As a teacher, the start of the school year means many things: student documents to read, a classroom to unpack, and an inbox brimming with important emails that all need answering right away. Sign up for this training by tomorrow! Don’t forget this meeting next week! Please read this document immediately! We’ve added two new students to your class! Don’t forget to …
It’s endless. And stress-inducing. And sometimes, it makes you forget why you’re in the classroom in the first place.
Which is why, a couple of days before I was to meet my students for the first time this year, I braced myself for the onslaught of administrative requests and demands. They were there, but something was different.
Sitting on top of a long list of work-related emails was one from a former student. “Looking to get in touch” read the subject line. Ignoring all the others, I immediately opened that message. In it, a young woman I taught five years ago named Sarah wrote to let me know that she thought about me and our class from time to time. She gave me an update about her life, her goals, her post-college plans. In the most heartfelt and sweetest way, Sarah wrote to tell me how much she appreciated her time in my class and that she had always wanted to tell me that.
I’m not one to cry, but that unexpected email made me tear up. Without knowing her impact, that former student made my entire week, if not my entire school year. I opened my email expecting demands, wants, needs. Instead, I got gratitude. It was exactly the boost I needed to start the school year.
And she did this just with her words.
There are many studies that reveal possible emotional, mental, and social benefits connected to expressing and hearing words of gratitude. One of my favorite saints and working moms, St. Gianna Beretta Molla, expressed something similar when she said, “The secret of happiness is to live moment by moment and to thank God for all that He, in His goodness, sends us day after day.”
Sarah’s letter not only made me feel grateful, but it made me look internally and see how I, too, could express gratitude. So, I wrote an email to one of my former teachers, a writing professor I had in college.
Then I turned to these new students of mine. Could I get them to look for gratitude? I decided to try by changing a letter-writing assignment into a thank you letter-writing assignment. Instead of writing an introduction letter to me, I had them choose someone they admired and respected and write a letter to them expressing their thanks. It didn’t matter who they chose: a friend, a parent, a celebrity. What mattered was that they expressed, in words, their appreciation for that person in their life.
Two weeks ago, after several back-and-forth emails, Sarah came to visit me at school, and we spent an hour talking not as teacher-to-student but person-to-person. Her words connected us. During our conversation, however, she mentioned how she almost didn’t send that email because I might think it was weird. It was the same feeling of reluctance I had when sending my email to my professor and a feeling I’m sure my students had when I gave them their assignment.
We hesitate to reach out because we fear rejection. Yet, there is so much to be gained.
In expressing gratitude, we are opening ourselves up and showing our vulnerability and that can be scary. But it’s that willingness to be open that creates connection. It’s a connection we need both in our social and spiritual lives.
I hope to continue using words to express feelings of gratitude both with my students and in my prayer life. Because words matter.
Originally published November 21, 2018