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The Key to a Successful School Year? Try Joy

Thursday, January 07, 2016 by Kole Knueppel


During my time as a school leader, we regularly set a goal to have the most joyful school in the country.

We reminded our team and family of teachers that as ambassadors of Christ and his church, there must be a marked difference between our school and the schools down the street. To live distinctively as a disciple of Christ does not mean that we carry ourselves in sanctimonious, somber obedience, grimly waiting for eternal rest. Instead, the closer we are drawn to Christ, the more light and tender-hearted our outlook can be.

A goal as we enter 2016: Spread as much joy as possible at your school.

As we'll explore in depth with our Remick Leaders at their upcoming retreat, Catholic school leaders are leaders in the Holy Cross tradition—disciples with hope to bring. In light of this reality, how do we distinguish ourselves from the world around us? How do we achieve this goal? Here are some thoughts:

  1. Maintain an eternal perspective. Too often, we pursue happiness as if it’s the ultimate goal. A mentor of mine, the great pastor Stuart Briscoe, distinguishes between happiness and joy. He is fond of saying, “Happiness is based on happenings. And if my happenings don’t happen to happen they way I want them to happen, I’m not happy.”True joy is deeply rooted in an eternal perspective as we serve a God who has taken care of our past, has secured our future, and is intimately involved in our day-to-day lives. When we understand that the God of the universe takes such intimate interest in us individually and collectively, our sense of joy cannot be moved by the challenges life brings our way.

  2. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Take Abraham Lincoln, for example, who was known to have a challenging relationship with his prickly Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. On more than one occasion, Stanton openly insulted Lincoln. Yet Lincoln always returned the insults with a generosity of spirit, valuing Stanton’s contributions to the team. One day Stanton sharply rebuked Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt for a mission he had undertaken on behalf of the President, saying, “Well, all I have to say is, we’ve got to get rid of that baboon at the White House!” When the story was repeated to the President, Lincoln responded, “That is no insult, it is an expression of opinion; and what troubles me most about it is that Stanton said it and Stanton is almost always right.” If we seek to be transformational leaders, we should be the first to laugh at ourselves—and we should laugh at ourselves often.

  3. Lighten the load for others. This can be accomplished by transmitting a cheerful disposition in our interactions with others. As we serve kids and families in challenging contexts in underserved communities, one of the most important sounds in our classrooms and hallways is the lightness of laughter. Yes, we will work hard, but we will be animated by our delight in serving others.

  4. Become more tender-hearted and forgiving. The last thing we are called to be is overly-religious, pharisaical, arbiters of truth and judgment. In the church (as in the media), we tend to narrowly define "sin" as grave offenses against other people and God. Yet the sin of grumpiness and drudgery is often given a free pass. In the moments when I find myself interacting with a grumpy school leader, I experience a visceral desire to shout out the words of the eminent philosopher Keyshawn Johnson: “Cmon, Man!” In response to Christ’s love, we must walk and live with an increasingly tender-hearted, increasingly forgiving, increasingly patient, increasingly light-hearted disposition toward those around us. 

In Jesus' closing words to his disciples in John 13:35, he says, “By this they will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” As we begin 2016, let’s challenge ourselves as Catholic school educators to passionately pursue joy, laughter, and love within our schools and classrooms. Let’s demonstrate to the world in exponential measure that we are truly disciples with hope to bring.

About the Author

Kole Knueppel

Kole Knueppel

Kole Knueppel serves as the Director of the Center for Transformative Educational Leadership , and on the faculty of the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program. 

Prior to joining ACE, Kole was Co-Founder of Schools That Can Milwaukee, a non-profit aimed at dramatically increasing the number of high-quality urban Milwaukee schools through onsite executive leadership coaching, professional development, and cross-sector peer-to-peer sharing of best practices. Kole helped drive the growth of STCM from three founding schools to a network serving over 30 schools and nearly 15,000 students.

From 2008-2010, Kole was the Director for Wisconsin Lutheran’s Center for Urban Teaching, training future teachers and school leaders to be successful in Milwaukee’s urban schools.

Before joining the Center for Urban Teaching in July 2008, Kole served as superintendent from 2004 to 2008 at HOPE Christian Schools, where he led the expansion of HOPE from one campus with 50 students in 2004 to three campuses and more than 500 students in 2008. From 2001 to 2004 Kole led the revitalization of St. Marcus School from a low-performing urban school into a high-performing nationally-recognized model for faith-based urban education. 

Kole has a B.S. in English with a Secondary Education Certificate from Wisconsin Lutheran, a M.S. in Educational Administration from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and is completing his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.