I don’t generally read “business model” type books, but when one of our Board of Education members began passing Joy, Inc. out to anyone and everyone who would take a copy, and my fellow curriculum coordinator was texting me passages from the book, I thought it was time to move it to the top of my “to read” list.
Joy, Inc., by Richard Sheridan, details Menlo Innovations’ journey to build joy into every facet of their company culture–from how they organize themselves, to how they delineate responsibility, to how they work with clients. Fluffy sounding, I know. But the more I read, the more I started to think about how this concept of joy can–and should–be part of our classroom, building, and district culture, and how, too often, it isn’t.
When you look at the table of contents, you might actually think you are reading a book meant for educators, with chapter titles like:
- Freedom to Learn
- Conversations, Rituals, and Artifacts
- Rigor, Discipline, Quality
- Accountability and Results
Although this is a book written for companies, it’s really a guidebook for how any organization might rearrange its culture to allow for more freedom, learning, quality, and ownership–all things we want students to possess.
How Classes are Organized
Many classrooms today look the same as they did 50, even 100 years ago, with rows of individual desks facing the teacher’s space at the front of the room. The desks are cumbersome and hard to move when we want students in a different configuration. Additionally, we generally expect that students will be quiet and work independently on the task.
The same can probably be said for many office spaces: employees are working mostly independently from one another in cubes or offices, and it is often quiet, as the general thinking goes that people need this to be productive.
Joy, Inc. turns these ideas on their heads. At Menlo, they have purposefully torn down the walls. This allows all of the employees to work in one giant room, at easy-to-move tables that are often rearranged. This “reengerizes everyone and builds [their] mental capacity for flexibility” (41).
As we think about what classrooms should look like, we begin imagining flexible seating choices that are easy to change, depending on the task at hand, and that naturally create a culture of collaboration and creativity.
Embracing the Noise
The lack of walls at Menlo also means that the room is not silent; it’s actually quite loud because “the noise you hear […] is the noise of work” (45).
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard teachers with an apologetic tone saying, “They’re noisy, but they are working,” as if they were ashamed of the “noise of work.” It’s time we embraced that noise as evidence of learning taking place.
Towers of Knowledge
Richard Sheridan, Menlo’s CEO, and the book’s author, doesn’t have a huge, closed-off corner office; his desk is right in the middle of the room, where he can hear the conversations of the programmers–and they can hear his. Sheridan often cautions against what he calls “towers of knowledge.” These are the people who have a vast knowledge of something that no one else in an organization has, making it feel like they are indispensable. These people become burned out, and others feel like they won’t survive without these people.
In some ways, teachers have traditionally been the “towers of knowledge” in their classrooms, dispensing information that students don’t have in lectures. This is no longer a sustainable way to teach if we want students to thrive in a world that values innovation, collaboration, and creativity.
All schools and school districts are involved in continuous improvement processes, and all too often, building joy into the culture isn’t a priority with everything else we are required to do. But as Richard Sheridan and Menlo Innovations prove, joy and all of the other work we have to do are not mutually exclusive. In fact, building a culture of joy can actually help make those other things work better.
Jianna Taylor (@JiannaTaylor) is the ELA Curriculum Coordinator for the West Bloomfield School District. Prior to this role, she was a middle school ELA and Title 1 teacher. She is a MiELA Network Summer Institute facilitator and is an Oakland Writing Project Teacher Leader. Jianna earned her bachelor’s degree from Oakland University and her master’s degree from the University of Michigan. She also writes reviews of children’s books and young adult novels for the magazine School Library Connection.