George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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 neural 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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TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

Found on my desk late today was a jar of jelly. Nora Mill Granary Georgia Moonshine Jelly, from Gilligan, and a yellow sticky note. His words ...

This if for you Todd. Cus your my faivorihc teacher.


I'll be danged. He's making a solid F in class and I ride him hard but with an understanding touch. I know that doesn't make sense, but you'd just have to be there. I give Gilligan all I've got, and he gives me back a jar of moonshine-flavored jelly.

It's a square deal. A struggling child's affection. What can compare?

Katie's picture
I am getting my Masters in Education noq

This is a great articular. No matter what your occupation is you will always work harder if you feel appreciated. Making another person feel appreciated not only brightens their day but also makes you feel good as well.

I really like the idea of taking a photo everyday for a year of something your grateful for. It would constantly put you in the set of looking for the positive things in life. Imagine if the whole staff at your school did this for one year. I think the school would see a huge impact on every bodies attitudes and out look on life! Which would in turn make for a much happy place for students and teachers.

Melanie Link Taylor's picture
Melanie Link Taylor
Educator, Blogger, Southern California

Great comparison of Teflon (positive comments) and Velcro (negative comments)--that's what behavior modification science tells us. Of ten comments, eight need to be positive, two negative because the negative is more powerful. So we continue to accentuate the positive--eliminate the negative, etc., and don't mess with Mr. In-Between.

Maryalice Leister's picture
Maryalice Leister
Educational Consultant, Instructional Design, Administrator

This is an exciting article, so fundamental to successful teaching, leading, and solid self-esteem. We always need to lift up those around us, recognizing what gratitude really is and how it is central to who we are and how we deal with others. Thank you for writing this - the message is vital!

Debra Shulins's picture
Debra Shulins
Academic coach and former teacher

Great article. Gratitude is important to teach and practice in all areas of life. One of my favorite essay prompts for 6th graders was to write about something they were grateful for. I loved their choices - everything from their beds to candy to hair gel. Gave me a lot of insight into the minds of 12 year olds.

Owen M. Griffith's picture
Owen M. Griffith
Student Mentor, Author-Gratitude: A Way of Teaching, Guitar Instructor, and Blogger

I like the way this article applies gratitude in a practical way. The ideas at the end of the article would help any school.

Lauren's picture

Hi Elena,
I truly enjoyed reading your inspiring, well-written and captivating blog post about a topic near and dear to my heart - having an ATTITUDE of GRATITUDE! I absolutely loved your explanation pertaining to the significance of gratitude and the multitude of benefits that can result if we as teachers feel more positive and appreciated walking into work each day. I think that you discussed several great ideas within your blog post about how to promote more gratitude within your school building. First and foremost, I loved the "Appreciation Tree" idea - I can definitely see this being a big hit the teachers within my building. Additionally, I loved the idea that you gave the principal about taking the time to ask people how they preferred to be appreciated. The concept that everyone possesses different preferences in regards to how they would like to be appreciated is very interesting, yet very important. I think this piece of information would not only be beneficial for principals to know about his/her staff, but it would also be beneficial for teachers to know about their colleagues. I think that we as teachers do not simply long for gratitude from our administrators, but we also long for it from those we work most closely with. I am a huge believer in the power of positivity and possessing an attitude of gratitude. Thus, I thank you for discussing such a critical topic!

Jessica's picture

Thank you for writing such an inspirational blog. I love the idea of bringing gratitude into your everyday lifestyle. Our school has a good positive vibe going on when we are all "drinking the Kool-Aid" and giving each other gratitude and affirmations. It makes me so sad to these happy feelings leave so quickly when negativity is in the air. It amazes me how negativity can spread and how aware you have to be not to catch the "bug". You have inspired me to conduct a school wide uplift. Thank you so much!

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