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Gratitude in Teaching

My favorite poet is Mary Oliver and what I love most about her work is the awe and gratefulness she exudes in merely observing the world.

She writes,
Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

This is, I think, good advice for teachers.  As teachers, we tend to focus in, with laser-like precision, on anything that goes wrong in our classrooms. This is important--we must reflect on what doesn't work in our classrooms to improve as instructors. But, what we too often fail to do is take note of our successes.

In Chapter 3 of her new book, Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to Be Effective Teachers, Professor Jessamyn Neuhaus has a wonderful section on the importance of gratitude in teaching. She describes gratitude as "an inner attitude [that] leads to an expression of thanks--taking an action--toward someone or something. It means recognizing what you received from another person or from the circumstances in which you're living."[1]  She rightly observes that many parts of working in academia foster feelings of ingratitude--from cranky colleagues to unprepared students to clashing political agendas--and that we are likely not to be on the receiving end of others' gratitude much in this environment.[2] Like any other skill, one must practice gratitude. But I'm here to tell you, if you practice it, it can soon become second nature.

But why bother? First and foremost, practicing gratitude in the classroom, is good for your mental health. As Neuhaus explains, teaching is effortful and practicing gratitude "helps us see that in addition to the many things we have to give to our work as teachers and which deplete our personal resources, we also receive."[3] Gratitude, then, becomes a gift that can replenish us.

Beyond that, practicing gratitude can enhance student learning. When we practice gratitude, we reflect on what is working well in the classroom and during our interactions with students. We can use this knowledge to adjust our strategies and interactions in the classroom. Practicing gratitude can also make us happier to be in the classroom, which students undoubtedly pick up on; they know when we're excited to be there and it influences their desire to be there as well.

How can you be mindful about practicing gratitude?  Several years ago, I began taking a few minutes after each class to reflect on the session and annotate my syllabus with notes on that day's class. Up until about a year ago, those notes were exclusively about what didn't work. Last fall semester, I began requiring myself to identify at least one thing that went well. The more I did it, the more I was able to see the good things. Now, more often than not, the good far outweighs the things I want to improve on. Even the activity that didn't quite go the way I envisioned has become a plus, as I have an opportunity to rethink how I might do it differently next time. It's a simple way to practice gratitude that doesn't take up much time in our busy schedules.

My gratitude practice has also made me more mindful of how transformative it can be to give thanks to others. I've never wrote more thank you notes than I have in the past year and I've found that it's even better for my mental health than receiving thanks--and that practicing gratitude with others encourages them to practice it with you.  I've also switched to a planner that includes a space to jot down the "win of the day," so even on non-teaching days, I'm taking a minute to think about what went well. Keep in mind that practicing gratitude doesn't mean you're a saint; negative thoughts can and will still creep in, but I think you'll find that, with practice, grateful thoughts will come to mind more frequently.

However you decide to do it, follow Mary Oliver's advice: pay attention--especially to the good stuff, feel the buzz of joy that brings, and take a moment to share it (even if it's just in your own journal or annotated syllabus). It'll impact your teaching for the better.

[1] Jessamyn Neuhaus, Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectual Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to Be Effective Teachers 114 (2019).

[2] Id. at 115

[3] Id. at 122.

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