Voices in Education

Counting Joy in School-Based Racial Equity Work
If there has ever been a time where I’ve witnessed the widespread erosion of joyfulness among children and school-aged youth, it has been throughout the past two years. In March 2020, joy gave way to confusion, fear, and uncertainty as the world came to terms with the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. Abrupt school closings upended the routine of schooling that was a familiar constant for ten months each year. Enter remote learning. Soon after, in May 2020, joy gave way to anger, fear, and resentment. Why do police officers and white vigilantes keep killing Black people? Enough was enough.

Children watched their parents and teachers struggle to balance new realities. They watched people across the globe march, topple statues, burn buildings, and loot. They observed immigration officials separating children from their families. They gained a cruel, protracted look at an illness that has caused over 650,000 deaths in the United States. They saw a president spew racist vitriol from the land’s highest office. His flock followed suit. Our children watched white people violently storm the US Capitol Building. During these ugly, joy-killing months, children threw tantrums, cried, withdrew, and acted out. Although I always intuitively knew that experiencing joy is an important aspect of schooling, the joy-killing nature of the past two years brought its importance into sharp focus.

As educators reintroduce students to in-person schooling, it is vital to include joy in the work of educating students. Currently, much educational discourse remains focused on COVID-19 safety protocols, mitigating the so-called “learning loss,” and re-engaging students whose families and communities were hardest hit as the COVID-19 pandemic compounded the killjoys of endemic racial, economic, and social injustices. COVID-19 safety protocols and mitigation efforts are important, as they should be for the foreseeable future. Learning is also important. It’s the reason so many people sent their children to school, even as the COVID-19 Delta variant threatens the health of school-aged children. But for all the focus on catching students up, it is a tragic mistake to think that test prepping, reducing recess and playtime, and piling on homework are prudent strategies for re-engaging students in learning. Rather, educators must concern themselves with cultivating a deep love for learning, self, and community amongst their students.

As the fall 2020 academic year started, I watched my own children act out and express their feelings about remote learning. On the best days, they were ambivalent. On the bad days, they were miserable. About six weeks into the year, my daughter and then-second grader coined a name for the first day of each school week: “murder Mondays.” My son, who was in Kindergarten told us every morning that he hated school. During one class session, his teacher asked students to share their favorite part of school. When his turn came, he pressed the unmute on his Google Classroom screen. He leaned forward. “My favorite part of school is leaving,” he said, speaking with the clarity and conviction of an auto mechanic who says it’s time for a new car. He muted his microphone and sat back. As the 2021 academic year approached, he held onto his disdain for school.

My son loves learning. I know because our walks around our neighborhood consistently spark his curiosity. He asks to take home and dissect unfamiliar objects to see what’s inside. When we return home, he grabs his notepad and takes meticulous notes of what he discovers during his experiments: letters all which-a-way, barely legible sketches, phonetically correct misspelled words, and iPhone pictures. I call them markings of a joyful learner. As we prepared for the first week of school, I told him I understood why he didn’t like school. But I encouraged him to keep an open mind. After the first day, I casually asked, “how did it go?” He replied, “we did some reading and math. It was pretty fun.” Children and youth keep count of joy. Adults and educators should follow suit.

Learning is not always a joyous undertaking. Pushing through a difficult subject, topic, or painstaking assignment can be tough. But joy at school and in learning is a foundation from which students gain the confidence that academic struggle is temporary and worthwhile. My daughter knew that joyful learning awaited her back at her brick-and-mortar school. It gave her perspective. My son’s total association with school was joyless.

In my book Stuck Improving: Racial Equity and School Leadership, I illustrate the importance of joy by sharing a story about a white male high school teacher who changed his teaching and assessment practices to better support the learning of Black and Brown students. As he transformed his teaching practice to account for student wants and needs, he witnessed them work harder than ever before. Not only did their diligence produce better academic outcomes, it gave students pride and joy in their work that he called “moments that make a world of difference.” Their joy showed up as smiles, sparkling eyes, and an insistence that their parents attend parent-teacher nights. Counting joy in the work of schooling is particularly important for students who experience compounding killjoys. This year, we should count their joys. Because if we know what joy looks like when it shows up, we can work to cultivate it.

About the Author: Decoteau J. Irby is associate professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author of Stuck Improving: Racial Equity and School Leadership (Harvard Education Press, 2021).