As readers of my blog know, I have been thinking a lot of happiness recently. With the excuse of wanting to spend at least part of a Barnes and Noble gift card on myself (What does it say that my initial instincts are to spend it all on my students?), I bought Eric Weiner’s book The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World. I bought the book since I wanted to strike a balance between reading about happiness and fascinating travel literature for my beach reading in Costa Rica (yes, I am a spoiled teacher vacationing with my family on the beach). The book details his journey around the world searching for happiness in a variety of locations.
I spent much of this afternoon at the pool reading the section of Weiner’s book on Iceland. While Iceland is a small, wealthy, and ethnically homogenous nation, it faces some real barriers to happiness. During this time of the year, Icelanders can go over a month without seeing the sun. I am sure that Iceland is a lovely place to visit during the summer time, but the winters seem absolutely brutal. However, many Icelanders thrive during this period of darkness as it allows for studying and creativity. The Icelandic language, which is notoriously difficult to pronounce for foreigners, has been used to create poetry and music. As Weiner discovers, much of this poetry and music is garbage. It stinks. But that’s ok in Iceland since failure is part of the culture. Iceland has historically been a difficult place to live and as a result, Icelanders are bound to fail at something. Rather than treating failure as a mark of shame, Icelanders do not become sad or necessary more motivated as many Americans become after experiencing failure. They simply accept it as part of life, and move onto to their project, which may be a success or it could be another failure. (I am honestly not doing justice to Weiner’s book, and I highly recommend reading it.)
Failure is an accepted part of Icelandic culture, which is one of the things that makes Iceland one of the happiest places on Earth. This fall, my classroom experienced a lot of failings starting with myself. I lost sight of the big picture of educating my students by getting tied down with behavior management issues that I underestimated coming into the classroom. By overlooking these issues, I set up the conditions that allowed too many of my students to fail assignments or even whole parts of my class. It’s one thing to fail on a creative project, but it’s different to not learn how to read for comprehension or complete basic multiplication facts. These fundamental skills allow us to make creative failures further down the line.
I responded to these failures in a variety of ways over the past few months. Sometimes, I became even more motivated to succeed and worked longer and harder to ensure that my students would have a chance at success. Other times, I would simply ignore the students who were failing and focus on teaching my objectives to the students who were actively trying to grasp it. Finally, there were other times where I simply wanted to give up. I didn’t respond to failure like an Icelander since I lost sight of a “greater joy”.
What do I mean by a “greater joy”? For me, this “greater joy” is the happiness caused by learning and discovering. From a young age, most of my academic motivation was intrinsic. While my parents surely encouraged much of this motivation, it was mostly me pushing myself to do better in school. It wasn’t due to peer competition, but I wanted (and still want) to learn and experience as much as I can since that’s what makes me happy. Whether it’s reading a new book, trying a new food, or learning a new fact about how the world works, I am still motivated by the happiness that I find in learning about our world. Not all of this information makes me optimistic about the world, but for the most part, more knowledge has made me happier.
My New Year’s Resolution is to instill this same sense of intrinsic motivation, curiosity and academic inquiry in my students. Rather than finishing an assignment so they can listen to their favorite song in class, I want my students to reach a point where they complete their work, because they experience joy in learning. Without much effort, some of my students have already reached this goal. Their desire to learn more and expand their knowledge is truly inspiring, and it keeps me going each and every day. However, I know that through the right inspiration, I can get all of my students to this level in at least one subject by the end of the school year. I know that not all of my students are going to be motivated to learn everything about every subject, but if I can make my students passionate about their favorite subject to encourage further investigation both inside and outside the classroom, I will have hopefully set my students on a path to future success and ideally happiness.
North Las Vegas is not and will never be Iceland. (I have become so used to the Las Vegas winters that I am not sure I could survive an Icelandic winter with my current, thin blood.) However, if my students in North Las Vegas can learn how to respond to failure like the Icelanders, then I know that they will be setting themselves up for future success and happiness well beyond the end of the school year. Now it’s my New Year’s Resolution to work smartly towards this goal for my students both this school year and for next school year.