What’s the Secret to Happy Students?

By Amanda Jonas March 31, 2014 10:30 AM

Imagine the idyllic classrooms of your favorite television shows as a kid. Depending on when you grew up, you might be picturing the pristine science labs from Lizzie McGuire or plant-filled courtyard where Lizzie, Miranda and Gordo ate lunch.  Images of Mr. Feeny lecturing Cory in his big classroom with large green chalkboards and big windows might come to mind. Or, you might think of the bright orange lockers and cluttered music room of Bayside High. Whether your ideal school was Hillridge Junior High, John Adams High School, or Bayside High, one thing that all these schools share in common is that they feel like happy and welcoming places for their students. Sure, none of these schools were actually real. Granted, from time to time, one or more of our favorite characters got bullied or shoved in a locker. But overall, the schools felt warm, the students looked happy, and the teachers seemed cool.

What happens when your school looks nothing like a Hollywood set? DC Scholars Stanton Elementary, led by the fabulous Principal Rena Johnson, doesn’t have a science lab, a courtyard, or beautiful, big windows… In fact, my classroom windows are barely visible, covered by a million hand-drawn chart paper posters with math equations and formulas. Maybe Stanton doesn’t look like those TV show schools, but it still feels happy. What then, if not aesthetics, makes a school happy? Is there a certain formula that good teachers follow to create happiness? To answer this question, I asked students from four very different classrooms in my school about what makes them happy when they are in class. The answers below might surprise you.

Student: Nijae
Age: 6
Grade: 1st
Teacher: Ms. Tillman
Classroom Vibe: “Wild and Loving.”

“I am happy when we get to turn and talk about what Ms. Tillman teaches us. It makes me happy when Ms. Tillman listens to me and I know she’s listening to me because she tracks me and tells me if she agrees with me. And if she doesn’t, she tells me what she thinks.”

Student: Verkia
Age: 7
Grade: 2nd
Teacher: Ms. Hoes
Classroom Vibe: “Organized Chaos.”

“Being with Ms. Hoes makes me happy because she’s nice. She treats me special and she loves me. I know she loves me because she tells me and she hugs me and she gives me support like when she comes to my cheerleading competitions.”

Student: Dialonte
Age: 9
Grade: 3rd
Teacher: Ms. Reilly
Classroom Vibe: “Structured and Supportive.”

“I feel great in Ms. Emma’s room because she doesn’t get mad. Every time I mess up she doesn’t yell at me, she just tells me how to fix it the next time. I feel happy because I feel smart in her room because if I don’t understand something she’ll teach me so I can get great grades.”

Student: RavenJonas, happy students
Age: 10
Grade: 5th
Teacher: Ms. Jonas
Classroom Vibe: “Creatively Learnable.”

“I love being in Ms. Jonas’ class because I love math and she’s here with us. She takes time outside of her job for us and does what she has to do to always support us. Plus she cares even if we are acting up. She’s the best!”


Each student I talked to comes from a very different class. Ms. Emma’s incredible behavior management creates a peaceful and thoughtful room where all scholars are respectful and important members of her learning community. Ms. Hoes slightly cluttered room is a place where students eagerly learn with just as much as excitement as when their desks are shoved to the sides of the room so they can learn a choreographed Beyoncé dance for the latest assembly. Finally, my classroom fluctuates between scenes of me wildly jumping off desks to explain the metric system, to impromptu push up competitions, to deep intellectual conversations on how our graph shows how education increases earning potential.

So, what is the secret to a happy class? Not one of the students mentioned any material objects, extra recess, or candy. Instead, all of the students I talked to could articulate exactly what made them feel happy in school. I feel the secret to this joy is a classroom that feels safe, a classroom where love abides, a classroom where students know they are listened to, valued and respected… The secret to happiness is in all those little things that no perfect Hollywood set could emulate.