Is joy the main event at your school?

When we work in a school, especially at this time of year, we all have much to think about and do. It is easy to get lost in the ‘to-do’ lists and lose track of the ‘why we became educators’ in the first place.

Now is the perfect time to pause.

When we pause to celebrate all that is around us, it refuels our minds, bodies and hearts so that we can walk these final steps with joy. In the final weeks of school it is more important than ever to pick joy back up. We can use joy to energize and focus our final opportunities of this year and guide our planning into next year.

Some of you may be deeply sighing and thinking, yes! While others are thinking joy sounds nice but come on, what does joy in our schools really mean? Thankfully Regie Routman offers some practical actions in her latest book Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence and Equity for All Learners (2018).

Routman remains steadfast in her commitment towards joy in her new book. She reminds us:

“Joy is the main event. In my work in schools, the main reasons the teachers and principals “buy in” is not because test scores go up – and they do – and  not because kids become better readers and writers – which they do. It’s because the work and the learning are so joyful for students, teachers and principals.”

When thinking about creating and maintaining joyful schools, Routman suggests three main leverage points: the physical environment, the social-emotional environment, and the intellectual environment.

 The Physical Environment

 The physical spaces in our schools, or ‘The Third Teacher’, can “add a sense of order, comfort, and calm that can make engagement, productivity and enjoyment more likely” (Routman, 2018, p. 40). What do you see when you intentionally look around and analyze your physical space? How does this change when you invite a new set of eyes to look with you? When we invite students, parents and/or colleagues to walk and talk with us and share their impressions of our learning spaces, we have the opportunity to see our spaces through new eyes.

Start at the front door of your school. Wander through your shared learning spaces and your classrooms asking what beliefs and learning are made visible. What is the culture reflected in your physical environment? How does your physical environment support the beliefs you collectively hold and are working towards?

In my work with teachers I have used this Literacy-Rich Classroom Discussion Guide to analyze school-wide learning spaces and open up dialogue. Teachers feel good about celebrating what is already in place and are usually open to choosing one area to approach with more intention. As educators, we can feel joyful about designing intentional learning spaces that invite students to engage with literacies in new ways.

The Social-Emotional Environment

 Routman’s attention to both students and staffs’ social-emotional learning felt like a warm hug when I read her words. This is a tough time of year for educators and it is important we take care of ourselves as we care for our students. I felt her suggestion to ‘take back time’ was an important one at this time of year. We have precious days left so we need to make sure they count. Take the five minutes you need to recharge – be it through a quick chat with a colleague or a quiet walk outside at lunch. As educators it is important to take care of our own social-emotional state with the same commitment and care we offer each day to our students.

One caution Routman (2018) reminds us is that, “it’s easy to organize our classrooms to fit our own needs and personal styles and to forget what it was like to be a child… “ (p. 52). If you are a leader, take the time to check in with staff and see what they need to finish the year with success. For those who teach in the classroom, consider how you might open up opportunities to check in with your students. Sometimes it’s as simple as standing at the school or classroom door and bookending the day with a smile, the question “How are you?”, and a pause to let them know you really care about their answer.

 The Intellectual Environment

 Sometimes joy and serious learning are mistakenly considered in opposition to each other. An intellectual environment is a key component in joyful literacy environments – “Joy comes from the celebration we do of teachers’ and students’ strengths and efforts” (Routman, 2018). In my work with educators, we have scheduled year-end meetings with celebration as our key focus. Scheduling time to reflect on professional learning and student learning has been a gift. Make time to celebrate with your learning community – trust me, the stories invite laughter, tears of joy and provide the energy to take us through the final steps of this school year. The joyful stories also provide us with tangible first steps when planning for next year’s success.

For students, engagement comes from a culture that “kids can sense is real and true” (Ripley, 2013, cited by Routman, 2018, p. 60). Our final days of learning need to be our most intellectually engaging. Plan lessons that you cannot wait to explore with your students. Fill your shelves and your read aloud times with new books to keep your students reading and talking. Consider your last weeks together as a school version of an advent calendar. Every day can become an exciting opportunity when we decide it will be. This includes time to nurture and follow our students and our own passions, as well as ‘relaxing our grip’ and just enjoying the learning time we have in our final moments of this school year.

I want to end this post with a special thank you to Regie Routman for her continued commitment to joyful literacy and providing practical suggestions for leaders and teachers in her book Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence and Equity for All Learners (2018). Regie continues to be a light that helps me find my footing when I stumble.

Thinking about joyful literacy and your own experiences, what can you add to this post? How do you make sure joy remains the main event at your school?

This post is part of a book study around Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). Check out more resources associated with the text at this website (, including a free curriculum for teaching an undergraduate course using Literacy Essentials.

Author: Heather McKay

Literacy Specialist, life-long learner, married to my best friend @ryansiemens, parent of 3, book lover, tech. addict, and excited about the WONDER in every day!

11 thoughts on “Is joy the main event at your school?”

  1. Heather ~ Thank you for the thoughtful post! I love the idea of intentionally addressing the three main leverage points of physical, social-emotional and the intellectual environment. As I read your post, I got the sense of an overall message of “slow down,” be intentional and reflect. If we do that, it leads to joy! Though this is sometimes hard to slow down, it’s not impossible. I see it more as a choice. We think we don’t have control over our time, but we do, to some extent. For the physical environment, I love the idea of inviting another set of eyes into your space. There’s benefit in getting out of our own perspective. I also think a key point you/Reggie brought up was that joy is not on the opposite end of the spectrum from intellectual environments. This matches research on how we are motivated and excited by a challenge. Such a powerful post! Thank you!


    1. Thanks for taking the time to read and respond to my post Annie. Every time I write I wonder if anyone is actually going to read what I write;) Your point about slowing down to gain more time is so true! That idea changed me as a teacher. I spent a large amount of my time as a teacher team teaching and having a partner with a different lens was so valuable. I appreciate your time and comments. Thank you!


  2. Heather, I love that you bring the bigger picture of the entire school being part of the physical environment into this post. It reminds me of Todd Nesloney’s message in Stories from Webb where he also connects the entire school, starting from the moment one walks in the front doors, to being part of the culture that is displayed and message sent to all those who enter. The physical space is such an important component to consider. I like the idea of holding staff meetings at the end of the year to celebrate positive happenings because often we get too caught up in the hustle and busy of year end responsibilities and forget to take time to celebrate the joyful happenings at our school.


    1. I have not read Todd’s Stories from the Webb so thanks for bringing that to my attention. The impact of the physical environment on learning is something I continue to be drawn to learn more about. I feel like starting meetings with celebrations is an opportunity to name what is going well and also to help us enter meetings with a positive mindset. Thank you for reading and taking the time to respond to my post. I appreciate it!


  3. What a great post. I especially connected with the part about asking students how their day was, and *genuinely caring about the answer*. Something I’m really proud of is the trust I’ve built with my students, and students who I don’t even see. Just this morning I overheard a conversation between one of my students and a girl in her class, where the girl in her class said “don’t rub it in my face that I don’t get to go to the Reading Room.”
    It’s a great reminder that I do what I do for my students – not for myself and not for administration. And joy is for everybody, especially our students.


    1. Your reminder that “joy is for everybody” is so important! It must feel amazing to have created a safe and caring place that students want to seek out. Thank you so much for reading and for taking the time to share your story. It feels to good to connect with colleagues who agree that joy is a key piece for all learners!


    1. Don’t you just love those moments that suspend time and impact our hearts! I was working with a grade two class this morning and had a similar breathtaking moment. The joyful nature of children is a good reminder to us adults about what is most important at the end of each day. Thanks for reading and sharing your joyful moment!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It’s joyful to read a beautiful, well written, thoughtful post that celebrates the necessity of joy in learning. Thank you Heather for making joy essential to learning. I love this post! My experience has been that “joy” gets sidelined because teachers and administrators are overwhelmed by an overstuffed curriculum, mandates, and pressure to raise test scores. If we keep in mind that high achievement is a by-product of a thriving school culture–and that such a culture includes joy in teaching and learning–then we may begin to look at joy as a necessity. With admiration, Regie


    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to read my reflections about your new book Regie. Your words are so appreciated by me. I have just decided to move from a system role back into a school role and I am excited to lead literacy and learning in a new way. Your words will continue to travel with me and remind me of what’s really important in our shared work. Thank you for all you do and inspire!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s