When you hear the phrase “happiest place on Earth” chances are that you think of Disneyland. But why don’t you think of elementary school, asks Rick Miller, the founder of Kids at Hope, an Arizona-based nonprofit. After all, schools have three elements necessary for an ideal environment for children: they get to be with their friends, they learn about the world, and they’re surrounded by grownups who care about them. “So, did someone decide our schools shouldn’t be happy places?” Miller asks in a piece in the Arizona Republic. “Is the process of learning incompatible with happiness? Most importantly, do we even think about the term happy when it comes to our schools?”
“Some schools focus on a rigorous curriculum and pride themselves on high academic standards. Others experiment yearly with new disciplinary programs, trying to maintain a focus on academics while struggling with student behaviors,” Miller writes. “When you read the thousands of different mission statements schools define themselves by, it is unlikely you will find such words as ‘happy’ or ‘fun’ offered as descriptors. Why not? Shouldn’t our schools be places of ‘happiness’ and ‘fun,’ or should they be relegated to serious institutions where only an examination can effectively determine a child’s future?’
It’s a great point. I’ve observed classes at elite private schools where, to be frank, the teachers were perfectly ordinary. But what great schools almost always have is a first-rate environment. The kids love being there. Likewise, I’ve seen great teachers doing their best and struggling to be effective inside grim, mirthless dumps. It’s no surprise they struggle. Even hard-charging teachers, squarely focused on raising student achievement sometimes lose sight of kids’ simple need to have fun (I confess I did). Indeed, some of the worst offenders are the most earnest, well-intentioned, who try to transfer a laudable sense of urgency to their students. At many of our worst schools, concerned not just about test scores but discipline, fun is the first thing to go as teachers–especially new teachers–fret about keeping their kids under control. And if you’d like to visit the unhappiest place on Earth sometime, visit the faculty lounge at a lousy school. Cause and effect?
“Disney learned that to create the ‘happiest place on Earth,’ he needed to find happy people to work there,” says Miller. “Not just teachers and administrators but all people who are part of the campus culture. Interestingly, it’s also been discovered that happy people are hopeful people. Thus, creating learning institutions that are, indeed, a place to experience happiness and hopefulness for the future should be a top priority along with high academic standards in every one of this country’s schools. After all, the very roots of this nation were founded on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”