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Equity Resources, Mindset & Motivation, Podcast Articles   |   Aug 6, 2023

Rooted in Joy: Creating a classroom culture of equity, belonging, and care

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Rooted in Joy: Creating a classroom culture of equity, belonging, and care

By Angela Watson

My guest today is Dr. Deonna Smith, who is an advocate for educational justice, a teacher, and abolitionist. Deonna’s passion for justice began early, as the only student of color in most places in Spokane Washington where she was born and raised, and also being a first-generation college student.

Deonna has worked as a classroom teacher and school administrator, and now works with educators who are ready to reimagine schools as sources of joy, liberation, and community building. You can learn more about Deonna and her work at https://www.deonnasmithconsulting.com and you’ll also learn more about her new book with the same title as this podcast episode, which is Rooted in Joy: Creating a classroom culture of equity, belonging, and care. I know you’ll enjoy hearing Deonna’s passion, energizing wisdom, and practical ideas as much as I have.

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What it looks like to be “rooted in joy”

ANGELA: Deonna, what does it mean to be rooted in joy and how did you uncover what that looks like in your own life and work?

DEONNA: I love this question because it really gets to the crux of my educational philosophy, and what it means to be rooted in joy is to really radically and unapologetically center joy in your classroom, in both the academic and the classroom culture experience. And I think that at first, that’s kind of a head-scratcher for people. They’re like, “Do we need that? Is that necessary?”

But I think what the past couple of years have taught us, and what I’ve learned through my own pursuit of not only high-quality instruction and solid pedagogy but really transformative equity work, is that joy absolutely needs to be at the root and can’t be an add-on or something that we think about later. Rather, it needs to be something that’s really a starting place and the soil from which our classroom culture and our classroom ecosystem grows.

And the second part of that question, if you’re familiar with me from Instagram, you know that I started off very much in the equity DEI and anti-racism space, which I still very much am in, and I think that joy is really something that I found to be the secret ingredient, the missing piece.

I used to talk about that a lot in my workshops. The secret ingredient is joy. The reason why some of this equity work is feeling like it’s really taxing or it’s falling flat is because we don’t have that joy, and really through my own experience of fighting for educational equity, and then my experience as a teacher of being burnt out, of reflecting on my own experience as a student and how joyful schools, from my perception, used to be, and how much they’ve changed now was really fundamental for me in realizing that this is something that we’re missing that used to work.

I’m curious about what your experience in joyful schools was like. What do you feel like we’ve lost there? What used to be commonplace that is now not, or maybe what was just something that was common in your experience?

Well, I’ll start by saying I went to a hippie-dippy Montessori school, and, and when I tell you that totally radically changed the way that I thought about school, I did, and I did K-6 there. You see a lot of Montessori preschools, but I was there for all of elementary. I just had a totally different relationship with school.

We were a lot less routine, a lot less rote, and there was a lot less talk of high-stakes testing and rigor. And I think when people find out about equity work, they think that the thing that we have to dig in on is getting up those standardized test scores for black and brown students. And that couldn’t be further from the truth because what I found, especially in working in schools in a response to so-called learning loss, is that now we want to take all of the fun stuff out of school and really double down on academics.

So we have to have more rigor and even more instructional time, and that is just not the answer because it’s taken the humanity, the life, the play, the inquiry, and all of that out of school,  and I think it’s showing because we’re not seeing the so-called learning loss has not been regained despite hundreds of millions of dollars in standardized testing and high stakes curriculum.

So I think my own experience in reflecting on what it was like as a student in Montessori, and then watching how the demands on my students changed working with kindergartners, working with high schoolers, and really just seeing their joy and their luster erode because of the way that they have to show up in the classroom being really demoralizing and dehumanizing made me realize that until we get that piece back, they’re not going to be able to thrive academically. So it has to start with that joy.

You know, my first few teaching years were in the Head Start program, which is a federally funded program for low-income families, preschoolers, and our classrooms were a joyful place. And when I moved up and started teaching higher grades — I started teaching at third grade — I could see the difference in the kids because it was no longer about exploring and following their interests and learning through play. 

So I too feel like I’ve had that experience where I see a joy-filled classroom, and then I’ve also felt like I needed to teach in ways that were not joyful, and just like yearning to have that back, that excitement and that enthusiasm. And I feel like when teachers have those little moments with kids where there are those breakthroughs of joy and laughter and enthusiasm, that’s the stuff that keeps teachers going. That’s the big motivator.

Yeah, absolutely. I think it kind of rang to me as silly that we would think that it’s possible to ask these kids to internalize all of these standards within a nine-month period without any inquiry enthusiasm. Like you said, it’s kind of crazy to think that a 10-year-old is going to meet the demands that are already, in my view, a little astronomical, without anything else in the classroom. Like, it can’t just be academics.

When you look at it like that, it becomes clear that you have to have the joy and you hit on the other piece too, which is that it’s so life-giving for teachers. Like, we got into this because of those little moments. Those are the memories that we hold, those are the things that we go home and we’re like, “Maybe I do have one more year in me, right?” It’s those moments.

So it is rejuvenating for teachers and it’s sustaining for students. It makes everybody feel good. And, you know, the district people love to hear that it also leads to more positive outcomes. Like we know that joyful, equity-based practices lead to better outcomes for students too. So it’s really a win-win win.

The internal work for educators who want to create school-based practices that are rooted in joy

Okay. So let’s get into it. And let’s start by talking about our own internal work, because I really try to emphasize as you do, that it’s not just about what we’re doing with students, but how we’re showing up. Who are we in the classroom and how are we interacting with them? So talk to us about the kind of internal work that educators need to do in order to create school-based practices that are rooted in joy.

Yes, I used to say a curriculum is only as anti-racist as a teacher teaching it. And the classroom is only as joyful as the teacher teaching it. So it really does start with you.

And I think for people that are frustrated, if they’re like doing all of the things but they’re not seeing results, then my first question is how are you showing up to that space? So on the joy side, I also want to mention that for children to feel joyful at school, they have to be able to be their authentic and full selves. And that’s not possible in spaces where their identity doesn’t have value and they don’t feel that sense of belonging. So it’s important for teachers to do internal work that’s related to unpacking their own biases, their own identity work — all of that we would still traditionally think is nested under maybe culturally responsive teaching.

But it is very critical for the joyful work as well, because how am I going to be joyful if who I am isn’t celebrated in the classroom? I can’t be joyful in that environment. Teachers don’t intentionally exclude identities, but without examining your biases, you might be unintentionally doing that. So you always want to start with that internal work.

Whether you’re in an identity affinity group where you’re unpacking that, whether you pick up the Racial Healing Handbook, whether you’re reading maybe another book, maybe Me and White Supremacy, there’s a lot of different books that you could read about your identity work or whether you’re just engaging in those reflection based practices that bring you more awareness about how you’re showing up on the identity side. That is where the internal work starts. And then the other side of the internal work is you can’t pour from an empty cup, right?

So you need to be experiencing joy. You need to be making sure that your emotional needs are met, that you’re getting the seven different types of rest that you are feeling fulfilled socially and that you’re recharging, whatever that looks like for you. So if you’re not able to find joy in your personal life, it’s going to be hard for you to show up and really create that container for joy in your classroom. So that’s another piece that’s great for teachers when they realize that taking care of themselves and being their best selves actually has benefits and payoff in the classroom as well.

Carving out time for rest and joy-filled personal practices

What would you say to a teacher who’s thinking, I know I need to experience more joy. We’ve been talking for the last few years about self-care. I understand that all of this is important, but I don’t even know where to start. Like I’m just so busy and bogged down with things like, how do I find my joy? How do I find those ways that work for me to recharge?

So that’s a great question. One thing that I coach people a lot on are the seven different types of rest. When we think about recharging, we have a singular view that that means literally resting or like maybe binging something on Netflix, but rest can look differently. There’s a different type of rest called creative rest. And in creative rest, you are rejuvenating yourself through engaging in different creative hobbies. So maybe you need to pick up something creative like needlepoint or coloring. There’s also sensory rest where you’re taking a screen-free day.

So I think a lot of it starts with understanding the type of rest that you’re missing out on, and getting that type of rest. And then another thing is just really to start small. I think we often think about self-care and we think that we need to go on this huge trip, or we need to do this big thing. But it can be really, really small. It can start with one day a week, one hour a week of carving out that time.

And then I also highly recommend, especially if you’re type A, is for you to actually schedule it. Make it an agenda item. Don’t just wait until everything’s done to get self-care. Put it in your calendar. Schedule it like Thursday from 4:30-7:30, that’s my self-care time, and I’m going to go to yoga and get myself a little treat. And then I’m going to break out my crochet needles and crochet for a while, whatever it looks like for you.

So I think scheduling it and learning about the seven different types of rest, and then really starting small and not feeling overwhelmed with yourself — starting with one day a week — is a great way to make that sustainable and actually actionable.

The importance of freedom dreaming and envisioning a joyful way of schooling

So let’s talk about what it looks like to have a classroom that is rooted in joy. And we’re going to get into the practical things about how to actually implement this, but I want to start with the vision because I think it’s really important to be able to dream, to imagine something better than what we have currently. And not just think within the constraints of our current limitations, right? But what could actually be possible. And I know that’s something that you’re really big on too.

So tell me about your vision. What would a classroom that is rooted in joy look like?

First, let go of the constraints, because I know as soon as you start thinking, you’re going to think about a million ways why it’s not possible. But Robin Kelly and Bettina Love are scholars and they both talk about freedom dreaming. And it’s such an important exercise because you’re allowing yourself to visualize what something else could look like. And if you don’t even allow your imagination to free yourself from the constraints of the reality, then you’re never going to see that change if we can’t even in our dreams think about a world without whatever it is, maybe standardized testing, it’s never going to happen in reality. So it’s okay to dream a little bit, even if it seems unrealistic.

It starts with unpacking and recognizing the way that our current system breaks down joy and breaks down that identity work. Dr. Bettina Love would call it spirit murdering. So I think to start, what is a classroom that’s rooted in joy? Well, some things that I start pushing back with teachers on is noise level — a classroom rooted in joy is not necessarily going to fit the rubric of level one, level two, level three, all the time perfectly. That might not be what your classroom looks like. And then I like to think about the physical space — a joyful space is probably a space where students can be in community with each other, with ease.

And so that might not look like the typical rows and desks that we’re used to in a joyful space — there might be more collaborative learning spaces. So when you think about joy, I like to think about first, like from a kid’s perspective in this classroom, what are things that are stopping me from being my full authentic self, kind of free to just show up as I am and then work backwards from that?

So for a lot of teachers, I recommend philosophically starting with what I call joy first. And that is really flipping your focus away from behavior management and more towards community building. And so when I look at classrooms, what I see is that teachers spend about 80% of their time trying to manage behavior and about 20% of their time building community, maybe at the beginning of the year it’s more balanced, because you’re starting off.

But usually, when you think about what you spend a lot of your time doing, as far as culture, it’s probably responding, playing what I call whack-a-mole with student behavior. I just encourage teachers to dream about flipping that. Like, what if you spend 80% of your time just thinking about how can I continue to build and strengthen this community of learners and only 20% of my time responding to behavior?

And it’s a dream because at first there’s going to be a lot of behaviors for you to respond to, and that’s just natural. But we’re working towards shifting our focus away from control and like managing behaviors and into community, building those connections. So that’s like kind of the philosophical concept that undergirds the freedom dreaming of a joyful classroom.

The really practical side is it just looks like kids showing up as their authentic selves being a community learning in ways that are well suited to their learning, their learning habits, and meeting them where they’re at in their learning styles. And really de-centering this kind of banking model of the teacher having all of the knowledge and needs to get it into the students, but rather like knowledge is constructed and built in this joyful collaborative community.

When I think about a joyful place, I think about a place where it feels personalized to me and I feel I’m in a comfortable chair. Maybe I’m able to have water nearby or a snack or you know, I’m able to look at something that is pleasing to me or have objects around that I enjoy or that are meaningful to me or that celebrates something that is important to me. Maybe photographs or something like that.

And I’m just thinking about how that plays out in the classroom. It doesn’t even have to be something that the teacher is necessarily orchestrating, it’s what you’re saying. It’s allowing kids to be their authentic selves and not try to shove them back in this box where we’ll know we all sit on these kinds of chairs, or no, we don’t have this extra stuff on our desks. Or you know, this is the standard way that our classroom is going to look. And because teaching has been so standardized, it’s really tempting to kind of make the way that we approach students more standardized. And I think that that personalization piece is so little, but so powerful.

Right? And I think for some teachers, they think it’s so difficult to personalize to every single student. But I always encourage them to think about this. In my experience, it was much harder to try to bully 30 kids into a cookie-cutter mold that wasn’t working for them than just kind of being flexible. So it’s not that you have to learn every single eccentricity and want and need of every single student. It’s just about being flexible with not trying to get them to conform. And if you really step back and think about what teachers spend a lot of time doing, a lot of that is trying to get students to fit into that cookie-cutter mold. And there’s a reason why it’s so hard and there’s a reason why we’re getting burnt out because it’s not meant to work that way.

So a joyful classroom — you’re absolutely right — it is personalized and kids feel a sense of belonging in that space, and that is kind the baseline, right? Because you can’t feel joyful unless you feel a sense of belonging and that you have a place there. So it really all starts with that. And you mentioned there are a lot of passive ways that teachers can do that, and there’s a lot of active ways that teachers can do that. But it really just starts with having the desire and the disposition of this classroom is going to intentionally push back on the ways that we try to make kids fit into a mold that kills that joy.

The interconnection of humanizing our students with joyful classroom practices

How does all of this fit into the importance of humanizing our students and humanizing our classroom? What does that mean to you?

Humanizing our kids is a huge ask. The dehumanization to go back to that cookie-cutter mold, it starts with you aren’t a human in all of your complexity. Like you are a third grader and this is what third graders do, right? And so I think it’s important to recognize that this is the default.

So for teachers, you have to understand this is the way that things are naturally going to work. Schools are naturally going to be dehumanizing because they’re designed to produce results within a very narrow confines, right? The idea is to create the standardized adult that can check all these boxes. So the dehumanization, even if you’re listening to this and thinking I don’t dehumanize my students, the reality is schools are designed to do that.

So humanizing has to be something that we’re actively engaging in. And it just means seeing your kids for their full selves. And this is to go back to the internal work, it is really hard to humanize a student, especially those students that really push you in a weird place, like the ones that you’re up at night thinking about, the ones that you sometimes wish weren’t on your roster. Those are the ones that it’s hard to humanize unless you are very well yourself. Because if you are dysregulated, if you are escalated, if you are feeling dehumanized, you’re not going to be able to hold that space for one of your babies, right? So it’s really important to go back to that, that like wellness and wholeness as a person because it’s easy to dehumanize students when they’re exhibiting these behaviors.

According to the Department of Education, schools are reporting that behaviors are worse now than they ever were before the pandemic. And I think that’s when a lot of the dehumanizing starts. It’s the kids that their attention spans are really short because of the social media and information revolution that’s happening. It’s the kids that can’t sit still, their bodies are not able to move. It’s the kids that are still dealing with trauma and are externalizing that on other kids in other ways. It’s those kids that it’s so easy for us to dehumanize because we get caught up in the frustration in responding to those behaviors. So that’s why it’s absolutely critical to go back to that internal work. And when you’re humanizing your students, it’s everybody. That’s the other ask of a joyful community.

It’s not joyful for my students that are behaving. It’s not joyful to everybody whose clip is on green today. This is a community and everybody has to have a space. So it’s important to humanize and have that radical humanization of when we say humanize, we mean everybody, even the ones whose parents you can’t seem to get ahold of, but seem to never miss a day of school. That is a big ask.

And for me personally, I’ve seen a lot of teachers dehumanize students coming from a place of frustration and dysregulation, but it ends up really altering the kids’ experience, like when they feel dehumanized or when they feel rejected from their teacher and their community space. It can totally transform your relationship with school, with your yourself, and really send kids down the school-to-prison pipeline. So it can be a very high-stakes thing to keep that rooted in your students’ humanity and your own humanity as well.

How the classroom ecosystem analogy can help us grow more joy

Another way that I know you think about humanizing students and creating this class culture is really seeing the classroom as an ecosystem. And I know you’ve written about that in your book, in which in an ecosystem, every being is interdependent. And that really rings true to me because when we make changes to any one aspect of an ecosystem, either the classroom ecosystem, or a different type you know, any little change just creates this ripple effect. And we have intended and unintended consequences.

And I think that this holistic view of seeing the classroom as a whole ecosystem, it’s not this thing where, oh, if I could just turn off this one behavior and make kids pay attention or show up to class on time or turn in their work. There’s a whole ecosystem of factors there. And I would love to hear what your thoughts are on this, this concept of a classroom ecosystem.

When  I coach on academics, I always talk about discussion should be soccer and not tennis. So it’s not going back and forth between the teacher and individual students, but it’s soccer. Like the ball is moving over here, it’s moving over there, it’s an exchange. And I wanted to capture that same idea for the classroom culture. Because a lot of times when we think about classroom culture, we think about the teacher and the student like, I’m the teacher, I’m at the center, and it’s like, I’m interacting with each of these kids and it’s my job to build a relationship with each of these individual kids. And that is true, but the teacher is not the center focal point.

Instead, it’s all of these interdependent relationships with each other of this ecosystem. And in the same way, when you think about an ecosystem, the ecosystem is dependent on its environment, right? And there’s environmental factors. So like the ecosystem could be going really well and then the environment could throw it off. So I thought that was a good analogy because there is the physical space, and even the time of year, everybody knows that kindergartners in September are totally different people than kindergartners in June.

So there’s all these external factors that are also impacting the ecosystem. But I think when you start to think about it like that, it takes some of the pressure off of the teacher as being like the center focal point and has all this responsibility to make it all happen.

But instead, you’re building and helping to create this healthy ecosystem. And when the ecosystem is healthy, it continues to grow and expand upon itself, right? It starts this chain reaction and then it gets better and better. It’s not just one person working away.

So I want teachers to think about their classrooms as ecosystems and how different interventions can bring healthy changes to the ecosystem and continue to make it grow. But the ecosystem is also always moving and always maintaining. So it’s not a stagnant kind of thing where the ecosystem is done. It’s always growing and changing and shifting. So that’s the relationship that I hope teachers will feel excited about having with their classrooms and their classroom culture.

Yeah, that’s got me excited. Like I love the idea of thinking about it that way. You’re right, it takes so much pressure off, you know, to be the fixer or to be the one who, you know, creates the whole environment. But, you know, an environment or an ecosystem, it’s a living thing, right? Created of all of these living beings and each one impacts that. Each one creates a ripple effect with their actions and, and their choices. And it grows over time. It changes over time. Yes. I love it.

Classroom practices that create a culture of equity, belonging, and care

So talk to us about some specific practices that teachers can implement to create a classroom culture that is really mindful of this ecosystem and really integrates equity, belonging, and care as you talk about in your book.

So I would say the first thing, especially if you’re not back to school yet is really thinking about how you are going to show up as a member of the ecosystem. Starting with your own work, starting with your own reflection, and with your own wellness and wholeness, I talk a lot about in the book about not only being well — like emotionally well — but being whole, feeling that sense of wholeness and rightness with yourself. So I would say start there.

And then I would think about a very low effort or a very high effort task, but like low effort is to think about the physical space. So as your classroom oriented towards building community, I would then start to think about really honing in on the first two weeks or if you’re reading this later, take two weeks to really intentionally build that community. And what that should look like is every day there should be an opportunity for two weeks. Every day there should be an opportunity for kids to reflect and share on their own identity, who they are, and an opportunity for kids to reflect and share on how they are going to show up in community with each other.

For two weeks you want at least one activity each day that’s an identity activity and one activity each day that’s a community-building activity. And then watch how that that foundation transforms. Because I guarantee you if you do that, you’ll start to see some, some really big changes. And then think about daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly celebrations of joy. And so now when you’re doing your lesson plans or you’re looking at your week at a glance, just take 10 minutes each day and think about where’s a moment where you will be joyful and excited with each other.

That could look like a myriad of different things. Maybe you have a really high interest project in science which is going to be super fun. Maybe it’s 10 extra minutes of recess. Maybe it is a community meeting and the kids bring in a show and tell. Maybe you find the funniest meme that you saw this week and bring it into class.

Whatever it is, you want to think about daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly moments of joy. And the monthly stuff should be like classroom celebrations. And then the yearly stuff I always like to tie it to something big like a classroom field day or some sort of rite of passage that they can look forward to. But the monthly stuff, you can also bring in that identity.

Like when I think about monthly joy, I think about connecting it to whatever culture month we’re celebrating. So whether it’s Latino Heritage between September and October, or Filipino Heritage in October, or in Indigenous People’s Month in November, or you’re doing Black History Month in February, how can you make those joyful and also identity-building experiences?

So it starts with the same way when you think about planning your curriculum. I know it sounds weird, but if the joy isn’t happening, plan it. If the community building isn’t happening, intentionally plan it and sit down and make those activities happen. And it might seem like you’re just checking off a box, but the tangible results will be there in the health of your ecosystem.

Yeah, that’s a really great point about planning. Like, that doesn’t make it inauthentic because you plan to have a moment of joy, right? What it means is it is a priority, right? And you are therefore scheduling in time, just like you mentioned earlier about scheduling in that time for you know, rest, whatever kind of rest it is that you need. We don’t have to just wait for these things to happen because often they won’t, we have to plan for them.

Yes, absolutely. That’s the thing, it’s shifting your mindset to understanding that. It’s kind of like Beverly Tatum talks about racism as a moving walkway like in the airport. Like it’s already moving towards not being joyful. School as a default is moving away from joy and belonging and care. So if you’re not doing anything, you’re already moving away from that. So to bring that in, sometimes you have to actively walk, right? You have to actively walk against that and plan it in. That’s a way that we’re disrupting, right? We’re disrupting these harmful practices in education.

Additional resources to help you create a classroom that’s rooted in joy

So I would love for you to tell us where we can find more resources related to this. Especially if teachers are thinking about doing these identity-based practices at the start of the school year and thinking about joyful practices. Tell us about your favorite resources that can make this easier for teachers. Tell us about where they can connect with you and learn more from you. And then share with us our takeaway truth, which is something that you wish every educator listening understood about doing work that’s rooted in joy.

If you’re on my newsletter, you get resources! I send out a weekly newsletter with resources and information that all is kind of in this wheelhouse — anti-racism, culture-responsive teaching, and joy are my main topics that I rotate through. So make sure you’re on the weekly newsletter, and then obviously my book Rooted in Joy is all about the subject. It’s meant to be something that combines theory and practice. So there is theory in it, but it’s also very orientated towards the actual practices. So there is a whole chapter dedicated to implementing all of this stuff here.

And I also regularly offer workshops and that kind of thing with teachers, and I also go to schools and do workshops. And then for me, when I’m trying to figure out what this looks like on my own, I do a lot of learning from folks on Instagram. And then I do a lot of learning from other teachers who are out here every day doing the work. So whether you’re looking at Naomi O’Brien and Lanesha Tabb — they have  really great Teachers Pay Teachers stores with a lot of resources — or you’re using other folks like Liz Kleinrock who also has a lot of resources. So I do a lot of looking to other teachers to see what they’re doing. I would say start there.

Remember: Joy isn’t “one more thing” to plan for

One thing that I would always like to end with and share with folks is that this is not one more thing.

I know as teachers we can be really resistant and cautious about like, Is this like another thing that we’re doing? Because we’re doing all of the things and it feels like we can’t take one more thing. But when you start to build your classroom ecosystem, it makes it more sustainable for you. It makes it easier for you, more joyful. So this isn’t one more thing. It’s really transforming the way that you structure your classroom so that it can be more sustainable for yourself and joyful for your students. So if you do a little bit of the work on the front end it pays off big time on the back end.

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela is a National Board Certified educator with 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach. She started this website in 2003, and now serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Truth for Teachers...
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