December 11th, 2017—Why should the activity of giving thanks be confined to one day? What about a season of Thanksgiving? Why confine gratitude for others, your calling, the Earth, to one day during the year? Thanksgiving is many things to many people– it is known as a time to gather with family and friends to express thanks for the gift of deep relationships. To gather with colleagues and honor a shared sense of professional calling. Even to sit silently and express to the universe an appreciation for the experience of being alive. In the field of education there are many aspects of teaching that are thankless and are so onerous that being grateful is beyond the realm of possibility. The must do activities that have little intrinsic reward constitute the work of teaching. But every teacher knows that teaching at its best is more than a to do list of life-draining tasks. Most of the time, good teaching is filled with many life-renewing experiences that deserve special treatment, to be named and to be thanked. Giving gratitude for the work of teaching can be a daily practice.
There is good reason to practice gratitude, to think of it as something more than just Thanksgiving Day. For instance, the research is clear that the act of gratitude for physicians can reduce the symptoms of burnout by bringing joy into their work. The Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) offers this rationale for incorporating gratitude into the practice of medicine:
“Gratitude can add joy and meaning to their work. It can strengthen doctors’ social ties and commitment to generous helping and compassion, and help to meet their psychological needs for autonomy, competence and connectedness.
To add to the CMAJ report, Dr. Dike Drummond makes an argument for the physical, psychological, and social benefits of gratitude including: stronger immune systems, less bothered by aches and pains, better sleep, positive emotions, more optimism and happiness, more compassionate, more forgiving, and less lonely.
But what about teachers? What is the role of gratitude in their professional life? With so many instructional and curricular constraints and the nearly constant criticism of teachers, what is there to be grateful for? My short list includes: students who help me refine the elements of my teaching center—my calling, colleagues who help me see when I’m right and who are willing to challenge me when I’m wrong, a teaching context that allows for a degree of curricular and pedagogical freedom, and unexpected moments when the classroom dissolves away to reveal the mystery of learning.
Many of the best educators I know have rituals, practices, and traditions that anchor their teaching. Do you have any gratitude rituals? Are there any regular activities that you engage in around giving thanks when teaching? I know teachers who keep a gratitude journal, use a gratitude app on their phone, write notes to students thanking them for showing up every day, or welcome students to class with expressions of gratitude. My favorite example of a gratitude practice occurs at the end of the day when a teacher, just before falling asleep, names three things that happened during the day that are worthy of thanks. This simple practice can bring joy, contentment, increased feelings of connectedness, and better sleep to a teacher.
I’ve been paying attention to my gratitude practices lately, some I knew about (thanking students for asking deep questions) and other rituals that I was less aware of. For instance, I now realize that at the end of the week, after I’ve straightened up my office, after I’ve checked to make sure I’m taking the right work home to be prepared for Monday, after I’ve watered by plants, I do one last thing. I pause for just a moment before closing my door and I thank my office for all the big and small acts of teaching it facilitated during the week. I picture the ways my office, as sacred instructional space, enabled me to bring forward the fullness of my calling to teach. I think the poet Mary Oliver has it right when she states: “Sometimes I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed.” How are you blessed where you stand today as a teacher? What act of teaching today deserves your gratitude?