A Little Gratitude Goes a Long Way

Originally posted at my EdWeek Teacher blog, Capturing the Spark (9/28/16).

I began to notice a difference three years ago, when my school’s current seniors were freshmen in my English classes. Certain students, habitually, and regardless of the lesson, walked out the door with a variation of, Thank you, Mr. Cohen.

Thank you? That’s not the usual routine. Ordinarily, the bell rings, and students are packing up, rushing out, thinking about their next class, their next break, their friends. They’re already texting and snapchatting, barely noticing I’m still in the room.

Gratitude mandalas from the classroom of Palo Alto teacher Jennifer Harvey.

Gratitude mandalas from the classroom of Palo Alto teacher Jennifer Harvey.

Now, I was not only being noticed, but also appreciated. It’s one thing for a student to say thank you after some individual help, or after having something handed to them. But for some students, this was a standard valediction. Thank you… for monitoring small group discussions? Thank you… for trying to make a joke, even though no one laughed? Thank you… for assigning that homework?

The gratitude has persisted to the present day, spreading to other grade levels. It’s not every student, certainly, and not every teacher has made the same observation. For me, it seems like 20-40% of my students (currently in grades 10-11) say thank you as they leave class at least half the time. Even if it’s not a majority of students a majority of the time, the effect is palpable. It signifies appreciation, by definition, and who doesn’t like to be thanked? But beyond that, it shows respect and trust, and helps maintain relationships and communication.

I asked my colleagues for their impressions, to see how my observations matched others. Many responses validated my view that the thank you trend goes back no more than three years, and that it makes a positive difference in our school culture.

My colleague in the English Department simply beamed. “I love it! It feels good that they notice how hard I’m working.”

In the choir room, it’s mainly the freshmen that the teacher hears offering gratitude: “Even when they are being tough many of them say thank you and have a nice day and it puts me in a better mood for sure.”

A Spanish teacher says, “I find it very touching, actually, that students have decided (or been reminded?  taught?) to say ‘thank you!’ at the end of nearly every session of class. I think it’s beautiful.  It’s a small but poignant way to express gratitude towards me, their teacher.  Other cultures honor teachers more than the U.S. does. I am not sure who influenced our students to thank their teachers daily, but it seems to have come from someone or somewhere. Often I thank my students as well. It’s a nice ‘feel good’ way to end each class.”

From a history teacher, I heard, “I think it is a good thing that students are treating adults with respect, and appreciation. I think it creates positivity and it enhances school climate. I try to treat my kids the same way and I thank them for coming to school each day. The positive back and forth has been great.”

An art teacher said of the practice, “While I can’t comment on the origins, I can tell you it is a very rare and beautiful behavior. I suggested to my daughter that she try it out at her high school and she thought I was nuts – no one does it in most high schools. The effect on the classroom climate is wonderful. I think students see other students doing it, then start doing it themselves. It heightens their awareness that they have something to be  grateful for. And it is a daily reminder of how grateful I am to teach these polite, curious, and respectful kids. I am more likely to be empathetic if a student needs special help or allowances. It creates a mood of mutual respect in the classroom. I have often said with gratefulness and forgiveness we are much better people.”

One of our recent hires from Michigan* had a strong reaction: “This practice absolutely floored me when I first started teaching here. Never once in 18 years of teaching in Michigan did I ever have a student thank me as we wrapped up for the day. They would say thanks for something out-of-the-ordinary that had happened, but certainly not on a regular basis. [Here], I just stared at them as they filed out of my first class, thanking me. I still have a tendency to say ‘thank you’ in response to them, which is probably an odd reaction, but it still catches me off guard. I think it has a huge effect on culture, and at the very least, it makes me feel good.”

There’s more than anecdote and speculation to support the idea that gratitude has value for both the person receiving it and the person offering it. This is a trend worth encouraging. In a follow-up blog-post, I hope to add student views to help explain what sparked this positive development in our school culture.

*Post-script, tangential question: why would our school in California have the opportunity to hire three experienced teachers leaving Michigan in the past two years? Is it the unconstitutional pay cuts for teachers? The punitive approach to school accountability? Is it the intended consequence of policies that destabilize and replace schools and teachers? All of the above.

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