Monday #33: Good Vibrations

Each school year I visit anywhere between twenty and thirty schools.  Most of these experiences are a wonderful combination of enthusiasm for my work and the warm hospitality of the hosts–usually a librarian, a PTO parent or a teacher.  It is rare that I leave a school feeling anything but happy and grateful that I have carved out a career for myself doing something that I love and that allows me to meet so many nice people, most of whom are children.  But, every once in a while, one of these schools stands out among the rest.

Last week I traveled out to western Pennsylvania to a little town called Cranberry, located on the bluffs that surround the Allegheny River, just west of the Allegheny National Forest.  The geography is beautiful and, even though winter still had a grip on this part of the country, it is no wonder that outdoorsy types flock to the region for hunting, camping, hiking and ATV riding once the weather starts to warm up.  Located only a few miles from Oil City, the entire area was hit hard by economic downturns in the 1990s when Pennzoil, Quaker State, and Wolf’s Head all relocated their headquarters.  There are a couple of gas stations, a restaurant called Hoss’s, the Cranberry “Mall” where I understand you can see a movie and, the newest addition, a big, brand-new Walmart Super Center which undoubtedly pulls business away from the old Aldi store across the street. It is not exactly a cultural mecca and the poverty that comes with a difficult economy is evident if you take the time to look.

This is rural, small-town America but every person I encountered joked about it in an endearing, self-depricating way by being sure to tell me things like, “I live here because I grew up here.”  Most of the people I met were teachers who had attended college in nearby Clarion and returned to Cranberry to teach at one of the three elementary schools and to raise a family.  In fact, during the two days I was there, the town was embroiled in a battle to save the smallest and oldest of the schools, a K-5 building where the student population has fallen to only 60 students.  Despite the emotions surrounding the attempt to save the school, budget cuts are making it impossible to see how it can remain open and the largest and newly remodeled facility is ready to take these 60 students into a beautiful building with pretty lighting, a gorgeous library, modern classrooms full of new furniture and state of the art technology.  It was in this school, with enrollment of about 500 students, that I spent most of my time.

I will admit to knowing little about how the merger would accommodate the things that concern people the most, like transportation, assimilation and, importantly, job retention.  But what I do know is that this building had one of the best vibes I have ever experienced at a school.  Bob, the principal, a long-time former classroom teacher, leads a staff by way of empowerment rather than fear and, from what I could see, these are people who are happy, content, optimistic and, dare I say, playful. I have been reading Stuart Brown’s book, Play, and was able to see some of the points he makes about playful workplaces, the verbal jousting and the teasing banter that goes on and the way these settings create trust, intimacy and a positive working environment.  In Play, Brown talks specifically about play in the workplace.

Respecting our biologically programmed need for play can transform work.  It can bring back excitement and newness to the job.  Play helps us deal with difficulties, provides a sense of expansiveness, promotes mastery of our craft, and is an essential part of the creative process.  Most important, true play that comes from our own inner needs and desires is the only path to finding lasting joy and satisfaction in our work.  In the long run, work does not work without play.

I learned, notably, that in this building, there is never a shortage of volunteers to assist at evening events.  Indeed, at the family art night, nearly the entire staff came to be on hand for the over 500 attendees that participated in every manner of arts and craft project throughout the building.  In the room where I was stationed, we made an amazing tree.

And, on one of my nights there, I gave an optional and completely voluntary professional development session and had over 60 enthusiastic participants.  By the next day, some of the projects I’d shared with these teachers had already been implemented and graced the hallways that were already filled to the brim with art from the classroom of one of the most dynamic art teachers I’ve ever met.  This school is a setting full of happy conversation, jokes, smiling and laughter and after only a day, this group of people had made me feel so much a part of their school that it was as though I’d been there for weeks.  When I asked one of the teachers what was going on he laughed and told me, “You know, I used to dread going to staff meetings but Bob makes them something I actually look forward to… even when we have a crisis, he is able to bring it to us with humor.”  Humor.  I believe that’s it.  He worried that the word “humor” would cast the wrong impression and quickly explained to me what he meant, but I have written here before about mirror neurons and even more so about humor, so I knew without his explanation what psychologist, Dacher Keltner, describes in his book, Born To Be Good.

Laughter rewards mutually beneficial exchanges–successful collaborations at work, in the kitchen, in child rearing, with friends.  Laughter signals appreciation and shared understanding.  Laughter evokes pleasure.  Given that each individual has a signature laugh, produced by the particulars of the vocal apparatus, laughs become unique rewards of cooperative exchange, building trust between individuals…

… Workplace studies find that coworkers often laugh when negotiating potential conflicts–in tight spaces, at tense team meetings, when critiquing a colleague’s work.

Back in 2008, Keltner wrote a great article, In Defense of Teasing, in which he carefully delineates the differences between playful, laughter-provoking, teasing banter and bullying, the dark word in schools that has created heavy, “zero tolerance” zones. Work and school environments that ban any and all forms of playful teasing, according to researchers like Brown and Keltner, may actually be compromising the social development of our children and keep them from fully understanding more complex structures like sarcasm and irony– aspects of personality that are integral to being completely human.

I often look to social researchers and scientists to confirm my ideas about what I see out in the world at large.  Thankfully, there is a lot of research these days about brain science and how things like play, teasing and laughter contribute to a working society.  Now, I am no Pollyanna when it comes to the state of education and I don’t believe for one minute that any group of people is perfect.  But, one of the things that I can tell you based simply on my own experiences in schools is that the trickle down of a truly effective principal is so profound that I can feel it as soon as I walk in the building and it radiates out through every staff member and every student.  At the close of the day, those people take that vibe home with them and communities like this become places where people fight for small, old schools and stay to raise their families.  And, you can’t have a single conversation with the people in these places without hearing one very telling word: Fun.

And, you know what?  I’m not kidding.

TRY THIS WEEK: Use humor to deflect conflict.

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About Dar Hosta James

I am an artist living in New Jersey. I write and illustrate children's books, paint, draw, blog, coach, teach and speak about creativity.
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