Learning Environments That Exude Joy

Carly SpinaBlog, Connect Better, Engage Better, Manage Better, Reflect Better, Self Care Better, Teach Happier


  • Create a positive learning environment with JOY.
  • Listing things that bring you joy. This is one way to model for students that joy doesn’t have to come from big or expensive things.
  • Intentionally place joy throughout your day.

I recently had the chance to join Rae Hughart on the Daily Drop In show where we were chatting about the topic of the week: learning environments and building the right spaces for you and your student. As we leaned into the topic, the first word that came to mind when discussing how to impact culture was JOY.

Click here to watch!

As a teacher, I want students to not only feel safe, but to also feel joyful. As a coach, I want my teammates and colleagues to come to work knowing they will find joy. And as a community member, I want families to view the school as a joyful space for everyone.

How do we get there though, especially when so many of us are battling feelings of overwhelm? By starting small. And thinking small. Literally.

One thing I did with my third grade students is similar to the idea of gratitude journaling. We would periodically make lists of things that brought us joy. I provided a few examples to model to students that joy doesn’t have to come from big (or expensive) experiences, like a trip to Disney World. Most often, it’s the small moments that bring us joy, like seeing a bunny on your drive to school. (I’m a city girl at heart, what can I say?!) Being intentional about recognizing what brings us joy can be a key in building a positive learning environment. It can make school feel like a happy place.

Being intentional about recognizing what brings us joy can be a key in building a positive learning environment. It can make school feel like a happy place. Click To Tweet

Finding joy became a part of our flow, and students would often come in from recess sharing their important noticings: “Mrs. Spina, I found joy on the playground!” I remember one student announced as he showed me a cool stick he found that was shaped in a special way.

[scroll down to keep reading]

I have intentionally placed joy into my day.

For example, I lay out an outfit that makes me feel good to wear to work. Or I cue up my favorite song for my commute. Adding a slice of cucumber to my water makes me feel special. And writing with colorful pens makes me feel more motivated.

When I tune into what makes me feel good, I can be strategic in building up more opportunities to feel joyful. As a teacher, I can lean into what students share about their moments of joy. And I can build those into our day.

As a mother, I find joy in seeing my own children happy. When I get a picture message from their teacher of them smiling at school, it makes me feel more connected to the school. I associate it with being a joyful place.

And as a teammate, I can create professional learning opportunities that incorporate joyful moments. I can do this by adding fun straws to a sparkling lemonade bar. I can play energizing music. Or I can set the scene in an expected way (like with plastic tablecloths that they can use as a notetaker with markers).

Joy is a necessary part of a strong classroom community. The beginning of the school year is stressful (and being #teachertired is a real thing). But let’s not forget to look at the small moments. Let’s be joyful on purpose!

About Carly Spina

Carly Spina has 15 years of experience in Multilingual Education, including her service as an EL teacher, a third-grade bilingual classroom teacher, and a district-wide EL/Bilingual/Dual Language Instructional Coach. She is currently serving educators and leaders across the state of Illinois in her role as an Education Specialist for the Illinois Resource Center. Spina has engaged in the successful co-creation of several parent outreach programs, tutoring programs for students in grades 3-5, mentoring programs for middle school students, co-teaching initiatives, and more. She is deeply passionate about equity and advocacy for multilingual learners and fights for access and inclusive opportunities for kids and families.

Spina actively fights against food insecurity in her community. She enjoys speaking at various national conferences and events and has received several awards over the years, including the Illinois Education Association Reg Weaver Human & Civil Rights Award in 2015 and the Distinguished Service Award for Excellence in the Team Category for EL Community Engagement in 2019. She was the WIDA Featured Educator in April 2019 and was named a Paul Harris Fellow in July of 2019. Spina is an active member of the EL/Bilingual community on social media and enjoys networking and growing with teachers and leaders across the country. She is currently working on her first book with EduMatch Publishing.