Niente senza gioia – nothing without joy

Written by: Martin Matthews | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Do you love teaching? But what do you do to ensure that you enjoy your lessons and your subject? Remember, says Martin Matthews, enjoyment is catching…

I found myself standing on a chair: ‘‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

I boomed at the top of my voice.

My year 10s looked at me with a mixture of the sort of distain they would reserve for a parent who has decided to hit the dance floor at a wedding and bewildered awe at the nerve of me getting up on the chair.

I had leapt up after putting down my collection of Shelley’s poetry in mock disgust as one of my students informed me that literature was “pointless”.

I was having a great time as I took on Shelley’s Ozymandias with my “sneer of cold command” and year 10 seemed to actually start to get the poem.

This was not because I jumped on a chair, not because I did my best to act out the legs of a former imposing statue that Shelley uses to represent how power will not last, but because I had remembered the importance of enjoying myself while teaching. Enjoyment can be catching. The students started to engage more with the poem – and with me – and there was a notable shift in the general mood in relation to their study of poetry.

With various educational reforms and an increased focus on data it can be easy to forget that most English literature was written to entertain, inspire or promote some new form of thinking. One of the best ways to ensure students understand this and make progress against their targets is to start by exploring the subject content of any subject with a sense of awe or fascination – explore with a sense of joy.

I am not suggesting that this joy should replace good lesson planning, effective resources and careful consideration of your students’ needs, but with all that preparation it could be easy to forget to enjoy the delivery of the subject and its content.

Fostering a learning environment centred in the joy of your subject can encourage students to engage more in the learning process, collaborate ideas with you and create a classroom where students feel they can learn and make progress – they might even see your subject in a new light. If you are not enjoying what you are teaching, then why would they enjoy your lessons?

Sometimes it is best to start with a letting go. I am not suggesting we should all jump on chairs, desks, light fittings every lesson – the caretakers might get cross. However, do we figuratively need to jump?

Try not to take yourself too seriously in the process of teaching and think about how you show your love for your subject in everything from the way you stand, the way you greet your students or the tone of your voice when you introduce a new topic. How do you show that you think your subject is fantastic?

A good way to address this might be to say to your students “whatever you think of English/maths/science/history/music/PE, I think that it is a fantastic subject and I want you to come on this exciting journey with me”.

Even if students do not fully agree, joy can be catching and they are more likely to want to learn about the subject you are trying to teach them about if you look like you care about it.

There is always something exciting about all aspects of your subject – even the things that might not seem overly exciting. I have witnessed a number of lessons where there was clear joy in what the teachers were doing. I remember lessons such as the history teacher who turned his classroom into a Mediaeval castle (it is amazing what you can do with cardboard) and presented himself as the king who commanded the castle before assigning students to various parts of the dwelling he had created.

I recall the science teacher that managed to cover a year 7 group (and himself) in blue food dye because he got a little too excited shaking up whatever concoction of things he had in a test tube.

Having said that, it does not have to be about the grand gesture, we do not have to build castles or overdo a science experiment. It is often about how we articulate ourselves when explaining something. Ask yourself a question – do I sound like I think this is interesting? If not, then the students are not likely to think so.

Be careful not to start the lesson with things like “this is the boring bit of the topic, but we need to get through it” or, “to be honest, I’ve never enjoyed this myself, but here we go...” – would you want to be in that classroom?

Switch off the PowerPoint, too. Even if it is just for a few lessons a week. By turning off the PowerPoint, do you remind the students that they are actually in the room with you?

There is a chance to connect in the classroom; to create a community. What possibilities does your classroom have for improving the shared experience of learning together? It perhaps starts with your enthusiasm, but it is not all about the teacher.

Do you give students chances to contribute, reflect and discuss with each other? Do you offer them chances to work collaboratively to help them better understand the subject and their knowledge of it? How do you bring your classroom together with a sense of community and joy of learning?

Sometimes it is about setting the groundwork for challenging students’ expectations of your subject, of the learning that takes place in the classroom, and of how you can share the burden of ensuring that the learning process is a fruitful one.

You have data to analyse, books to mark and appraisal targets to meet – but why did you become a teacher? Hopefully because you wanted to teach the subject/s you love; it is important that we remember that.

Niente senza gioia – nothing without joy. Find the joy in each of the tasks you complete and it will likely help you and your students to enjoy your teaching more.

  • Martin Matthews is an experienced secondary school teacher in Cheshire. Read his previous articles for SecEd at


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