Practicing gratitude in schools

practicing gratitude

This blog post is about a new year, but first: an old joke.


A grandmother is watching her grandson play on the beach.

Suddenly, a huge wave comes and takes him to sea.

Panicked, she gets down on her knees and prays. “Please. Save my only grandson. I beg of you. He is the only thing that matters to me.”

And, just as suddenly, a big wave comes and her grandson returns, bathed in celestial light and good as new.

The grandmother looks up to Heaven and, shaking an exasperated fist, says “Excuse me! He was wearing a hat!”


It might be a bad joke, but it holds a real truth. As humans, we are not built for gratitude. I suspect this is imprinted deep in our caveperson brains. Millions of years ago, remembering where a tiger was hiding, what berry was poisonous, and what lake made you sick kept our ancestors alive. Today, especially in schools, it keeps us unhappy. We don’t see the miracles; we wonder where the hat went.


Yet, especially in schools, we crave gratitude.


I’m the Principal of a charter elementary school in Nashville. On our first day of staff professional development, we set resolutions for the year and picked one word or phrase we hoped would describe our 2017. Some resolutions were highly specific “Texting people back.” Others related to specific professional goals “The year of leaving school by 5:00 pm.”


But here’s what shocked me: more than 60 percent of our staff said they wanted to show, express, or practice more gratitude in the coming year. Why is our staff so interested in practicing gratitude? I think it’s because of a culture we’ve built with four specific practices.


1. Daily practices for students: Every afternoon, before dismissal, teachers end the day by recognizing a specific student for hard work and effort. Then, students give shout outs to each other – for being a good teammate on the playground, for showing resilience when something went wrong, or acting like a scholar. This starts in kindergarten. Whatever happened that day, we end it with gratitude.


2. Daily practices for staff: Every morning, our staff has a standing meeting (less than 7 minutes) before students enter. Each meeting ends with a shout out for a specific staff member and expression of appreciation. Our days begin with gratitude.


3. Weekly practices for students: Every Friday morning, our entire school holds an assembly. In it, our music teacher leads the entire school in songs, and we recognize students for being scholars of the week. These students wear a blazer that has “Scholar of the Week” embroidered on the back. When a six year old wears a blazer, they grow about six inches taller. At the end of the assembly, we present one student with a three foot trophy that they get to carry all week. As part of the presentation, that student’s teacher speaks to the whole school about why they’re grateful for that student. As a result, our scholars end each week on a positive note of recognition, celebration, and gratitude.


4. Weekly practices for staff: Every Friday afternoon, our staff huddles for a few minutes and makes a circle. We each go around and share something we were grateful for that week – it might be a student, it might be a teammate, it might just be the weekend. Whatever it is, we walk out of the building with hearts full.


In addition to these schoolwide practices, by third grade, our scholars hold weekly gratitude circles. They celebrate each other and express gratitude for everything from their teachers to their friends to their families. It’s a small moment, but I believe there’s a big lesson.


So, as a New Year begins, I’m grateful our staff chooses to prioritize gratitude. With systems in place, I believe gratitude can become a habit. In schools, teachers make the miraculous happen every day. Gratitude helps us remember to stop shaking a fist at the sky above us and start smiling at the children beside us.


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