4 Ways to Growing a Culture of Gratitude in Your School or Organization
During the pandemic, it became common practice to express gratitude to those who were going the extra mile in support of others: health care workers, individuals who kept essential businesses going, first responders, and of course teachers. Twitter exploded with love notes to teachers from parents who suddenly recognized the complexity and importance of a teacher’s role. Television news spotlighted teachers who took herculean actions in the face of monstrous obstacles. Teachers were public heroes, and the recognition that educators were making an important difference kept us all going and strengthened our resolve.
But now, the habit of celebrating the heroic acts that still occur on a daily basis seems a thing of the past. Some parents are angry. Teachers feel overwhelmed and underappreciated. Educators are burned out, beaten down, discouraged, and disconnected from their whys, their reasons for choosing this important profession.
How can we recapture the attitude of gratitude that was present when the pandemic was at its worst? What are the benefits of developing gratitude as a school-wide or organization-wide norm?
The Power of Gratitude
In her book I Want to Thank You, author Gina Hamadey uses the metaphor of capturing confetting to describe the process of experiencing gratitude (p. 15). Hamadey explains that when we pause to feel grateful, we not only create a moment of immediate joy, we also boost our overall happiness. Here are some ways that gratitude enriches our lives:
Gratitude is good for us.
We have convincing research evidence that gratitude improves mental and physical health. In one study, people who kept a gratitude journal experienced fewer symptoms of illness and recovered from sickness more quickly. They got more sleep and exercised more regularly (Hamadey, p. 68). In another study, participants wrote and delivered a thank you note each day for just one week. They reported decreased feelings of depression and an overall increase in happiness, benefits which were maintained a month later (p. 186).
Gratitude builds trust and community.
Gratitude “pulls us out of our shell of self-absorption” (Fredrickson, p. 46). According to resilience coach Elena Aguilar, gratitude “shifts the focus off of ourselves and helps us recognize our successes are due, in part, to the actions of others. This humility makes us want to help others, improve ourselves, and reciprocate support to those who have helped us” (p. 292). When we express and receive gratitude, our relationships with others grow stronger.
Gratitude grows individual and collective efficacy.
Gratitude makes us more aware of our internal resources and our networks of support. It helps us to see and be our best selves. As a result, we are inspired to continue growing and we feel a sense of responsibility for others and for our communities. A shared sense of gratitude fuels our collective confidence and readies us to tackle challenges.
It is important to regularly push the pause button on our busy lives, to notice and capture the confetti all around us. It’s even more important to express this gratitude out loud or in writing. Gina Hamadey tells us “Feeling gratitude is crucial, but expressing it is where the magic happens” (p. 186).
So, what are some ways you might press your personal golden buzzer and release a shower of gratitude confetti within your classroom, team, school, or district. Below are four ideas for cultivating the personal habit of first capturing gratitude confetti and then showering others with even more gratitude confetti to grow a community-wide gratitude mindset.
1. Experience the power of gratitude in your own life.
There are many ways to strengthen your own gratitude practices. You might, for instance, commit to starting your day with a spirit of thankfulness. Each morning when I call to check in on my 94-year-old mother, she shares a litany of things she’s thankful for. This simple routine helps both of us to start our days with a focus on the positive.
Oprah Winfrey recommends keeping a gratitude journal, writing down five things you love each day. According to Oprah, this quick daily routine empowers you with a new outlook on life. (Fredrickson, p. 187)
Take time to notice and appreciate the ordinary – the student who smiles at you out of the blue, a job well done by the custodian that makes everyone’s life more pleasant, a colleague who asks how you are doing. As you notice these blessings, don’t let them immediately fade into the background of your busy day. Instead, pay attention to how the feeling of gratitude impacts your overall disposition and attitude toward life. Take a moment to cherish these gifts; make them sparkle by acknowledging their splendor and importance.
2. Say Thank You as often as possible.
Visiting classrooms as a campus administrator, I regularly saw thank you notes I had written to teachers in September still posted on their personal bulletin boards in January. A simple note that took five minutes for me to write served as a year-long reminder to teachers of their importance. What a great investment of time!
I once worked for a principal who drew a tiny bouquet of flowers along with the code TYTYTY (i.e., thank you, thank you, thank you) on every faculty agenda and memo, on every piece of paper he distributed to teachers. This little doodle became a visual mantra, a reminder to his staff that he was grateful for all the simple but important things they did each day in service of students.
How might you build the habit of expressing gratitude into your daily routines? Will you say “thank you” as part of your greetings or goodbyes? Can you schedule a five-minute gratitude break into your daily calendar? Could you create your own visual mantra, a reminder of the importance of expressing gratitude as frequently as possible?
A superintendent I know makes it her habit to write and distribute one thank you note before school each morning. She says this routine helps her pay attention to all the good things that are continually happening in her district. She believes it also creates small ripples of positive energy across the organization. How might you adapt this routine for your own context? If an every-day commitment feels too big, could you send just 10 thank you notes - one each day for the next 10 days?
3. Create gratitude rituals for your class, team, faculty, or organization.
Beth Mulch, the librarian at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia created a weekly gratitude tradition to help her students and school benefit from a gratitude focus. On Thankful Thursdays, students are invited to come to the library during their lunch hour and write thank you notes. Note paper is provided and the library staff delivers notes addressed to members of the school community (Hamadey, p. 144)
What types of rituals might you create to bring the rewards of gratitude to your learning community? Do you want to proclaim 5 Days of Gratitude, a school-wide gratitude celebration during the month of November or another point in the year? Could you dedicate the last 60 seconds of every PLC meeting or professional learning session for individuals to express their gratitude to colleagues? What if you regularly pulled a community member’s name out of a hat and then invited others to share reasons they appreciate this individual? The team member who receives these appreciations will feel like they’ve won the lottery and the rest of the team will experience a sense of connection and joy.
4. Facilitate a mini professional-learning session about gratitude.
Invest 15 minutes in talking explicitly with your team or faculty about why savoring and expressing gratitude are important for individuals and communities. Provide some structured practice of this important skill (e.g., Give a couple of minutes for individuals to jot down thoughts about people and things they are grateful for within the school community. Then facilitate a mix-and-mingle in which group members give and receive thanks from multiple colleagues.) End the mini session by challenging individuals to set a personal goal for regularly reflecting on and sharing gratitude with others.
You might use the quotes about gratitude in this post or the questions below for quick reflection, stop-and-jot, or discussion prompts during this session or on other occasions:
Think of a time when someone went out of their way to do something for you.
Think of a time when you witnessed goodness and felt overwhelmed with gratitude by what you saw.
Think of a time when you found yourself thinking, “How did I get so lucky?”
Think of a time when you felt called to pay back or pay forward a kindness.
Perhaps you also want to include some gratitude-themed music into this session or your other thankfulness routines. Here are 10 songs about gratitude to get you started. (Hint: Just listening to these songs can provide you and others with an instant feel-good lift.)
Gratitude is contagious! In his TED Talk How to be happy? Be grateful, Brother Davide Steindl-Rast tells us “Grateful people are joyful people, and joyful people – the more and more joyful people there are, the more and more we’ll have a joyful world.”
Gratitude costs nothing to give, yet it offers enormous returns. With minimal effort, we can learn how to be more grateful and to express our gratitude. It’s as simple as capturing confetti.
Agular, E. (2018). Onward: Cultivating emotional resilience in educators. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positivity: Top-notch research reveals the upward spiral that will change your life. New York: Three River Press.
Hamady, G. (2021). I want to thank you. New York: TarcherPerigee.
Sue Chapman is a professional learning consultant and author of MathVentures: 33 Teacher-Coach Investigations to Grow Students as Mathematicians. Learn more about her at SueChapmanLearning.com and connect with her on Twitter at @SueChapmanLearn.