Choose Joy

#ColleagueCorner is an occasional series which reminds us that our greatest resource is each other. Through human connection and shared experience, these stories provide us a glimpse into our colleagues’ world, a world we all share as educators. 

Sarah Whitman is not a miserable cow. In fact, she is so effusively positive that she committed to a one-minute daily dance party, which she posts to her social media accounts, just to remind people that joy is a choice. An amazing middle school ELA teacher and aspiring school leader, I would be lying if I said I didn’t have her in mind when I came up with #ColleagueCorner. Boooooo the moooooooo.


Every year on the first day of school, I direct my students’ attention to a framed sign in the front of my classroom.  The sign contains a single sentence:

Awesome things will happen today if you choose not to be a miserable cow.

I inform my students that this sentence will be our mantra for the year ahead (and then I explain what the heck a mantra is so they stop looking at me like I’m nuts).  I then ask the students to tell me which word in our mantra is the most important.

Typically, a few over-eager students will immediately blurt out words.  

“Miserable!”  

“Today!”  

“Awesome!”  

Sometimes I’ll even get an enthusiastic cry of “things!”

But every year, there is at least one student who takes a few moments to reflect on each word in the sentence before ultimately uttering the one I’ve been waiting for:

Choose.

Because the truth is, cliche as it may sound, our attitude is something we choose every day.  And our students need us to choose well.

I know that my students are watching me even when I’m not officially “teaching,” and that they can learn much by watching me repeatedly choose happiness, choose kindness, and choose integrity.

I know that my attitude in the classroom can directly influence not only my students’ attitudes, but also their achievement.

Most importantly, I know that some of my students rely on me to offer encouragement and positivity that they may not be receiving from the other adults in their lives.  I know that some of my kids don’t go home to happy, peaceful havens, and that for some of them, my joy might be the only joy they see in the course of a regular day. I can’t think of a more compelling case on behalf of optimism.

I try to keep my miserable cow days–and even my miserable cow moments–to a minimum.

But I’m also a human, and sometimes I fail.  Sometimes I fail impressively. Therefore, my students know that I am permitted a maximum of three “miserable cow days” per school year.  I don’t think I’ve ever used all three, but I’ve also never made it through a school year without at least using one. Every teacher, and every student, is different, so while three days is my self-imposed limit, others may need to give themselves a little more, or a little less, leeway.  Know yourself and what you can handle, and try not to judge others if they need a few more miserable cow days than you.

My best advice for those days (and we all have them) is this: if you do decide to take a miserable cow day, or a miserable cow moment, own it.  Take steps to relieve the stress that’s caused it, whether by way of a few mindful breaths, a walk outside, a good cry (my method of choice), or a few intense punches into a pillow.  Do what you need to do, but don’t take it out on students. Don’t give students a reason to mistrust you or doubt your continuing love and care for them. If you fall short in this regard, apologize.  Occasionally, I’ve made a sarcastic remark to a student, or given a detention too hastily, and when it happens, I’m instantly regretful. Instead of just shrugging and moving on, I make a point of apologizing.  My students know that I’m human, and a sincere apology goes a long way.

Multiple times each day, we are all faced with challenging situations, challenging colleagues, and challenging students.  The more we choose to respond to these challenges with joy and love, the easier it becomes to do it again, and the further away we move from the land of the miserable cows.  

Choose to be the “happy cow” your kids so desperately need in their lives, and you will leave a legacy that lasts well beyond the last day of school.

Sarah Whitman (@wonderwhitman) is a sixth grade language arts teacher at Collingswood Middle School.  Prior to becoming a teacher, she worked in the study abroad industry.  Sarah is passionate about teaching her students to communicate well, demonstrate kindness, and “embrace their weird”!  She is also passionate about Jesus, her family, Anne of Green Gables, and finding the world’s best scone.