What do you want for the children you love most?
Becoming a dad forever changed the way I see my job as a teacher, because it provided a clear answer to that question.
The two human beings I love most on Earth are 6 and 9 years old. They spend more waking hours at school during the week than they do in their own home.
I'm grateful for what they learn during those many hours—to think about the books they read, to put their ideas and imagination into writing, to form deep friendships with children whose lives are very different from their own. But I care as much about their happiness as I do about what they're learning. I want them to learn a lot, but I also want them to love school.
My students' happiness didn't matter to me enough during my first 15 years as a teacher. I didn't pay enough attention to the metric of good teaching that I now believe matters most: Do the kids like school? Do their whole selves—their emotions, their bodies, their minds—feel good when they walk through the classroom door in the morning and walk out at the end of the day?
School isn't designed to measure or care whether students are happy there. We have an overwhelming focus on two things: student achievement—often measured solely by test scores-and safety.
We go to plenty of trainings on keeping students safe in case of tornadoes, armed intruders, or earthquakes. We talk at faculty meetings about standards, assessments, and test scores. But we almost never talk directly about the question that matters deeply to every parent I know: How can we make sure our students love school?
Kids who are happy learn more than kids who aren't. Even if that weren't true, childhood is a precious time. Between Monday and Friday, not counting the time they're asleep, kids spend roughly 35 of their 65 waking hours in school. It needs to be a place that is not only safe and rigorous, but fun. Even, at moments, full of joy and delight.
If a child reads on grade level by May, but he doesn't like to read, we haven't done our jobs. If a child masters all the grade-level standards by the end of the year, but she hates school, we have failed her.
This year, my 6-year-old son is in the same grade as the children I teach. Here are three changes I made this year to help my 1st graders be as happy in my classroom as I want my son to be in his.
The treasure box is no longer a reward for behavior or homework. Every Friday, the kids come in, and there's a little toy dragon on their desk, or they visit the treasure box full of plastic rings, glitter pencils, and sheets of stickers. My student Gloria asked me last Friday, "How come you always give us a toy?" I told her, "Because I care about you. I want you to be happy, and toys make kids happy."
Until this year, I always saw the treasure box as a way to reward good behavior—and, implicitly, to punish bad behavior by withholding the prize. But what I have realized is that free will doesn't work the same way for 6-year-olds as it does for adults.
The kids who frequently get in trouble aren't misbehaving because of some moral failing on their part. They tend to be the kids who have a more difficult home life, or whose bodies have trouble sitting still for very long. Some of them struggle with attention issues that have more to do with neural pathways than bad choices. On the flip side, the kids who do their homework each night often do it because they have parents who make sure they do it.
I'm done punishing little kids for things beyond their control. The kids in my class get a toy just for showing up all week and doing the best they can. As a result, they start their Friday morning smiling.
My students chose their own desks the first day, and the seating arrangement has mostly worked out. When my little girl with autism works hard for a couple of hours at math, reading, and writing, she gets a little time to herself to build towers with the treasured pink and purple blocks her wonderful kindergarten teacher passed on to me. If a child wants to finish her story or drawing when it's time to come to the rug, I give her a few extra minutes when I can.
My classroom is a little messier and more fluid than it was in the past. It rarely runs with the timed precision of a Swiss train station. But the kids listen, work hard, and learn a lot.
We're often terrible at following the rules we hand down to kids. I have caught myself shouting, "Lower your voices!" I have spoken to students in tones that are rude and grumpy. I can't permit myself to speak to children in a way I would never let them speak to me, or to one another, just because they're a couple of feet shorter than I am. They pay more attention to the example we set than the words we speak. They can sense our kindness or grumpiness, our patience or impatience, our respect or disrespect, deep in their little bodies and souls.
Teaching is incredibly hard work. Like parenting, it can induce anger and frustration in the gentlest of souls, no matter how much we love the children in our care. We have to practice the same self-control we ask our students to exhibit: to take a deep breath, and then speak to them the way we would want an adult to speak to our own children.
I demand a lot of my students. I do everything I can to get them where they need to be as readers, writers, and mathematicians by the end of the year.
But at some point, for those of us who do this work long enough, we realize the kids in our class are children first, students second. That might not seem like an important distinction, but it is.
When you teach a class of students, your most important job is to make sure they learn all the standards and do well on tests. When you teach a class of children, your most important job is to make sure they thrive.
In the past, I assigned a lot of homework and robbed recess from children who didn't do it. I moved kids' clips down on the behavior chart for the slightest infraction. I barked at my students like a bad-tempered drill sergeant, and there were no exceptions to my rules.
Doing those things never felt right. Beyond that sense of wrongness, they didn't work. All those punishments, tough-guy lectures, and "no excuses" homework policies didn't help my students become strong readers any faster. They didn't make the children in my care any quieter, more diligent, or more respectful. They just made the kids less happy at school.
There's a lot more laughter in my classroom these days. There are plenty of second, third, and fourth chances. There are times when I tell my little girl with autism that it's time to come to the rug, she shakes her head and says, "Nah—I'm good," and I crack up rather than reprimand her.
The children in my class are learning more than they have in past years. That's not happening despite this shift toward prioritizing their happiness. It's a direct result.
Masai warriors in Kenya offered one another the greeting, "And how are the children?" The answer given was, "All the children are well."
We have to make that true for the children we teach.
Justin Minkel teaches 1st and 2nd grade at Jones Elementary in Springdale, Ark., a high-performing, high-poverty school where 85 percent of the students are English-language learners. A former Teach For America corps member, Minkel was the 2007 Arkansas Teacher of the Year. In his instruction, he is focused on bringing advanced learning opportunities to immigrant and at-risk students. Follow him at @JustinMinkel.