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The Serious Business of Joy

At a recent Monday morning meeting for St. Charles Borromeo School in Harlem, after announcements and before prayer, principal Dan Faas engages in a new school ritual via Instagram Live: he identifies a musician who has a birthday and then plays a song from that artist. And in the kind of move that makes the parents watching laugh and middle schoolers cringe, he dances.

Here’s his robust treatment of “Can’t Touch This,” by M.C. Hammer:

Aside from the unintended message for good hygiene these days, Mr. Faas is doing what Partnership principals and thousands of other educators are doing right now: engaging in the serious business of joy.

Most contemporary approaches to leadership recognize the centrality of a positive spirit to the effectiveness of any enterprise. W. Edwards Deming, the scholar and business consultant most well-known for rebuilding Japanese industry after World War II and introducing Total Quality Management reforms to U.S. businesses, was adamant that in successful organizations, “There will be joy in work, joy in learning.” 

But it is not easy for leaders to find joy in the midst of a threat to their own health and habits. For the families and teachers who form the core of our schools, daily life in New York City is an undeniably real struggle. Supporting families who have lost work or loved ones–or simply managing the day-to-day trials of trying to work in a busy household, as some of our leaders and teachers do–takes its toll.

Finding joy, though, is as important for our spiritual lives as for our leadership roles. “Joy is the most infallible evidence of God’s presence,” as Jesuit Pierre Tielhard de Chardin points out.

Authentic joy doesn’t ignore hard realities for a few distracting moments of saccharine cheerfulness. It embraces the reality that suffering and resilience are intertwined–and in so doing, it gets at one of the core understandings of our Catholic faith.

On the same Monday that Mr. Faas broke out M.C. Hammer, his fellow principal Dominic Fanelli closed St. Mark the Evangelist School’s morning meeting by praying the 12th Station of Cross, in which all students and families were asked to reflect on Jesus dying on the Cross. “Death is hard for us to understand,” he prayed; “remind us always that faith will carry us through our losses.”

As he ended prayer, Mr. Fanelli returned to that day’s theme music–the lively version of “Hail, Holy Queen” from the movie Sister Act. As the music rose, he explained it was going to be a good day because it was “Marian Monday,” his way of encouraging students to seek Mary’s aid–and then he danced his way out of the meeting. 

The dancing became such a highlight, in fact, that the two principals engaged in a lip sync battle that students followed as avidly as the March Madness basketball we all missed:

“Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey,” as Pope Francis explained in his first papal encyclical. Now, more than ever, for the sake of our students and ourselves, leaders and teachers are called to find light in their own lives, and provide it meaningfully even amid darkness.

Beth Blaufuss is Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at Partnership Schools.