smile, new, school year, vision, strategic thinking, mask, leadership, masks, mandate, research, emotions, educators, teachers, students, covid, pandemic

Smile: It's A New Day! A New School Year!

While the message may be trite, the act is simple: during moments of genuine joy at school this year, smile.

We find ourselves well into the launch of a new school year, and there is always much to smile about in these early weeks. Particularly this fall and where we stand in the ongoing dance with COVID.  

At the start of school last year, approximately 75% of schools had a mask requirement in place for staff and students. Today, almost all schools—even those that serve our youngest learners—have dropped that mandate. We have reached this point after many months of hard work. And while members of our school family may certainly continue to “mask up,” we can finally see those students who have recently lost teeth or gained braces, as well as identify who among the faculty and staff is brightening the halls with a color-pop of lipstick or is experimenting with a creative mustache.  

While there is clearly much that we’ll continue to wrestle, this step towards normalcy is cause for joy. So, whether it is a thin-lipped smirk or a big, toothy grin…smile! 

Research is clear that when we smile, our brains release neuropeptides that combat stress as well as endorphins and serotonins which relieve pain and act as antidepressants. The challenges of the pandemic haven’t taken this away. But, over these last two years, masks have depressed the mirror effect that is rooted in smiling. Studies show that when we observe a facial expression of emotion we often mimic it.  

So strong is the smile, a Swedish study found that when subjects were shown a picture of someone smiling and, in response, were told to frown, that the responded still almost always went to imitation instead. It took participants a conscious effort to be sour in the face of a smile.  

The power of the contagious smile lifts spirits across the community. Testing shows that when our faces show we are happy, we experience work—and those around us—in a more positive light. Even in the face of those small fires that are unavoidable throughout the school day, seeing a smile helps people anticipate a positive outcome around the corner. 

Countless videos emerged (during some of our dark days of the pandemic) of heroic educators and administrators greeting students in the morning with impressive, intricate air-high-fives and dances to show warmth and joy. Harvard GSE has shared much research that points to the correlation between happiness and higher GPAs and test scores, and so I applaud the creativity within our community to sustain smiling hearts in challenging times. The value of happiness, particularly reflected in an act as simple as the smile, is so clear that Harvard Business School offers a leadership course to guide students in understanding the root of their own happiness to better lead the team in a way that increases team happiness. 

It is impossible to predict what curveball COVID might bring as we enter cooler months (not to be a Debbie Downer!), but for now, as we greet each other with full faces again, bolster your own good feelings and spread the warmth around the community, because a new year is upon us and there is much to look forward to in the weeks ahead. Whether it is during morning drop-off, the class change in the hallway, or the final goodbye at the end of another productive day—smile. And maybe check a mirror for clean teeth right after lunch.