By Cindy Schwartz, co-founder and executive director of secondary education
Gratitude is often defined as the ability to recognize and acknowledge the good things, people, and places in our lives. The question is – how often are we actually practicing gratitude? How often do we actually take the time, even if it’s a moment, to say, write or even think about what we are grateful for? It’s only recently that I have taken more time to ponder this very question. It appears that the fast pace of our lives and the challenges we face, especially as teachers, might be one of the reasons why we don’t practice gratitude on a regular basis.
Perhaps today is the day that we change all that and shift our mindset to a more grateful one.
Matthew Kelly, author of Perfectly Yourself: 9 Lessons for Enduring Happiness believes that “unhappiness is the fruit of doing and saying things that contradict who we are and what we are here for.” He also believes that “there are an unlimited number of ways and reasons to be unhappy at this very moment. Unhappiness is always an option, but so is happiness.” And finally, he believes that, “Too often we judge an activity by how we feel about it beforehand. This is a failed notion. We should not judge activities by how we feel about them beforehand; we should judge them by how we feel in retrospect.” So after reading all of this I thought, could this all be true of feelings of gratitude. I think so.
Giving thanks and acknowledging the good things, people, and places in our lives needs to start on a moment by moment basis. If being happy is a choice, like Matthew Kelly believes, then feeling thankful is as well! And if we judge how we feel about an activity, like teaching, for example, before we start our day, let’s try to shift the mindset and consider how we feel about teaching at the end of the day. Of course, there will be challenges during the day, monumental ones, whether you are physically in the classroom or teaching remotely. But I challenge you to reflect on your day once your teaching day is done, and mindfully choose one activity, person, or event that made you smile, feel good, worthy and one that makes you feel grateful for where you are right now in your life.
Tips for practicing gratitude
Psychologist Dr. Robert Emmons says that people who practice gratitude just “plain feel better” and “feel more hope, optimism, and a desire to get along with others.” Edutopia, elaborating on these positive outcomes of practicing gratitude in 2014 cited the work of Dr. Emmons and also Dr. Jeffrey Froh further suggesting that, “keeping a gratitude journal will improve grades, help kids achieve higher goals, have more satisfaction with relationships, life and school, less materialism and a willingness to give back.”
Edutopia also suggests that teachers can start their mornings with their students, physically or remotely, by asking students to either write or remotely type three things, people, or places that they are grateful for. Now, I think we should add this as well…you, as their teacher, should do the same. You, as their teacher, should share what you are grateful for daily. You can be the model for gratitude. Tell your students you feel grateful to be their teacher! Your vulnerability and humanness will connect you with your students more than you can imagine. They desperately want to see you as a person, not just as their teacher in a position of authority.
But perhaps it is not easy for all students to keep a gratitude journal. Researchers at the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley recently cautioned that “suggesting that children look on the bright side in the face of personal struggle, community suffering and/or systemic inequities would be very dismissive.” Keeping a grateful journal might be almost impossible for some students to do.
Dr. Jeffrey Froh and Giacomo Bono at the GGSC said that for students who are experiencing high levels of stress teachers should know that all they have to do is “listen deeply, empathize and acknowledge their feelings.” Tell these students that you understand that it might be hard for them to find something to be grateful for. Suggest they keep a journal and add something when they feel ready to do so. Help these students look at gratefulness differently–maybe a caregiver, even if it is not their parents, is someone that they are grateful for having in their lives. Maybe they are grateful that you are their teacher.
So, to build gratitude in your classroom, a number of educational and psychological experts agree that journaling, praise, appreciating nature, helping others and an overall environment of safety and optimism can help students feel grateful or at least move in that direction.
Incorporating gratitude into the lesson plan
And finally, let’s not forget what American and world history has shown us– we are universally grateful for world wars that have ended, vaccines that have been developed, rights that have been secured and protected, babies that have survived, and sunsets that continue to provide just enough awe and reason for tackling another day and trying to bring joy to those we love and ourselves.
As the tide of WWII shifted toward favoring the Allies in 1943, famed American painter Norman Rockwell captured the essential freedoms and human rights that then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt articulated in his January 1941 State of the Union Address. Those freedoms and human rights included freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. Four freedoms that I personally include in my gratitude journal.