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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

One of the most common complaints I hear from teachers, administrators, and staff working in public schools is something along the lines of, "I don't feel appreciated." I'd like to propose that by simply incorporating a range of practices that allow ourselves and others to express gratitude, we might transform our schools.

We'd certainly retain more effective educators, build stronger relational trust, and develop a culture that focuses on the positive -- in all adults and all children. So, topping my list of steps to transform a school? Appreciating ourselves and others regularly.

The Neuroscience Behind Appreciation

Here's the thing: Our brains need to feel gratitude in order for us to want to be at work. Our brains are like Teflon for positive experiences and like Velcro with negative experiences. This means the negative comments, interactions, professional development (PD) workshops, and so on, cling to our brains. But if we spend a few minutes in appreciation, recalling those fulfilling moments in a day or encounters with supportive parents, or the segments in workshops when we felt we were learning, our brains create new links between neurons.

As we strengthen these links and build them day-after-day, our mind finds it easier to travel down those neuron paths and to experience the associated positive emotions. We can help our brain evolve in a positive way and in a way that might help us transform schools.

If we feel more positive, we will want to be at work. We will most likely be more patient with our students and with colleagues. We may speak to each other with more kindness. We might listen to each other more deeply. We might take risks in our teaching or leadership. But we can't do any of these when we're perpetually distressed. Expressing gratitude can allow us to engage in teaching and learning in a more positive, open way.

"Gratitude is like a flashlight. It lights up what is already there. You don't necessarily have anything more or different, but suddenly you can actually see what it is. And because you can see, you no longer take it for granted." - M.J. Ryan in Attitudes of Gratitude.

Ways of Practicing Gratitude

I once coached a principal whose staff expressed not feeling appreciated. She asked each person how he or she wanted to be appreciated. Some requested quiet affirmation, others liked public acknowledgment, and some wanted appreciation in writing while others wanted to receive it in person. Some simply wanted chocolate. As this principal became more intentional about appreciating her staff for their efforts (appreciations focused on a person's actions or behaviors) she also structured other opportunities for staff members to appreciate each other, their students, and students' parents.

Every meeting or professional development session ended with a few minutes for participants to express gratitude for each other. Teachers incorporated this routine into their classes. In parent meetings, I observed parents appreciating each other, the school's staff, and their children. On a survey last spring, 94 percent of staff said that within the prior week, someone in their school had appreciated their work. This was a strong indicator of a healthy staff culture.

Closing meetings with public expressions of gratitude is a powerful and invaluable to create community, as are other practices. For example, a staff lounge can have an "Appreciation Tree" where all are invited to write an appreciation on a leaf and post it on the tree. In addition, there are many ways that we can individually practice this brain-enhancing behavior. Here are a few ideas:

  • Keep a gratitude journal. This exercise is a way of closing every day by recalling a few things we are grateful for from that day. By simply cataloguing them our minds start to search them out during the day
  • What do I appreciate about today and what was my role in making it happen? This is a more focused journal prompt to respond to each day that helps us recognize our agency in our blessings. For example, I might write that third period was exceptionally engaged in their learning today and José wrote a whole page; my role in making this happen was to carefully plan the lesson and design modifications for José to accommodate his learning needs. Through this process, we discover how we can create more positive experiences for ourselves
  • Email a friend. You can also find a friend who wants to commit to emailing each other every day -- or a few times a week -- and sharing what you're grateful for. Some of us feel more motivated by (and accountable) if we have an audience
  • Write a gratitude letter. Select one person you feel gratitude for (living or dead) and write a letter appreciating the ways that that he/she has enriched your life. If you can, read it face to face. This is a powerful exercise to engage in occasionally and could be tailored to an education context at times -- write a letter to a former student, to a colleague, to an old teacher
  • Project 365. This is a fun photography project for those visually inclined. I did this for a year, taking one photo a day, and focused on capturing images that reflected something I was grateful for. After a while, I noticed that each day I'd consciously look for positive moments to capture. I felt like my mind was training itself, honing in on all that was good so that I could accomplish my daily task
  • Use guided imagery and meditation. By taking a few minutes at the start or end of each day to call to mind what we're grateful for, we strengthen those neurons that make us feel happier. When I wake up, I often silently appreciate my body for all it does each day to keep my healthy. I say to myself, "I am grateful for my breath that nourishes the cells of my body and has sustained me since the moment I was born, I am grateful for my eyes that allow me to see all the beauty around me and the face of my son, I am grateful for my heart which has been beating since before I was born." And so on. You can do this for whatever you're grateful for

Our ability to feel gratitude is a muscle of sorts -- it's a habit our minds can develop -- we just need practice. Imagine if we were all practicing individually, for a few minutes in the morning and a few in the evening, and then if there were ways built into our work day to express gratitude to those around us; imagine how different we'd feel about being at school each day.

How do you practice gratitude in your personal life and at your school site? Please share with us in the comment section below.

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