Happiness, laughter and humor can help us create schools where students are eager to learn, educators and parents have trusting relationships, and everyone wants to get better at what they do.
That’s the proposition put forth in two insightful eBooks by Canadian author and veteran principal Sue Stephenson, offered for the first time in digital format this week at the Powerful Learning Press online bookstore.
In this interview with PLPress editor John Norton, Sue talks about her interest in laughter, learning and positive psychology and how her books Kidding Around (for school-based educators and parents) and Laughing Matters (for education leaders and counselors, written with Paul Thibault) came about.
John Norton: Sue, you’ve written two books about joy, humor and laughter in learning – one for educators and parents and another for administrators and other folks in leadership roles. You have another book about trust-building in schools. What experiences and interests led you to write so much in this “positive psychology” vein?
Sue Stephenson: Let me just begin by saying that although I’m an optimist and extrovert by nature, I can still be drawn to the dark side of cynicism and anxiety, so every day I take time to focus on consciously lightening up and being happier. My writing and speaking in this area have a personal benefit as I attempt to follow my own advice on achieving mental health and wellness. Now to the chronology of my life that brought me to this point.
I was the oldest of three girls (and the oldest grandchild) in my family. Even as a young girl, I ran a classroom out of my basement with kids from the neighborhood. I loved going to school, and one teacher in particular inspired me to be the best that I could be. (Thank you, Mr. Denstedt.) And so, like many eldest children, teaching was a natural choice for my career.
My parents’ divorce when I was 16 influenced me greatly in three ways: I took my family responsibilities very seriously, I struggled with finding trusting relationships, and I realized at any early age that I had to take control of my own happiness, at least the parts I could affect. The past, especially childhood, often is prologue for the future, but the rest of that Shakespearean line applies as well: “what to come, in yours and my discharge.”
The first part of my professional life was as a teacher of Home Economics/Family Studies. I loved the fact that it was multidisciplinary — a very practical and activity-based subject that kids actually chose to take. It was very evident that they liked it, and our classes were very popular.
As a classroom teacher and teacher leader for 17 years I was always drawn to helping teachers who were disillusioned with their career and kids who weren’t connected with school. I saw clearly the need for change and I wanted to help others and help the system.
â–º How did your interest in leadership and writing develop?
Often as a teacher I found myself trying to solve a problem in an innovative way, whether it was to keep kids in school; to teach practical life skills like nutrition and food preparation, sewing and fashion; or to help kids (and teachers) feel better and cope with stress.
In particular, I wanted to entice teachers to try new strategies where traditional methods weren’t working. I became very involved in professional learning, and my early writing for secondary teachers was about honoring and celebrating different learning styles and peer coaching. This in turn led to about 10 years as a staff developer, or what we might call an instructional partner now.
With my colleagues and leaders we attempted to find generic instructional strategies that worked across all subject disciplines and grades â€” the things we did in common and how we could work together to help kids succeed. My first book was a product of this era in my life â€” School-Based Planning: talking and growing together. Teaching with humor and a sense of humor was one strategy that I felt was underrated and undervalued. I learned so much about collaboration and teamwork in those days.
I had been an assistant (or vice) principal in a large urban secondary school for five years and then had the good fortune to become a principal of a new, large elementary school in Toronto with wonderful families and kids but also challenged by high rates of violence and poverty. I learned so much there as well.
â–ºYou retired as a principal and began to pursue writing and consulting. What sparked your interest in therapeutic humor?
About six years ago I stumbled upon a training session to become a Certified Laughter Leader with the World Laughter Tour, under the vision and expert leadership of Steve Wilson. This opened up a whole new area of research on happiness and mirth and the concept of laughter clubs where people young and old laughed for no reason at all except the pure joy of it.
I became a member of AATH (Association of Applied and Therapeutic Humor) and now have a rich collaboration with nurses, doctors, counselors and teachers, all with the same positive goal of helping others to lighten up and look on the bright side of life. That led me to write a book about laughter and learning, aimed primarily at education leaders in various roles. Laughing Matters was originally published by Solution Tree as one of a series of leadership books about “Solutions.”
After the initial success of Laughing Matters, co-authored with Paul Thibault, I stepped back and looked at the bigger picture of educational change. It was then that I realized that trust was a key issue, and happiness, laughter and camaraderie were one important part of trust â€” a missing part in the dialogue about leading and learning.
When I realized the huge impact that high levels of trust (in a classroom, a school, on a school board or in a family) can have on increasing student achievement, I was hooked! Any change or improvement that is attempted without early or developing trust cultures has always been a waste of time and money. All this led me to write Leading With TRUST (Solution Tree, 2009), and I have spent the last five years working with schools on developing higher trust cultures.
Finally, my discovery of the work of Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, helped me to tie together many themes in my professional life. I am now an active member of the Canadian Positive Psychology Association and have high hopes for the impact we can have on education. The timing is right.
The work I continue to do in professional learning communities, school culture and intervention is based on the belief that without an atmosphere of happiness and trust, no professional learning community will be able to sustain itself over time, let alone get off the ground to begin with.
â–ºYou’ve just launched two eBooks with Powerful Learning Press, both about laughter and happiness in learning. How are they different? What will the reader find in each one?
Laughing Matters: strategies for building a joyful learning community, which I wrote with Paul Thibault, was originally published by Solution Tree. Although it sold well, they eventually let it go out of print, and I have since acquired all the rights. It was really intended to be a positive counterpoint to political policies in Canada and the United States that had severely devalued teachers. Along with my colleague Paul Thibault, I wanted to help bring joy back into lives of principals and teacher leaders by focusing on building joyful learning communities.
The book met with considerable success (despite a very dull original cover!), and clearly the message resonated with a wide variety of audiences on both the academic and support staff sides of education. The messages are still very pertinent in today’s K12 education climate.
The idea for the book Kidding Around actually came to me as I was working with schools in Canada and the U.S. on trust-building. I kept hearing from classroom teachers and instructional leaders that they loved the big ideas in the book Laughing Matters but they wanted more specific activities they could easily use and adapt for their elementary and secondary curriculum. That sounded like a book that would be a lot of fun to write!
Kidding Around not only meets their request, it also reaches out to other educators, care providers and parents (a new audience) who find themselves struggling with mental health issues within their homes and families.
Along with various activities that help children discover their own sources of humor and happiness, Kidding Around also tackles the other side of happiness â€” anxiety and sadness or depression â€” and offers strategies to help diminish the negative humor that can be used as a weapon to hurt or humiliate.
A portion of the sale of each copy of Kidding Around is donated to Kids Help Phone, a distress line and counseling service for children and teens.
â–ºTell us more about the kinds of activities readers will find in Kidding Around. It seems chocked full of fun things to do. And how can teachers blend these resources into the Very Serious business of covering the curriculum?
There are 40 activities in Kidding Around for teachers and parents to use “as is” or adapt or embellish to suit their children. They are multi-sensory and can be scaled up or down. I have provided options at three levels of implementation: testing the water; getting your feet wet; or jumping in the deep end. (See several examples of activities in this excerpt from Sue’s book.)
Some schools and communities have adopted school-wide approaches to well-being such as making optimism a theme for the entire year. But it can be as uncomplicated an idea as one teacher shared with me at a workshop: she changed her approach to assessment by calling quizzes and tests “Celebrations of Learning.” That simple idea totally changed the mindset and reduced anxiety for her students.
Some educators and parents put this issue on the table and starting a discussion about mental health. Others apply it in their own classrooms or around their family dinner table in safe, simple projects.
In the final analysis, we may need to drastically restructure our curriculum if we are going to make a difference in the mental health literacy of kids and their future lives.
â–ºLet’s turn to your book for leadership, Laughing Matters, written with Paul Thibault. You’re a veteran principal – did you find humor and laughter to be a common trait among school leaders you’ve known? And is one purpose of Laughing Matters to establish a research base so administrators are given permission to help establish schools that laugh?
I think in general many school leaders fear that laughter in some way diminishes their authority and the seriousness of their responsibility. I’ve often seen school leaders who relax and enjoy joking in informal settings put on a different, serious “game face” in their official capacity at work.
Sometimes leaders may think that if kids are laughing, no learning is going on â€” or if staff members are joking with one another, it’s a pause in productivity rather than a booster. I argue that a research base needs to be established and taken more seriously so administrators are given permission to have schools that laugh and then to pass those permission slips along to the teaching and support staff.
We all need to get to know more about each other as people and have some fun together. A strategy I learned from Patrick Lencioni called Personal Histories never fails when I use it with adults. Sharing basic information such as our birthplace, siblings and birth order, and challenges we faced as children helps us get to know the person behind the desk and the formal role they have.
Certainly there are many serious, even life-threatening moments in the life of a teacher or a school leader. The teamwork and trust built up before these situations helps everyone pull together and do the best for all kids. Sometimes, in the worst of times, laughter can smooth the tears and fears.
These are new fields of study that deserve educators’ attention, and more research is underway. In high-performing cultures, teamwork and collaboration depend on these skills. Creativity and optimism are the results of work in these areas. We do know from research that increasing levels of happiness, trust, laughter and camaraderie all lead to increased levels of staff commitment and student achievement.
â–ºPowerful Learning Press is offering your two eBooks as a bundle, priced about $4 below the separate cover prices. Can you make the case for buying the two books together? How do you imagine them being used in a school setting, for example?
Laughing Matters gives any reader an overview and how it could be applied to school and instructional leaders. Kidding Around expands significantly on the area of humor and comedy and makes connections among the research fields of happiness, laughter and humour with 40 activities for children of all ages.
The two books would make companion pieces for anyone interested in making schools happier places, building stronger relationships and approaching mental health issues proactively, removing their stigma. Aspiring, new and experienced teachers and school leaders will all find applications to the challenges they face.
The two books can also be shared with parents and students in groups and classes or in one-on-one situations. Book clubs, school parent councils, counsellors and mental health workers will also find a shared language to use with students.
â–ºAny closing comments? Your favorite school joke?
fEveryone needs to have permission to laugh and play more and be grateful for the good things in their life. We all need to know that friends, family and trained professionals are there to help us when life’s challenges become too much to cope with and times are tough. We need to know we’re not alone.
Rather than a favorite joke, I have a favorite experience to share. It came about when I read the words of students who were asked to blog about the value of humor in the curriculum. Here’s what some of them said:
– The most important message I got was the little things in life do count and make you just as happy as the big ones.
– Being happy is a choice that only you can make.
– I love it when someone’s laugh is as funny as the joke!
– I honestly really, really, REALLY love this assignment. It’s allowing me to reach out of my comfort zone, which usually doesn’t happen.
– I’m totally pumped for our (comedy) sketch. Can’t wait!!! You don’t see many schools doing these types of things, and I am SUPER grateful for being exposed to a subject new to me.
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