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For the second year, my Adventure Co-op class is studying the idea of happiness in the English language arts component of the course.  The inquiry question that is guiding this process is, “What does it take to live a happy life?”  I’ve seen students’ lives changed in the process of better understanding this question because everyone is pursuing happiness in one way or another.  It’s perhaps the most relevant idea to study in school, especially as my students are currently laying foundations of being that will shape their decisions and interactions as they move from their high school context into other realms of life.  We started out by looking at some of the science and research that’s been done on happiness as well as some of the big ideas that contribute to a person’s level of happiness.  We are now starting to dig a little deeper.

Yesterday we delved into the importance that relationship has on a person’s happiness.  To do this, I started off by showing my students the final scene of the movie “Into the Wild” – a true story about a young man who starts a three year journey from America’s east coast to Alaska in order to fulfill his fanatic idealism.  Along the way, he cuts every meaningful relationship out of his life, including his parents who don’t hear from him for two years.  Unfortunately, when he arrives in Alaska he experiences a series of events that ultimately leads to his death, but not before he has a profound insight into what it means to be happy.

After watching the clip and having a short discussion on the connection between relationships and happiness, I got my students to record their thoughts in a journal reflection.  What I thought would take maybe ten minutes took forty.  What I thought might be a paragraph for most, turned into a page for many.  For young adults who are in a very visceral process of identity building, understanding who their friends are and the impact they have on their lives is a very real process.  One student wrote:

Even though I only watched a short part of the video, it hit me like a ton of bricks… the relevance of this story to my own life, today and in the past week has been on my mind for a while now.

Another wrote:

I’ve never had an opportunity to open my fun side and didnt get an opportunity to connect with people the way i do now, its like a whole new me i can now do things that i couldnt do before.  I make my own choices, i do whatever i want, because i found a set of friends that know what the meaning of life means, the friends that i had before didnt care about school…

It was made very clear to me in the all of the journal reflections I got that my students are very much thinking about their relationships and understanding what they mean.  They know and are surprisingly articulate about how much their friends influence their level of happiness.  For some of my students, having the opportunity to think and process some of these ideas may lead to real change.

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If you’re a teacher in the Lower Mainland (and most likely in the rest of British Columbia as well), it doesn’t matter where you look, the call for educational reform is there – in your face.  Teachers and principals are talking about it.  The Twitterverse and blogosphere are filled with the call for teachers to reform, to implement more technology, to fall into the loving arms of inquiry.  There are workshops, professional development days, district conferences, edcamps, and all manner of un, dis, anti, and re learning opportunities.  Yet despite all of the push for teachers to think about teaching and learning from a new paradigm and the evidence that demonstrates that it’s needed, there are still educators resistant to change.  Why?

No matter how many ultra-inspiring workshops a teacher attends or passionate presenters they listen to, these alone are not in themselves enough to inspire long lasting change.  How many of us have been inspired by an amazing presentation only to find ourselves teaching in our same old ways a week or two later?  If your hand isn’t way up in the air, either you have only been to one really amazing presentation or your nose is getting longer!  The truth of the matter is that lasting change must come from within.

Although this answer probably doesn’t surprise you, I haven’t been to a single presentation that has really unpacked this idea.  This doesn’t mean that workshops or presentations can’t inspire change, only that if they are going to lead to transformation, a work of change must have already started within the teacher.  The most difficult part of change is coming to the place where you can admit to yourself that change is needed.  That perhaps you aren’t happy with what you’re doing or how you’re doing things.  I think that the realization that you’re unhappy is often very slow in developing, resting in the subconscious until one day you’re going for a walk, or eating breakfast, or driving home and suddenly you’re face to face with the fact that you’re unhappy.  It is at that point that deep, transformational change is possible.  A question that can tease out whether you’re ready to start thinking about change is simply complex:

“Are you happy and/or passionate about how and what you do as a teacher?”

I haven’t met a single new teacher who is lackluster or unmotivated about getting into teaching.  Most enter into the profession because they are passionate about their subject area, teaching, and students.  In contrast, I have met numerous teachers who have taught 10+ years who seem jaded, unmotivated, and unhappy.  What happens in the those years?  What is it that can steal the joy of teaching and replace it with resignation or apathy?  There are lots of reasons that could contribute to this unhappiness: overcrowded classrooms, lack of funding, lack of support, lack of resources, government interference, or student disengagement.  To be fair, these are real issues that present significant obstacles in the classroom.  However, I’m convinced that to let these issues steal the joy and happiness that comes from teaching is unfair to both the teacher and the student.  The late Steve Jobs said in a commencement address to Stanford University grads in 2005 that, “I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”  Is there anything that you need to change in order to bring back your passion for teaching?

Another equally important question that might serve as a litmus test that change is needed is below:

Are your students learning in a meaningful and relevant way?

If you are happy but the learning in your classroom isn’t meaningful or relevant for your students, this is another indication that things need to change.  If the answer to either of these questions is ‘no,’ the next critical (and very difficult) question is:  What do I need to change to restore my passion or effectiveness as a teacher?

This is the topic for another post!

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