your body language and your mood are so intricately connected, that if you smile (even if you are not happy), your brain begins to release dopamine, endorphins and serotonin, which are the “happy” neurotransmitters of the brain (Psychology Today) .

#2 Give control to the students.

When students feel in control, they feel safer and happier. My favorite examples come out of a program about classroom discipline called Love and Logic. Love and Logic tells parents and teachers to share control with the students by offering small choices that you feel comfortable with. Here’s an example: “Would you guys like to take the quiz right now or at the end of class?” By doing this you’re letting the students know that they have a voice in the classroom and some control over their environment.

#3 Pump up the jams.

I cry at the end of the movie Rudy every single time. As moving as the story is, I don’t think I would react that way every time if it weren’t for the music. Music directs human emotions. Can you imagine your favorite scene of a movie without the background music? You can use music to move your students to happiness. Do you have an extra Bluetooth speaker lying around? If not, it will be worth the $20 investment. Play energetic music as the kids enter the classroom or play calm music to help them de-stress.

#4 Change your greetings.

Another way that you can spread happiness is by changing how you greet your students. Usually we say something like “What’s up?” or “How’s it going?” Instead of doing this you can tweak your question to lead the students to think positively about their day. I learned this from the book Broadcasting Happiness by Michelle Gielan. For example, I could change my greeting from “How’s it going?” to “What’s the best thing that happened to you today?” The answer requires the students to think of something positive.

#5 Offer anticipation.  

In a study done with 44 doctors, those primed with candy diagnosed twice as fast as those not primed with candy. Do you know what’s crazier? They weren’t even allowed to eat it until afterwards!  I tried the same thing in one of my Spanish classes. I handed out Jolly Ranchers which sat on the edge of the students’ desks until the end of class. By doing this I’m giving the students something to look forward to. You won’t believe how many students beg me to go ahead and pass out the candy at the beginning of class, just so they can know it is waiting for them. This anticipation of happiness increases productivity.

#6 Breathe deeply.

Sometimes, I will notice that my students seem stressed in the classroom. Instead of pushing through the stress (and therefore adding to it), I tell my students to close their eyes. Then we practice 4-7-8 breathing. This kind of breathing hijacks the adrenaline system and slows it down. By doing this, you are placing the students back in logical thinking mode instead of “fight or flight” stress mode. Less stress equals more happiness.
All the above-mentioned hacks require energy, action, and attitude on your part. It is going to be hard to spread happiness if you are not happy yourself. Make sure that you’re doing things for yourself as a teacher. We spend a lot of time thinking about our students. Make sure that you are doing things that make you happy. What’s a hobby that you’ve let go of that you really enjoyed? Have you taken time just to just to sit down and relax and watch your favorite TV show? Take time for yourself and then spread happiness freely in your classroom.

One Trick for Not Being a Jerk to Students

I admit that I am sometimes a jerk to my students. I try not to be. I really do. I know the damage it causes, both to the kid and the classroom culture. I know that one bad experience with me can ruin twenty previous good ones.  I know that being a jerk makes me feel bad about myself. It does no one any good.

And yet.

I could trot out a litany of excuses, but that’s just what they would be. There really is no excuse. Doctors pledge to “First, do no harm.” Teachers should pledge to, “First, don’t be an asshole.”

Although I occasionally fail this basic expectation of human decency, I am better than I used to be. I realize the importance of being consistently nice, and I’ve developed a few mental tricks to use over the years. Today, I’ll share one. You can read about two others in my upcoming book, Happy Teacher, available on Amazon at the end of the month (fingers crossed).

Trick #1: Don’t Say Things to Students I Wouldn’t Want My Principal to Say To Me During a Staff Meeting

When I have a one-on-one meeting with my principal, I don’t worry too much about how I phrase things. If asked for my honest opinion, I give it. If I think my principal is wrong about something, I will say so.

I expect my principal to do the same with me. In a one-on-one meeting, I want honesty from my principal. If he thinks I’m doing something wrong or could be doing something better, he should tell me. If he thinks I have a weakness that needs improving, he has an obligation as my boss to inform me and give me pointers or direct me to resources that will help me improve. My rationale is that we’re both adults, we’re both professionals, we both are trying our best, but we’re both human and will, on occasion, fall short or screw up. I’m a big boy, and I can take the criticism. He’s the boss, so he better be able to take some too.

A staff meeting is a totally different animal because it is public. I rarely challenge or even disagree with my principal in a staff meeting. If I do, I choose my words very carefully and usually try to give my principal an out, such as, “I know this isn’t coming from you, but have your supervisors considered…”

There are a number of reasons you should not challenge your principal in front of the entire staff, but for the purposes of this post, I don’t do it because I don’t want him to do it to me.

A Brief Digression into Basketball

I played high school basketball, and in preparation of one game the coach had us practice a triangle-and-two defense, which is basically a three-man zone with the other two defenders guarding their men one-on-one. The defense worked perfectly in the first half of the game and we had a big lead. Our coach switched to a straight man-to-man defense in the second half, and we squandered much of our advantage before winning by a handful of points.

Afterward, Coach criticized our second half performance. I felt the need to stand up for myself and my teammates. I shot back, “But you changed the game plan!”

He lit into me in a very public and somewhat personal way, ripping my lack of defensive effort in the second half. He basically blamed me for letting our rival back in the game. It made me feel about this big:

I learned two lessons that day: First, don’t second guess your coach in front of the team, and second, people, no matter who they are and how old they may be, get very defensive when publicly called out. Some get downright pissed off.

End of Digression

When your principal criticizes you publicly, you feel attacked. You feel ashamed and you become defensive. You body triggers its fight-or-flight response because the brain is shouting DANGER! DANGER! You either sit there and take it, fuming on the inside and plotting elaborate revenge schemes, or you defend yourself vigorously and say something you’ll soon regret. Either way, you’ll feel resentment toward your principal. You won’t be doing that jerk any favors anytime soon! The next time you disagree with him, maybe you won’t be so respectful; he certainly didn’t show you the same courtesy! You might even seek to undermine him at the next opportunity.

Students are humans too. They feel the same things you do. When you embarrass them in front of their peers by publicly scolding them, it’s no different than your principal doing the same to you. In fact, students likely feel shame and resentment even more acutely than you do because they’re at an age when friendships matter more than just about anything. They care more about their classmates’ opinion of them then you care about your colleagues’ opinion of you. Good luck getting that student back on your side anytime soon. 

In fact, of all the things you’ve done for that student over the course of the year–all the lessons you’ve taught and guidance you’ve provided–they may, when they think of you 24 years later, return to that single moment in time when you made them feel like nothing in front of their peers. And it won’t matter to them if they deserved it or not.


The Benefits of Doing Nothing

Walk into any classroom and you are likely to see the teacher doing stuff. They’re lecturing, meeting with students, conferencing, planning, assessing, entering data, designing units, or circulating throughout the room. Few teachers give themselves permission to do nothing. But they should. Doing nothing is important.

When I say doing nothing, I of course mean doing nothing outwardly.  While it may appear that we our sitting at our desks and counting the ceiling tiles, our brains are busy at work.

The reality is that teachers don’t spend enough time thinking because we’re so busy doing.

Our Best Ideas

Our best ideas often come to us when we are idle. Before I started this blog, I was an aspiring novelist. In the course of telling a story, I’d often get stuck. I couldn’t figure out what should happen next. The worst thing I could do was think more about the problem. Usually, my best ideas came when I left the work alone and did something mindless. It’s hard to come up with great ideas when we’re under pressure to do so.

The same thing happens with teaching. I have very few innovative ideas in February. But in the summer, when my mind is rested and I’m not stressed out from long days in the classroom, I regularly come up with new things to try for the upcoming school year. Teachers need to set aside time to just sit and think.

Sitting and thinking, instead of always doing, provides teachers with the mental space to be creative. I keep a notebook where I write down things to try in the classroom, and once a month I force myself to just sit and think of stuff. Ideas can come from books, blogs, colleagues, social media, or my favorite place, left field.


Time to think allows teachers to actually reflect on what’s working and what isn’t. We’re all told how important it is to reflect on our lessons. It’s part of every teacher evaluation system I know of. But most teachers roll their eyes and think, “Yeah, right. And when am I supposed to do that?”

They ask that question because they don’t give themselves permission to do nothing. For most teachers, the thought of their principal walking in and seeing them sitting down and staring off into space is scary. We feel like we must always be working, and we fail to realize that thinking counts.

Time to think and reflect also lets teachers revisit their vision for the classroom to see if this year’s group is still on track or if things have gone off the rails and a recommitment is necessary. Every year, I write down my personal goals and the vision I have for my room. But once caught up in the day-to-day grind, I sometimes find myself just plugging along without thinking about the big things I want my room to be about. Without time to sit and think, I lose track of where I’m supposed to be leading my students.

Time to think can also save us trouble down the road. Taking a few minutes to think instead of responding emotionally to a student’s misbehavior, or a parent’s disrespectful email, or an administrator’s new idea can mean the difference between having a job and not having one.

When Helping Doesn’t Help

Students also benefit from a teacher doing nothing. Especially at the elementary level, too many of us rush in to save a student from failure or even frustration. We don’t want our students to struggle, and when we see them doing so, we want to help. That’s how we’re built.

But failure and frustration teach, often better than we do.

Stand back. Do nothing. Send the message to your students that they can do it without you.

I can always tell if I’ve helped too much when the state test rolls around. Since I’m not allowed to help at all, those students who I’ve not allowed to struggle don’t know what to do without my assistance. They don’t know how to solve problems because I haven’t allowed them to struggle with them. I’ve failed them, not only for that test, but in some ways, for life. There won’t always be someone around to help, and some problems just require that you sit there and think.

Happy Teacher

I’m nearly finished with the first draft of my second book, Happy Teacher.  I should have some cover options to show off in the next couple of days. If you’d like to provide feedback on them, check back here probably early next week.

The book is about applying the growing body of research on happiness to the classroom so that teachers experience more joy at work. The books below were the best I read on the topic and provided much of the source material. They were all fantastic reads and you’ll quickly see how much of the science can be applied to teaching.

Happy Teacher should be available in Kindle and print form in late April.

Clicking on the image will take you to the Amazon link for the book.

A great overview of many surprising findings in happiness research. Gilbert is easy to read and often funny.

 Full of energy, fast-paced, and packed with great information without getting bogged down with too much science.

 The self-proclaimed first book to explain the science behind happiness. The author is cited in nearly every other happiness book I read and in many online articles.

 If you’ve ever wondered why you’re so tired after teaching or why you reach for the worst foods after a long day and you want to know what to do about it, this is the book to read.

 The author cites some of his own interesting work on happiness as well as many other studies. He also includes links to videos of interviews with experts on happiness. His Mental Chatter exercise led to fascinating insights about the surprising things people think about.

 The second book by the well-respected Lyubomirsky. This one looks at the misconceptions people have about what will make them happy.

 Less science and more fun, Rubin puts the research and conventional wisdom about happiness to the test as she spends one year on her happiness project. A funny, easy read.

 No new ground is broken here, but Smith references many interesting studies that led to further research and insights.

 Not marketed as a book about happiness, being an essentialist is essential for teachers. I especially pulled a lot from the chapter on saying no. If you’re stretched too thin and feel like there’s too much to do and not enough time to do it, read this book.

Written by the founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman revisits and updates the ideas he first introduced in his seminal work, Authentic Happiness.
 A book every school leader needs to read, The Levity Effect is a business book about how having more fun at work leads to happier and more productive employees. The most successful businesses in the world are those where the employees are happiest. If your school is drab and you want to liven it up, get this book in people’s hands.

American Teachers Should Work Less

work less

A Facebook friend of mine (and former Superintendent) posted an infographic yesterday that compared the number of hours worked by an American teacher to the number of hours worked by other professionals. Here it is:

I took some issue with the 53 hours listed for teachers and said that the difference between those hours and the 40 listed for other professionals is that teachers aren’t required to work 53 hours. In fact, we’re required to work fewer hours than almost every other full-time employee.

Lunch is not typically counted in the 40 hours for other professionals, so we should subtract it for teachers. My teaching day goes from 9:00 to 4:00 with a half-hour lunch, so that means I’m required to work 6.5 hours per day. Multiply that by five for 32.5 hours a week. So the infographic above suggests that teachers work an extra 20.5 hours a week, or about four per day, which seems high. But okay, throw in weekends and maybe.

The response to my suggestion, as I’m sure you can guess because some of you are mentally shouting a similar response at me right now, was that those extra hours may not be required, but teachers have to work them to do the job the “right” way.

And that’s the problem.

If the only way a teacher can effectively do his or her job is to work an extra, unpaid 20 hours every week, then there is something seriously wrong with the system. 

And the only way to fix such a system is for teachers, lots and  lots of them, to stop working so many extra hours.

Of course, making that suggestion sets one up to be criticized as lazy, cynical, lacking dedication, not being in it for the kids, et cetera et cetera.

Which is a huge problem. 

American teachers spend more time in the classroom than any other nation’s teachers.  So don’t tell me it’s necessary; other countries manage to educate their kids. All that time spent teaching means we have to do the other parts of our job at some other time.

Society’s expectations — including those of fellow teachers — that we should be expected to donate an extra 10-20 hours per week or risk being labeled lazy or ineffective, perpetuates the problem. It puts zero pressure on government to reform things. And it matters because unrealistic work expectations lead to burnout. We have good teachers exiting the profession at alarming rates and we have great students never even considering the job in the first place.

Teaching has the highest burnout rate of any public service job in America.  There are many reasons for it: loss of autonomy, bureaucratic nonsense, student misbehavior, bad bosses. But undoubtedly the stress of the job due to absurd workloads and the expectation that teachers give freely of their time is a huge factor.  Many who quit simply say they were always exhausted.

Now you might be one of those teachers for whom the job is your passion. You bring high energy to your classroom every day. You attend every training you can. You look forward to professional development sessions. You spend your free time designing engaging units and interacting with other teachers on social media. You read professional journals. You coach, volunteer, and always go the extra mile for your students and their families.

Good for you. I mean that sincerely. The country is lucky to have teachers like you.

But the data is clear: you are the exception.

And you don’t design a system based on exceptions.

When you do, the thing falls apart, which is what is happening in schools across our country right now.

The belief that teachers have “answered a calling,” as if we were somehow spoken to from some God of Teachers, is damaging. It’s this idea that we’re selfless martyrs who only exist to serve our students that has led to society’s unrealistic expectations for how we should do our jobs.

I attended a retirement luncheon a few years ago where a number of the district’s teachers were honored for their years of service. The entire district’s teaching staff was invited to the event and a principal said a few words for each of the retirees.

One teacher’s principal spoke in laudatory terms about how the teacher’s car was always the first one in the parking lot in the morning and the last one to leave at night. She admired the woman’s dedication.

I thought it was the saddest thing. I vowed then and there that no one would ever say the same thing about me. I have a life to live outside of work. A family. Hobbies. Friends to hang out with. As the famous saying goes, no one on their deathbed ever said they’d wished they’d worked more.

That principal’s message, that old industrial-era American reverence for slavish devotion to one’s job, is a damaging one, especially to young teachers. Here is the ideal, it says. This is what you should strive for. Here is what we want from you: Nothing less than large portions of your best years.

I guess if I owned a business, I’d want 20 free hours every week from my employees, too. And it would be even better if I could somehow establish that expectation as part of my company’s culture. And better still if that culture could spread across the entire industry.

Why, if workers felt like the only way they could be any good at their jobs was to donate 20 hours of work every week, and if their colleagues criticized them when they didn’t,  I could ask them to work late, or come in early, or work on special projects, or…hell, I could ask them to do damn near anything and not have to pay them for all that extra work.

What a deal.