Student Appreciation Day

Teachers love appreciation week. I used to scan my mail box for a new coffee mug or some kind of useless tote bag. Now, since budget cuts in education, we feel lucky when we score a regular size Snickers. The days of the drawstring backpacks are behind us. Fortunately, our neighbors at Chipotle picked up where our state budgets let us down by offering teachers free burritos once a year.

Sure, some of us work really long hours, our hair is greying, and our minds are tiring, but  some guacamole and sour cream can go a long way toward making us feel loved. And I must not be the only one. Today, I arrived at our local burrito heaven at 4:45, attempting to beat the dinner rush. I counted 30 people ahead of me; most of them decked out in loose-fitting khakis and school-issued, moisture-wicking, polo shirts.

I guess there is nothing wrong with telling anybody they are appreciated. And though a lot is made in some circles about how unappreciated teachers are, I make enough money to live, enjoy going to work, and usually feel respected by most of the public.

I think students today, at least in my part of the city, catch a pretty bad rap though. In fact, when I tell people where I teach, I often hear negative comments about the kids that are cloaked in implicit bias and judgement. It feels like there is a lot more crap thrown at students than teachers. 

So this week, at the urging of some friends at Sevenzo and a really great colleague, I tried my own version of the Gratitude Experiment. My assumption was that since teachers seem to like appreciation so much, maybe I should take some time to thank my students.

Unfortunately for them, I couldn’t afford 100 burritos.

Instead, they came to class Monday to a kind of student appreciation day. We started class with this video that shows a bunch of people thanking those that are important to them. It’s really a simple concept that shows that the happiest people in the world are the most thankful people. After the video I told my class that I am thankful for them. They know I am corny, so they aren’t terribly surprised when they hear me say that they give me the best job in the world. To show my appreciation for all that they do, I wrote each of them a paragraph or so telling them why they are so cool. I handed them out, and that is when class started to get kind of great.

I told one student how grateful I am that she has the ability to make so many people smile and told her about a specific time I noticed her do that. I told another student, one who is often feeling overwhelmed, how important it is that they feel things in the world and how we need more people with that sharp sensitivity. I told a star on the football team that I am thankful for the size of his heart, and how I notice that most in the way he looks out for his quiet and socially anxious twin sister. I wrote to another student, one who lost his mother when he was 11, how valuable it is that he notices the little things in life and how that makes him an excellent friend to so many people who need it. And I told one other who played cards with their grandmother every night when she was recovering from cancer treatment how kind he was, and how I notice that in the way he treats his girlfriend, and others in the school.

It was horribly sappy stuff, but I’m kind of prone to that. It took me forever to write all of these, but it was completely worth it when I heard the responses. There were a handful of kids who told me that they needed to hear that today. Almost every kid in class read the note and jotted a short note back to me on the bottom of their sheet. They were all thankful, and that alone would have been worth it.

But then I told them what happened to me while I was writing. I told them that all that gratitude just started to make me happier. I came home from the coffee shop where I was writing and I hugged my wife, played with my kids, and generally spent the rest of the day in what felt like some drug-induced euphoria. I’m usually kind of a pessimist, and I haven’t felt that depth of happiness in a long time.

Then, I just asked the students to pay it forward.

Some kids cried as they called their mom or dad and read their notes. A few students wrote to teachers to tell them about the small things they do that make such a big difference. And in one of the best moments I have ever seen, a 17 year old boy read a note to his best friend about how he had been and inspiration that saved his life. What happened to me, as I wrote those 100 thank you notes, was happening for my students as they wrote and read their own.

Near the end of the day, after more than a few tears, something dawned on me: We (or maybe just me) spend much of our time subconsciously expecting appreciation and “thank yous.” In doing so, we miss out on the real joy of gratitude. As teachers, on this appreciation week, we have a lot to appreciate. Sure, their are some tough moments and some challenging aspects. But I’m finding that I think a lot less about those when I am thankful.