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School Culture

Cultivating a Culture of Authentic Gratitude

A school staff that makes a point of expressing gratitude—even during a pandemic—can positively impact students and lift morale.

August 20, 2021
Woman talking within a group and smiling
SDI Productions / iStock

Who do you want to give a shout-out to? In the video “Give a Shout Out,” by SoulPancake, a street team places a ginormous microphone on a bustling sidewalk with a simple sign that invites people to give a shout-out to the people who matter to them. Those who stop are heard saying things like:

  • “Shout-out to my friends for making my life a little easier during these rough moments.”
  • “To my wife for putting up with my crazy self.”
  • “I was in a continuation high school, not really caring about my life, and a man named Robert Gillio taught me how to dance. It is my career now, and if it wasn’t for that, I don’t know where I’d be.” 

We don’t often pass by a huge microphone and a call to action like this, but we always have the opportunity to express gratitude. The research is clear that practicing gratitude translates to increased happiness, and doing so also promotes social and emotional learning (SEL) competencies such as self-awareness and social awareness. So what are we waiting for?

Although the year is beginning with uncertainty for so many of us, it’s still a great time to start cultivating a culture of gratitude authentically in our classrooms, schools, and communities. After all, practicing gratitude can help us cope with stress, regulate our emotions, and improve relationships.

4 Ways to Show Gratitude

1. Make positive phone calls home: If you are a parent of school-age children, you know that feeling when you see their school’s phone number appear on your phone. The fear kicks in, and immediately your amygdala starts to alert your nervous system. Personally, I have a visceral reaction. Are they hurt or sick? Did they do something wrong? Imagine if that call were a positive call: We can call home to express gratitude for so many things—that extra effort shown, for being kind and helpful to peers, for consistently contributing to class conversations. This small, sincere act of gratitude takes a little bit of time and can completely shift the dynamic in the home-school connection.

2. Write an open letter of gratitude: Public displays of gratitude can be extra-special. After all, when you want to share your appreciation for someone, let everyone know about it. When I write letters of gratitude, I don’t fold them up and hide them in an envelope. No way! I print them on card stock and frame them for all to see. Plus, gratitude is contagious.

In his latest book, Because of a Teacher: Stories of the Past to Inspire the Future of Education, George Couros invited educators to share their stories about teachers and administrators who have made an impact. It’s a book filled with open letters of gratitude, and I had the extraordinary opportunity to contribute by writing about an administrator who changed my life. The idea of writing this felt like a public practice of deep reflection and gratitude. I feel joy just thinking about it, and I’ve never written anything with such ease.

3. Leverage social media: Using platforms that are designed for sharing makes amplifying gratitude even easier. This is also a great way to highlight folks who do so much but don’t always get acknowledged. Think about your custodians, office manager, paraprofessionals, etc. You can include photos, graphics, and video to complement the text and make the post more visually engaging. Tag news outlets that might be interested in a human interest story. You never know where a small act of gratitude can lead. If you are looking for inspiration, check out Jerry Almendarez’s Twitter or Instagram account. Both are filled with authentic gratitude.

4. Use gratitude journals/jars: We want to establish gratitude as a habit, and regularly capturing the things we are grateful for is an excellent way to form that habit. Welcoming rituals, engaging strategies, and optimistic closures are the three SEL signature practices that don’t take a lot of time and can have a big impact. Using gratitude practices as part of a welcoming inclusion activity or optimistic closure is a great way to create a habit of gratitude and embed SEL in our routines. And when we capture our gratitude in personal journals or shared jars, we can take them out for reflection when we are having a tough day to lift our spirits.

We often hear about the importance of SEL in the classroom, but what about the adults? Gratitude practices can also be intentionally and explicitly integrated throughout staff meetings and professional learning in meaningful ways.

Thank you for taking time from your busy schedule to read this article. Please consider it your ginormous microphone on the sidewalk with a simple invitation to give a shout-out to the people who matter to you. These small acts can make a huge difference in the lives of those we care about while also improving our own well-being.

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