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The Teacher and Joy

Our brains are made to run on joy. A joyful brain functions much better than the anxious, agitated, or depressed brain. Joy supports brain growth. Specifically, it contributes to the generation and reinforcement of new brain synapses. The prefrontal cortex, which is the executive and integrative center of brain-mind functions, operates much more efficiently when joyful. Research suggests that cognitive functions such as speed and memory are stronger under the influence of joy. Thus, if a teacher desires her students to “succeed” academically, she must be an ambassador of joy. And far more importantly, if a teacher wishes her students to mature into the men and women whom the Father has in mind, she must be an ambassador of joy.


Joyful Belonging


As those who bear the Divine, Trinitarian image, we are profoundly relational, and our flourishing depends upon our sharing joyful connection with others. Joyful belonging, what developmental psychologists call secure attachment, is essential for human flourishing. The dynamics of attachment which are true of parents and their children are also true of teachers and their students. Ella’s classroom is a place of serenity and delight. Her teacher is a peaceful presence, untroubled by student weakness and quick to help. Authoritative with a smile, there is no doubt who is in charge but always with tender empathy and always ready service for the children’s well-being. Everyone is safe, everyone belongs, and everyone is glad to be together. The essential emotional-relational context is present for delight-filled learning.


In contrast, Johnny’s classroom is an anxious, sometimes angry, place. No one really wants to be there, not even Johnny’s teacher, and all perceive it in the air. Lacking emotional, relational security, students either go inward (withdrawing into quiet mental distraction) or act outward (provoking chaos for attention’s sake). While negative attention is a pathetic substitute for joyful belonging, for a child, anything is better than sitting quietly in anxious emptiness. The teacher alternates between avoidance (ignoring misbehavior) and aggression (seeking to control student behavior by overpowering). Certain that the problem is the class, the teacher fails to see that her students are behaving in a manner quite normal for children who lack secure belonging and find no joy in being together.


There is an atmosphere present in every home and every school. It is an emotional/ relational context, present and palpable. Everyone inhales it, exhales it, and lives accordingly. There is nothing more essential to establishing a healthy home or school than that the atmosphere be one of joyful belonging.


Two thousand years ago, the apostle Paul exhorted the church of Colossae to foster joyful belonging, commanding “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.”1 Obedience to this command is an essential part of being an Ambleside teacher.


Every teacher fails, but failures can be forgiven, if owned. Children recognize a heart that is pursuing love and peace and will quickly embrace a repentant heart that is seeking to love and to grow, but children abhor self-righteousness and relational distance. Without a loving and peaceful heart, a teacher has no credibility and no capacity to positively form the hearts of her students. Love and peace, the foundations of joyful belonging, grant one the right to positively shape the heart of another.


Delightful Study


If joyful belonging is the essential air of a flourishing class [and home], delightful studies are the nourishment. The work of the classroom should be a source of joy. If it is not, something has gone terribly wrong. If a student does not delight in math or science, history or literature, something has gone terribly wrong.


To be clear, this is no advocacy for tantalizing students with sweet treats, silly games, costumes, or teacher antics. In truth, the presence of such things damages student delight in learning in the same way that an appetizer of chocolate cake and ice cream provides little nourishment and damages taste for a healthy supper.


Charlotte Mason points our thinking in the right direction:


We may believe that a person—I have a ‘baby person’ in view—is put into this most delightful world for the express purpose of forming ties of intimacy, joy, association, and knowledge with the living and moving things that are therein, with what St Francis would have called his brother the mountain and his brother the ant and his brothers in the starry heavens. Fullness of living, joy in life, depend, far more than we know, upon the establishment of these relations.2


We must offer every child vital relations with persons and things, with flora and fauna, with stars and microbes, with the wonder of number, with the best literature, with persons past and present, and all the work we give them must be “worthy work.” In so doing, as Charlotte Mason wrote, “Studies serve for delight.”


Joy Destroyers


Nothing strips a classroom of joy like dividing between the “gifted” and less than “gifted,” the beautiful and less than beautiful, the high achievers and the low achievers, the haves and the have nots, those of the included inner circle and those cast to the periphery. In such a class, belonging is conditional and therefore no one truly belongs. Performance anxiety is high as some race to the top. Melancholy is also high as many despair, unable to compete. Special awards that exalt the few over the many, grades and grade envy, all such things destroy joy and have no place at an Ambleside school.


It should be noted that nothing sucks the life out of a class like a teacher’s lecture in which she collects, arranges, and illustrates matter from various sources; offering knowledge in a too condensed and pre-prepared form; thereby robbing students of the opportunity to develop their own relationships with persons and things.3


Bill St. Cyr

Ambleside Founder and Director of Training

1 Colossians 3:14-15 NRSV

2 Charlotte Mason, School Education, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989) 75.

3 Ibid. 214.