educational leadership

Arm With Happiness~ Leveraging School Happiness Agency

According to the Fall 2017 Student Gallup Poll, 34% of all students feel stuck and 20% feel discouraged relative to Hope (the ideas and energy students have for the future.) That is over 50% of all students feeling less than good about their future - I am not digging those odds!  If we are looking for a true measure to indicate the health of our schools, I think we found it. Yet, nationwide we are divided, fighting over everything we can, modeling anything but healthy, happy living. There is an intense debate on how to de-arm our children, remove their access to guns in the interest of protection;  what children collectively need are strategies, arming them as they face our imperfect world that inevitably presents them with adversity, they need tools that arm them with happiness resilience.  

Let’s dig in deeper into happiness.  “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence” – Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics. As parents and educators, if pressed, our deep down desire is that our children will grow-up to be healthy and happy. From a baby’s first smiles and giggles, to when we recognize an activity, career change or promotion, or loving person that makes us feel truly fulfilled and happy- the ability to BE happy greatly shapes how we live our lives. Happiness is literally in our genetic makeup, it is hard wired into us all and is relatively an easy lesson to grow as we develop. Happiness is a hallmark of successful people and thriving companies. Happiness resilience allows for people to overcome adversity and failure.

Happiness can be developed, cultivated and learned the same as reading and writing. In fact, like other skills, it needs to be developed with intentional practice. As educators  we must recognize that the ability to be happy is not fixed. We are not born with a set threshold, or ability to demonstrate happiness. Yet recent violent incidents across the country, the extreme rise in rates of childhood depression, bullying, and suicide as well as the results of the 2017 Student Gallup Poll, makes me wonder what messages we are sending our children about the importance of happiness and how we are cultivating happiness in our schools.

Do schools have the capacity to “arm” students with the ability to choose happiness, to be happy, to be healthy? I KNOW we do and I certainly don’t plan on waiting for more tragedies as indicators to establish an urgency for happiness training, positive well being, call it whatever you want - a complete overhaul, reset to the core purpose and intent of our nation's schools… as Nike says- Just DO IT. At educate4hope we have come to call this School Happiness Agency.

School Happiness Agency

School Happiness Agency (SHA) is the ability to create, influence, encourage and assume responsibility for the actions that will enhance the experience of joy, overall well-being, connectedness, sense that one’s life is good, and meaningfulness. This sense of agency is essential in the development of the school community’s social-emotional capacity to take control, increase motivation and respond to the environment in a healthy, meaningful, happy manner. Our ability to take action is not in the form of control- it is in the creation of the purposeful structures and intentional opportunities that build the culture, skills and tools in creating a mindset where happiness is the ultimate goal for all.

Schools have an ongoing and active role in establishing, as well as continuing to cultivate the level of School Happiness Agency for each community.  SHA can manifest itself in physical environment, value of relationships, meaningful reflections, outcomes and goals, equity and fairness, diversity in activities, opportunities for service and voice.

How can we focus on happiness?

Here are some research linked ways to increase school happiness and arm your staff and students with tools toward being and feeling happier:

In the Classroom

Writing Prompts and scenarios focused on what is right in a particular situation instead of identifying conflicts

Incorporate Mindfulness activities to start a class period or even as a separate strategy

Opportunities for student voice to shape activities and choices: Personalized learning plans for students, student-generated digital citizenship projects

Expectations for Intentional Happiness Journaling/Reflection for Staff and Students to build happiness resilience


Identify, Callout & Celebrate Sportsmanship and Wins: If you give certificates or trophies for Best Athlete, Champions and the like, consider celebrating at the same level students that portray characteristics of Good Sportsmanship, Love of the Game

Create opportunities for staff, students and communities to eat meals together as often as possible: Culinary Foods students cooking meals for the elderly/ shut-ins to eat breakfast and break bread with students. Creating common opportunities for staff and students to share lunch

Model It

Start Meetings with “Focus on What is Right in Our World” and have everyone contribute something that is right or working. Make this a practice before meetings, classes, assemblies

Set and stick to routine of spreading happiness - Identify 3 Staff and 3 Students to shout out during the daily announcements for how they added value to your school happiness culture

A few summers ago, reading Shawn Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage, was a pivotal moment for me as an educational leader. Instantly, I knew I must do and be better for all of my children. The research rich ideology that building a culture of happiness can perpetuate nothing but positive results was overwhelming, yet natural. The more I looked, the more research I found that supported the positive effects of a happiness framework. Research more than suggests that reducing anxiety and depression, developing positive self perceptions, setting constructive goals, building skills to manage emotions and cope with adversity and even academic performance can all be affected positively with a focus on happiness. How can we afford to not lead with happiness in our schools?


Join educate4hope in our pursuit for all schools across the country to implement the tenants of School Happiness Agency!  We want to hear from you, please share your stories and practices of how you build happiness resilience in your school community.

#ed4happyschools  TwitterChat Friday March 30th @ 5:30AM EST  (grab your coffee, tea or favorite early AM beverage and join us!)

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How to stay focused on what is important, when you’re waist high in sand!


  At first, the image of being surrounded by sand might be appealing. Personally, being on any beach with loved ones is one of my favorite places to be, but that is not the imagery I am going for in this post. Additionally, in the era of high stakes testing, and the burden of ultimate accountability for a school’s success or failure resting squarely on the shoulders of the building leadership - not “sweating the small stuff” is a message that can be hard to swallow. Nonetheless, if you are an urban educator you do not want to feel like you live in a sauna (no matter how difficult it is to stay out of the sand some days, weeks or longer). So, let this serve as a reminder about staying focused on what is truly important, what is going to maximize the capacity and the number of blocks you can fit in your proverbial bowl, jar or bucket. Let me also state, there are many days I find it difficult to get “off the beach.”


Regardless of where we were in our school improvement process, I found it important to take my staff through a personal and professional goal setting activity at the beginning of every school year called everything from “Filling our Bucket” and “What’s in our Jar” to “Not Living in the Sand.” In essence this activity served to frame, present, and remind my staff of my core values and to specifically state our instructional priorities - setting the tone for the upcoming school year. As we approach the common educator fatigue months that late Fall/Winter brings (especially exasperated with daylight savings when you leave in the dark and come home in the dark), it serves as a great activity to regain traction and focus (or finally take control of the focus).


You can find many different interpretations and presentations of this demonstration of priorities, most of which are about time management. The following is how I adapted it to fit my leadership style. I would dramatically start with an empty glass bowl of some sort - a round fish bowl, a glass vase, or a mason jar and I would ask my staff to identify 3-5 of the most important components of their personal life, critical to their life’s fulfillment and happiness (i.e., Family, Health, Faith). I would then take 3-5 blocks to represent these critical components and fill the glass bowl to capacity. I would then say to my staff, “These blocks represent those 3- 5 priorities in your life and if all else were missing from your life, and only these blocks remained, your life would still be meaningful and fulfilled.” I would verbally share my “blocks” with my staff: Family, Health, Service/Value-Added, Integrity.


From there, I would add into the glass bowl marbles that would fill in the space between the large blocks, until the bowl was full of blocks and marbles; and then, finally adding in sand that would fill in the space between the marbles and blocks. With the addition of each new item, I would ask my team to consider the things in life that were important to them but not essential to life’s fulfillment. I provided examples like: work, school, and participating in sports, traveling or a hobby of some sort. These priorities were represented by the marbles in our “bowls” and then the things that were of convenience to them or materialistic (the small stuff) well…that was represented by the sand in our bowl. I then acknowledged to my staff, “If we were to fill our bowls with marbles or sand first, we would have no room for our big blocks, our priorities, the things that really mattered.” I’d like to think that I always speak from the heart, and I told my staff I cared about their Big Blocks as well and they needed to make sure their “Big Blocks” always came first, and to let me help them make sure that they made that a reality by providing support and modeling it.


Next, we talked about our school wide priorities for the year, our school’s Big Blocks. What was it that we were going to fill our school jar with that if we did not get any other material in our students’ glass bowls, they would be instructionally, socially and emotionally fulfilled? Then we continued with the process of identifying our marbles (the priorities, skills and achievements we would like for our students to leave with, but at the end of the day came secondary to our blocks). Then, there was our sand representing the minutia, all the things that if we put in our student’s bowls first, we would never fit in our school-wide priorities. I found this was a mighty powerful way to keep my staff motivated and on point, and a great way to keep us laser focused on our priorities throughout the school year. It also allowed great opportunities to say, “no more sand,” “not living at the beach today,” “not sweating the sand today,” “focused on my blocks,” or “are you thinking about your blocks?” These phrases often came out of my mouth when adults would attempt to engage me in discussions, requests or complaints about the need or desire to impose misaligned consequences on students or make decisions based on adult convenience over student’s needs or best interests.



Some years I would display our bowl all year long in a common place like our Main Office where staff signed in each morning to serve as constant reminder of the need to focus on and take care of our Big Blocks. I would also bring the bowl back out during our School Improvement Plan/ Action Plan monitoring sessions, a constant reminder why we set the priorities. I would like to add that there is one additional item for the traditional Prioritization Jar activity where you add a glass of water to the seemingly full bowl…my staff would often joke that should be the final component to our bowl - to demonstrate there is always room for a drink after work. Point well taken - be sure to celebrate growth and accomplishment and take some time for team building. Make sure that celebration of growth and accomplishments is minimally a marble in your glass bowl (or you can bet your message will fade by winter). Not everyone’s personal glass bowl will be the same, but everyone’s school blocks need to be identical. Take care of your blocks and stay out of the sand! May your daily acts be focused and aligned with your personal and school-wide priorities.



Reflective Leadership - it's not just for the health profession

Sara Horton-Deutsch writes about the necessity for effective reflective practices in health related leadership positions. The focal point is regarding the power of reflection in an era of "rapid rate of change" and the need for a "new framework" all while maximizing personal professional development and relationships. How do you connect this to educational leadership?