“That was fun!”

IMG_7267Last spring heard the satisfying crash of the pins as they flew in ten directions and bowling balls thumped hard into the table at the end of the hall, followed by wild applause.

An afternoon meeting over, my staff was bowling in the hallway between the art studios and the math classrooms, a beautiful benefit of working in a building that will be torn down in just a few months. We weren’t really causing any damage, but from the laughter and applause that filled the hallway, you’d think we were having a party. Putting away the tables at the end of the afternoon, one of my veteran teachers looked at me and said: “That was fun!”

I work at a school where the staff makes a point to have fun. We work hard, certainly, care deeply, and are passionate about the teaching and learning that happens every day, and… while we take our work seriously, I’m proud to say that we don’t always take ourselves seriously.

In a world of no nonsense, we are very much some nonsense.

What this willingness to play means is that as stressful as our jobs can be, and as educators that stress is very, very real and rooted in the importance of what we do, we support each other and ourselves with laughter.

There’s a rumor that it’s the best medicine.

And what do we need medicine for? The act of teaching is by its nature exhausting. The best teachers don’t only teach English or math or science, they teach kids English and math and science. That means buckets of energy being poured into class period after class period, hours spent with young people who bring their own complicated lives to school, hungry to connect and ready to take on the world.

Add to that constant pulls on our time, demands from the site, the state, and the district, and budget concerns so regular that they aren’t a storm to be weathered, but the wet pavement on which we always drive.

Yet these challenges, as real as they are, are all stresses that we share. As much as any teacher might feel alone in her classroom, at a certain point a bell will ring and the kids will leave, and -if all goes right- that teacher might stumble out after the students and find kindred spirits, people who can support, listen, and maybe even laugh.

In his book Play, Stuart Brown offers this assessment: “Play, but its very nature, is a little anarchic. It is about stepping outside normal life and breaking normal patterns. It is about bending rules of thought, action, and behavior.”

Bowling.

In the hallway.

This ability to finish a hard, emotional, and important day of work and still have the desire to connect and have fun is a healthy example of a staff who care for one another and are willing to support each other through the tough times as well as the fun ones.

I believe that as a staff can see this perspective of togetherness and shared community the benefits are passed on to students. Even better are the times that students and staff have a chance to play together.

Last school year this sense of fun began at our first pre-service day when a group of students led the staff through some theater games designed to get us to see school through teenage eyes, play, and think about how we might embrace the improv inspired notion of always saying “Yes, and…

pastedImageThroughout the year staff made a point to continue to sprinkle play into our work together: a Rock-Paper-Scissors competition, firing marshmallows down the hallway, and synchronized swimming without water.

This year I hope that continues, spreading smiles through our faculty as well as our students.

A friend from long ago once gave me a present when I left the school where he and I both worked: a wooden lamp, with a sign that reads “Work like a captain. Play like a pirate.”

Wise, whimsical words.

Because learning, working, and living each involve hard work to be done right, and all of those noble pursuits benefit if from time to time they’re punctuated with the phrase: “That was fun.”

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Rock, Paper, Scissors

RPSIn the interest of fun…

More descriptions of what educators do should begin with those five words. Teachers, counselors, classified staff, administrators… we work hard, care deeply, and sometimes wear our emotions on our sleeves. As busy as we are, it’s easy to forget to take time to laugh, a topic I’ve written about a bit lately, and something that the staff at my school has embraced changing.

Lately we’ve seen lightsaber fights and a crazy good game about culture lifted from the Peace Corps. We’ve eaten chocolate and sipped coffee, batted paper around like kids, and enjoyed a salsa cook off. Sometimes the activities that the staff came up with involved preparation or a trip to the store; today there was magic in the air as we boiled our collective activity to one word: fun.

Well, actually, our social studies department chose three words: Rock. Paper. Scissors.

Dimming the lights at the start of a staff meeting, they played the theme song to Rocky and brought up a video introducing the grand art of roshambo.

Anticipation rose.

Would we be pausing our discussion of Senior Capstones to pair up and play Rock-Paper-Scissors? Could the day have taken a cooler turn?

The lights came back on and our grinning history teachers brought out a work of art.

As they explained that over the next two weeks we’d have an opportunity to compete in the greatest Rock-Paper-Scissors competition every, two intrepid teachers rolled out a bracket that would put March Madness to shame.

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Every staff members’ name was on the huge rectangle of butcher paper, and as we leaned forward and squinted to see who we’d be matched up against, our organizers explained that every two days we’d report our winners and watch as staff moved through a sweet sixteen, elite eight, and final four on their way to a final showdown at our next staff meeting.

It was awesome.

Inevitable side conversations arose: Was it Rock-Paper-Scissors or Rock-Paper-Scissors-Shoot. (It’s Rock-Paper-Scissors.) How many rounds was each match? (Three. Duh.)

Two math teachers spotted that they were matched up, and we had our first victor on the bracket. A science teacher asked if when we got to the sweet sixteen we could pause and fill out our own brackets with predictions.

IMG_7043And as we laughed, a history teacher explained that behind this grand scheme was a hope that we would all get out of our rooms and talk with each other. At least for three rounds every couple of days we would leave our silos and find our friends, or those who may be our friends.

Without spending a dime this group of teachers spun gold.

We went on to our planned discussions at the meeting, and we’ll all come back tomorrow ready to do the hard and meaningful work of education, but even as we do, for the next two weeks we’ll all have one eye on the bracket, and be thinking about what a great group of teachers started today …in the interest of fun.

Jedi Academy

IMG_6774What if we hit each other with pool noodles?

It seemed like a sensible question.

A few weeks back a couple of my teachers got to talking about morale. It ebbs and flows at every school, even the best of them, as the demands of the day pile up and the pressures of making a difference in a job that matters so much grow and grow until very good people find themselves sleeping too little, eating too much, and not taking time for themselves.

The educators I know sometimes need to be reminded to give to themselves as much as they give to their students. They need to be encouraged to breathe and relax, go for a walk, laugh at something silly. Play.

So these intrepid teachers fell into conversation about what we could do at work to make our professional lives …happier.

They weren’t talking about a swelling soundtrack and larger than life event, just adding more of a sense of fun to what we do.

And then, like angels, or middle school teachers (and I believe the terms are very often interchangeable), they did something about it.

It started with crumpled paper, a couple of books, and a trash can. Making a game of it, they got together to bat a ball of paper back and forth, racing another team of hastily gathered teachers, to see who could get the paper in the can first. No double hitting! No catching the ball! Rules piled up to add a little challenge to the game.

And they laughed.

Hard.

IMG_6069Later that afternoon they came into  my office with a suggestion I couldn’t refuse.

After school a week later the empty halls echoed with the laughter of teachers playing. Our staff meeting paused long enough for us to break into teams, choose our own books, and get to slapping a ball of paper back and forth as we rushed toward garbage cans and victory.

Being the amazing organizers they are, those angels/middle school teachers ended the meeting with a chart inviting departments to sign up on to do “something fun.”

IMG_6733Since then we’ve had a salsa contest during a staff meeting and a chocolate tasting extravaganza that ran all day. One morning our counselors turned their office into a coffeehouse.

…and then…

The day arrived when our staff gathered in the theater, the lights dimmed, and the words appeared on the screen: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away…” Cue music (we did). Roll yellow words (we did). Welcome the staff to a day of lightsaber duels (heck, yeah).

We called teachers to the stage by random numbers, three at a time, each handed a pool noodle decorated to look like a lightsaber. They positioned themselves within small squares of blue tape situated onstage in front of the screen displaying scenes from Star Wars movies, sized up the opposition, and on the count of three-two-one started whapping each other.

Screen Shot 2018-05-02 at 4.52.45 PMThe goal was to stay in the blue squares. Some did.

And on the way they laughed. The audience cheered, chomping on red vines as if they were watching a summer blockbuster, seeing their colleagues, now intrepid Jedi, wailing away.

After the first round we brought in double sided lightsabers and let them have at it again.

At the end of the afternoon, just fifteen minutes out of a busy day, applause.

The staff took time to appreciate our receptionist and my secretary, who had put so much effort into the event, and whose Princess Leia hair buns were one of the stars of the show.

Screen Shot 2018-05-02 at 4.32.49 PMThey left smiling.

Those last three words matter so much. In a profession that can be taxing (important, life changing, rewarding, but difficult) to create opportunities for the adults who work with students to play, to laugh, to connect is vital to the health of a school.

To care for our schools we must care for our teachers.

This means many things: Teacher Appreciation Week, thank you notes, lunches provided by the parent organization, and more. It also means opportunities to be silly.

Morale will ebb and flow, that’s the world we live in, and it’s also the challenge we’re given to face those emotional highs and lows by supporting one another, taking the time to be kind, and doing our best to see the best in ourselves and each other.

…and sometimes it’s fun just to whap fellow Jedi with pool noodles.