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Can Happy Teachers Really Change the World?

By Robyn S. Harwood

Sitting at my desk today I noticed three books sweetly stacked on top of each other with the spine out, so I can clearly read the titles. The largest book on the bottom is the latest from Thich Nhat Hanh, Happy Teachers Change the World, wherein he states, “Our mission as teachers is not to transmit knowledge, but to form human beings, to construct a worthy, beautiful human race, in order to take care of this precious planet” (2017). Resting on top of it is The Book of Joy, Douglas Abrams’ beautifully crafted account of a week-long visit between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu during which these two moral leaders transcend the confines of their own religions to connect with one another over the desire to relieve suffering in all people. Last but not least, there’s the course book for the eight-week Action for Happiness course, Exploring What Matters. My husband and I have just finished leading a voluntary group of educators at our school through this enlightening course that successfully unveils the myth that happiness is a vague and abstract concept that cannot be understood, much less taught or attained. For the record, I didn’t stack these books here on purpose to impress my visitors or make for interesting conversation starters. They are there because my experience working in schools, watching educational initiatives and trends rise and fall, has led me to seek some tangible wisdom. My husband and I are on our 14th year in education. At different points along the way we’ve asked ourselves: How can I do the most good? How can little ol’ me make a genuine impact on the next generation? The answers have been slightly different each time, leading us to where we are today, converging into a similar topic in these last few years. I believe that all educators are asking themselves these questions all the time, whether they realize it or not. This is why we all got into education in the first place, to make an impact and make the world just a little bit better, one child at a time. The big question is: How? During our eight-week course, our ragtag group of educators from diverse cultural backgrounds, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds grappled with questions such as What actually makes us happy? and How can we maintain healthy relationships? Each week, it was astounding how much we agreed upon; we all want to feel valued, listened to, connected to each other. It made me realize that, on the big questions in life, we all mostly agree. It’s the minutia of the day-to-day that gets in our way of understanding the truth about each other. We ended our eight-week course with the big question of How can we create a happier world? To the sound of crickets… Well, don’t the same rules apply? We all want to feel valued, like we have a voice, and are connected to one another. This is what our students crave as well; they long to be seen, heard, and felt. I’ve tried to think of a profession besides teaching that demands such a profound and sustained level of presence and connection with other humans. I can’t think of one. If this is what people, including our students, are hungry for, then this is what they will demand from the adults in their life. However, as Thich Nhat Hanh wisely states, “we [teachers] may not have enough patience, understanding, freshness, or compassion” to live up to the demands of our students and our colleagues. I would say I agree with him—that is, if we are expected to do it alone. But as a collective, with a common understanding and common values, I say we have a fighting chance. So what does this have to do with teachers being happy? I think the word happy has unfairly become a cliché, a word that implies the opposite of the things that we’ve come to value as a society—busyness, rigor, and success. As in, if you are happy then you must be naively missing out on something more important. I reject that notion. I believe that the newest definition of the word happy will involve having a sense of self-worth as you connect and add value to your community and in turn, the world. Research has proven that this quality, connection with others, is the biggest indicator of human happiness. It’s only that some of us have been shamed into thinking we won’t be taken seriously if we acknowledge this truth as our primary goal for life satisfaction, that if we take our eye off the prize of striving for more and being better than others, then we’ll be left behind in the race for success. As teachers, we are conveying to students a sense of what they should value as we model for them what is valuable to us. They are watching to see how we connect with others, how we handle our strong emotions and deal with life’s challenges. Thich Nhat Hanh says “I believe that happy teachers will change the world. If a teacher has a lot of happiness and a lot of love in her, she can surely make her students happy” (2017). It used to be that this concept of happiness was elusive and intangible. But there is a growing brand of science that is proving that notion wrong. One research study at a time, we are proving that happiness is not as random and subjective as we once thought, bestowed upon only the privileged and the lucky. Happiness can be broken down into key concepts, each one backed by multiple research studies. “People who are happier are more likely to make a positive contribution to society” (Lyubomirsky et al. 2005). In my rational mind, I feel there is no reason why we should persist in thinking that happiness is not something worthy of our attention as teachers. In fact, it seems grossly irresponsible to have this knowledge on hand and not be modeling and teaching it explicitly to our next generation, does it not? I was recently speaking to a second-grade student who had been complaining about other kids being mean about what could happen to make him feel happier and safer at school. His immediate suggestion was that all the “mean kids” could be sent to a special boarding school for kids who like to be mean to others. Now, in his seven-year-old concrete operational brain, this was a perfectly logical and reasonable solution. However, his willingness to cast off all the “mean kids” to a distant land, never to be bothered with again, did alarm me and inspire me to look more deeply at the messages we are sending to our children regarding how we deal with mean behavior. A wise colleague of mine reminded me of the saying hurt people hurt others, which I believe can also be stated as unhappy people make others unhappy. So at the dinner table last night, I proposed to my six- and nine-year-old son and daughter this question: what if we approached someone who is being really mean as someone who is really suffering and needs our attention and care? In other words, unhappy people are lacking connection and a sense of value and should be treated as such. As teachers, we have the power to set the moral standard for how we approach problems such as these. If we value happiness—that is, authentic connection with others and the sense of being of value to our community and world—then doesn’t it make sense for us to model this value for our students? I propose the radical idea that teacher happiness be prioritized, above everything else. Attaining this goal is far from easy. Sometimes we’ll need to learn to forgo our desire to be the one who is right or best in order to be vulnerable, willing to be changed, and made more whole by those around us. We’ll most definitely need to intentionally take care of and invest in our own needs for authentic connection as individuals and as a teaching community if we are to have any chance at instilling these values in our students. And maybe, just maybe, we can guide our students toward truly believing that those who are being mean can be embraced by the community and, through this act, made a bit happier by connecting with others in a positive way rather than a forceful or aggressive one. In this case, yes, I believe happy teachers can most definitely change the world. Robyn Harwood is a Clinical School Social Worker and International School Counselor who lives and works in Accra, Ghana with her husband and two children. She combines her fervent interest of mindfulness and positive psychology to create meaningful classroom and school engagements that foster a healthy, safe and inclusive environment for students and teachers.

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