Collaborative Classroom Blog

Jumping for JOY in Virginia Beach

By Isabel Sawyer | Categories: From the Field

I am so grateful to my colleagues in Virginia Beach schools for their joy initiative. Due to Virginia Beach’s efforts and intentional focus on joy, my Twitter feed has been flooded with joyful images! A few weeks ago, I spent time with Akilah Ellison who spearheads the initiative through the district’s Office of Professional Growth and Innovation to learn more. Akilah shared that her “fondest memories of learning are deeply rooted in emotions: how the teachers, classroom or school made [her] feel.” She said, “Emotions are a part of our everyday existence. A week cannot pass you by without you stopping to think about the events that resonated with you; more than likely those are tattooed on your mind and heart.”

Akilah described the district’s activities around the initiative. Here are just a few:

Joy Ambassadors

Representatives from almost every building are trained to be joy ambassadors in the setting in which they work. They are tasked with making sure that joy is built into their school and classroom culture. The joy ambassadors are leaders in this movement as they “plant seeds of joy” in their schools. Akilah commented, “Every day I get a letter in the pony about the power of the work for people. Everybody wants to be a joy ambassador and there are more folks in the waiting list.”

Currently, in their first cadre, they have 150 ambassadors in 80 buildings and they meet face to face quarterly. The first cadre will train the new group and they are careful with who is chosen-the motto is: “Don’t put anything on your plate that will take away your joy-even being a joy ambassador!”

What’s Joy Got to Do with it?

Last spring, Akilah began designing a two hour class around teacher well-being. The initial premise was ensuring teachers were intentionally closing out the school year in a joyful and hopeful manner for students. The course was offered at the end of April to give teachers some ideas on how to maintain their joy and sense of well-being during the busy close of the school year. With a title like “What’s Joy Got to Do with it?” the class surprisingly filled up in 2 days! The hope was that teachers might feel less stressed about the end of year activities (end-of-course testing, graduations, field trips, etc.). The results were instant and ripples were felt immediately.

Teachers didn’t want to leave when the class was over and they started using the hashtag (#VBHasJoy) to capture their experiences. Sometimes, the class would run over to three hours! They played games, as play is important to joy and happiness. The activities were simple-they used an icebreaker ball to play games. They used different colored cups to share how they felt at the beginning of the class and at the end. They explored adult coloring books. Most importantly, they unpacked what makes them joyful and created their own joy maps by asking this question: How does joy look, feel and sound to you?

Taste of Joy

The district is getting ready to host their first Joy Fair this winter, exploring how teachers intentionally design and structure opportunities for student learning with JOY in mind. One of the questions they hope to explore is “How do we look at everything we do through the lens of JOY?”

Impact in the District (#VBHasJoy)

The work began in a more grassroots way in the spring of 2016. Soon, principals began emailing directors requesting that Akilah host a What’s Joy Got to Do with It workshop in their buildings before SOL testing as a stress reducer. Joy ambassadors were helpful also in a school building in which a teacher passed away in the middle of the year to help staff process grief and celebrate each other. The district is just beginning to gather data around the initiative through the ten schools that have been involved in the initiative since its inception.

It was quickly noted how the critical role of leadership was in this work and a professional learning opportunity was then offered for administrators (#VBAdminHasJoy). This class became an instant success and some of the same elements were fused into this professional learning: a focus on well-being, joyful activities and looking at specific ways that leadership teams can intentionally bring joy to their workplace cultures. Next steps are to bring joy to other groups that impact student and teacher well being, including the PTA and SCA. Intentional partnerships with other offices in the school district are also planned as the dream of joyful school cultures for becomes a reality.

As I learn from my colleagues in Virginia Beach, I am struck by the importance of JOY in both our work and our lives. As Albert Einstein reminds us, “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.” Perhaps this is our ultimate goal as educators? Awakening joy in the learning and the living. If you want to learn more, check out Akilah’s blogs on her journey:

Follow Akilah Ellison on Twitter!

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