A Call To Joy

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By Kate Wade, LL’11, LL Scholar ‘13, gcLi Penn-GSE Fellow ‘14, Editor gcLi Blog, Head of the Middle School, The Fenn School (MA)

I was recently speaking with my cousin Maura Nolan Henry, a deeply respected educator and Dean of Faculty at the Chapel Hill Chauncy Hall school in Waltham, Massachusetts.  We were fortunate enough to get away into the wilds of Maine for two days at the beginning of the school year as a way to restore ourselves after the epic incline lift-off of late August.  We usually get together over the summer and swap stories about our year and delight in shared experiences, learning from each other in one of those “teacher talks” that teachers themselves know so very well.  The importance of connecting with other teachers to hear about their experiences is a form of bonding that is also restoration. It’s a form of connection-making that helps us move beyond our own experience and understand that others, too, who work with children feel the pressures, the burdens, the obligations, the duty, and of course the joy of the messy work that we engage in day after day.

However, there’s something incredibly different about this conversation having “survived” a year and a half of teaching through a pandemic.  This year, of course, survival in many cases, wasn’t an idiom or cliché.  It was a real-life hope that we would make it through the year alive, intact, and whole.  Phrases like “I’m just treading water” imply that the alternative is drowning; phrases like “We’re above our heads” are embedded in our teaching lexicon.  This formerly innocuous teacher lingo took on another meaning as we “waged war against Covid” and the restrictions to our teaching pedagogies that came with it.  We battled, “in the trenches” together, and as so many of our teaching colleagues across the nation faced (and continue to face) unimaginable trials and challenges due to Covid running rampant through their schools, we placed our students at the center and did whatever it took to keep them engaged, learning, and well in body, mind, and spirit.  

While this took a true toll on many of us, my cousin and I continued to return to one feeling over and over: our unbridled joy at the start of this year.  Now, I’ve learned the hard way that my enthusiastic approach to life and teaching can irritate some.  I can be “a lot.”  And I also realize there’s a type of toxic positivity that dismisses authentic feelings and serves to silence.  Forcing positivity in order to exert power or to dampen or lessen voices who are in pain is damaging and harmful. That is not at all what I’m talking about here.  Instead, I’ve learned that being positive in the face of tragedy and hardship is a form of resilience and it’s a way to channel hope.  Taking an optimistic view, Maura shared that she feels deeply connected to an inner joy that continues to resurface over and over in these opening weeks of the school year.  She revealed that she is “joyful every time I get to cover a class for a colleague because that means I’m actually going into her class and meeting her students and seeing what her life is like and being a part of her space and in her world; we never got to do that last year!” I, too, am channeling the joy as I witness our students unmasked outside and uncohorted, finding connections that they were never allowed to have last year as they sat restricted in their small groups, staring wistfully at other islands of students with whom they were not allowed to engage. 

Joy is also an act of resistance and I think it’s important for me to reveal that much of my personal time this summer was spent reflecting on my own white identity and privilege.  And more specifically, I’ve come to understand that my own joy is very much a privilege.  As summer came to a close, we watched the world of women and girls and their families in Afghanistan crumble; we watched California burn, and coastal regions ravaged by flooding. I started the year with an incredibly heavy heart yet it’s in the face of all of those challenges that I chose to respond and find the joy.  My dear friend and teaching colleague Dan McCartney who passed away in January of 2020 was always about “finding the good.” He pushed us to always find the good in a difficult situation, find the good in others, and of course, Dan was talking about finding the good in ourselves. I think about Dan a lot in those moments when I arrive at school a bit heavy, overwhelmed by the challenges I may be facing that day.  Yet, I remember that he taught me that all our students really need to know is that we love them, that we want them to succeed, that we’re cheering for them, that we’re going to be there for them, and it’s not gonna be easy but we’re gonna keep showing up.  I channeled Dan’s philosophy as I connected with Maura, and realized more than ever that we need to bring that same attitude to our colleagues and students and keep showing up for each other by finding those joyful connections, those moments when we can celebrate together even the smallest of successes in the day; we have to keep “finding the good” and channeling joy. 

But how can we do this when we’re already exhausted and we haven’t even gotten through the first semester yet?  To me, it’s, as Mary Oliver shares in her poem “Yes! No!”: “To pay attention / this is our endless and proper work.” Imagine this…I’m heading into picture day at my school and on picture day it’s as you suspect: organized chaos.  But we couldn’t even have a picture day last year so instead on this day, I found myself noticing so many smiles and filling up with joy.  Smiles were EVERYWHERE.  I stepped into this moment of joy and appreciated every smile on every single one of my students’ faces.  It reminded me, instead of griping that some of my kids were goofing around, to appreciate every moment where we can mix together, come together as an entire grade, or as an entire school, and experience joy.

Finding joy in the gift of each other’s company leads to a mindset shift, reminding us that although we are not out of this pandemic, it is important to “bring the joy”and lift each other up – and in – and do so by noticing or crafting moments where we can truly see each other.  School leaders can spread joy by respecting teachers’ experiences and including their voices in decision-making for systemic change in their schools.  Teachers can invite joy into their classrooms by giving choices to students in their academic learning, by showing up with compassion and empathy, and recognizing that life at home may be harder not just because of the pandemic but because of the fallout from it.  We are seeing increased parental stress due to overwork, caring for aging grandparents or ill family members, unemployment, food scarcity, and on and on.  We still do not yet know the full impact this pandemic has had on our collective mental health.  Yet, we can find the joy.  Even when we are confronted with unimaginable pain as we face the loss of colleagues and loved ones due to illness or due to complications from the pandemic, we can tell their stories and remember the lessons they taught us.  We must absolutely remember that it’s not being disrespectful to be joyful.

As a freshly minted middle school head, I have realized that joy as leadership is a very real thing and there’s such a need for it.  I was working the car line a few weeks ago, moving traffic and hollering cheerfully, as one does, and I had a student come up to me and say, “Ms. Wade, you have so much energy. How do you have so much energy?  It’s the end of the first week of school – aren’t you tired?” For the record, I was tired; I was also very happy that it was the end of the first week of school!   But more so, I was overjoyed seeing all of these faces of all of these parents whom I hadn’t seen for months and noticing the smiles on their faces as their kiddos came bounding over, hopping into their cars, backpacks heavy, legs weary, smiles wide.  Their sons’ joy came from just being able to have a real game of football at recess, or from making a new friend, or from figuring out how to correctly upload a homework assignment into the dropbox.  Whatever it was that was joyful for those students became my joy and their parents’ joy and I felt in that moment the beauty of contagious joy and my obligation as a school leader to be part of the virtuous cycle that helps spread it.

The thing is, joy leads to connection. It’s contagious. And we are battling a different contagion that most in our lifetime have never seen.  And it’s real and it’s scary. And laughter and joy and connection are the antidotes. Well that, and vaccinations.  Because. Science. 

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Kate Wade is currently the Head of the Middle School at The Fenn School.  Formerly the English Department Chair at Fenn, a boys’ middle school in Concord, MA, she actively collaborates with colleagues to bring the Pedagogy of Leadership to life on a daily basis. While at The Rivers School in Weston, MA, she served as Dean of Students, Grade Dean, Admissions Associate, English teacher, and co-founder of the girls’ ice hockey program and enjoyed supporting student leadership through service-learning opportunities. She is a Lab grad, Scholar, and recipient of the gcLi-Penn/GSE scholarship for School Leadership.  Through her recent work as Editor in Chief of the gcLi Leadership Blog, she has thoroughly enjoyed connecting with all facets of the gcLi family and invites you to reach out if you have an idea you’d like to share with our community!