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Gratitude Languages: How to Support a Culture of Appreciation

Gratitude matters, and yet, so often we lose sight and/or run out of time to express it with intentionality. Imagine a learning environment where everyone feels appreciated, inspired, and are more productive - and all of this is accomplished by simply building in time and space for  students and/or colleagues to express gratitude on the regular. Be it as your welcoming inclusion activity or as a “brain break” during a stressful meeting or class, asking those you are working with to take out their phones and send a text of tangible and specific gratitude to someone in their life can work magic for our mindsets. Want to go a step further? Bring actual thank you notes into class or meetings and ask people to write one to someone in the building.

We do this activity often with our students and those we lead, and sometimes, we even ask them to share if they get a response to the text; without fail, we virtually always hear one specific response back…”are you okay?”

These three simple words hold within them a stark and troubling reality. Simply put, gratitude is not the norm, not commonplace. It catches people off guard, causes worry, and at times, even makes people uncomfortable. But why?  What if it were the norm? What if, as leaders, we made it our goal to create an authentic culture of consistent and meaningful gratitude where all of those we lead (and by trickle down, the students we teach) understand and practice gratitude with intentionality?

Recently, studies supporting the positive power of gratitude have made their way into the mainstream as industries wrestle with low morale and burnout among employees. The fact is that educator burnout is on the rise and continues to be highlighted year after year. An article published by the New York Times in March 2023 asked teachers for their “quitting stories.” The striking and troubling stories told by these former educators speak to feeling stressed from work, disrespected as professionals, and devalued by those in leadership.

As educational leaders, we are not powerless to address this reality. In 2019, Naz Beheshti, author of Pause, Breathe, Choose, highlighted research in Forbes that points to gratitude as the key to increasing productivity, growth mindset, and humility among employees and management. Unfortunately, a 2013 survey published in Greater Good Magazine out of Berkley indicated we are less likely to express gratitude at work than at any other place in our lives, but 97% of participants agreed that they saw supervisors who expressed gratitude as having the potential for success. So why aren’t we doing more of it?

The answer may not surprise you. Genuine gratitude must come from a place of vulnerability, and vulnerability requires risk-taking. Leadership articles and publications around gratitude in the workplace, like from the Thoughtful Leader, consistently point out the fact that leaders showing gratitude is not a weakness (even though it can feel as one). As published in Newsweek in June 2022, in order to be a leader who successfully supports a culture of appreciation, one must be careful to avoid toxic positivity and inauthentic praise. This means, as a leader, that you are open with your team about your intentions of supporting a culture of gratitude and are authentic about learning how to best express thankfulness within your learning environment. 

Supporting a Culture of Appreciation

How do leaders balance and navigate this tricky juxtaposition of gratitude? Provide too much or inauthentic gratitude, those you lead may get angry, resentful, and feel disrespected. Don’t praise enough or in meaningful (the “right”) ways, and those you lead feel underappreciated and unvalued. To that end, we have attempted to provide leaders with gratitude language based on the varied personalities and praise preferences of those we lead.

The Six Gratitude Languages (with Examples)

    1. Personal Gratitude

      • When to use: One on one meetings or communications (i.e. email)
      • Benefits: Is personal in nature and generally well-received by all personality types
      • Potential Drawbacks: Others do not get to see it nor hear about the “thing” being praised
      • Examples
        • Direct praise in a post-observation conference after a good lesson
        • Sending an email to a teacher who you saw working 1:1 with a student before school

Public Gratitude

      • When to Use: Think of “shout outs” at team meetings/mass communications
      • Benefits: Allows a person to be recognized not only by the leader but the whole team. Can cultivate feelings of collective success and build collective teacher efficacy
      • Potential Drawbacks: Could embarrass and/or make someone uncomfortable
      • Examples:
        • Mentioning accomplishments at a faculty meeting
        • Celebration in all-school emails and memos 

Connection Gratitude 

    • When to Use: Praising one by connecting with another
    • Benefits: Cultivates a feeling of collective success and creates connections between those in the group
    • Potential Drawbacks: Others do not get to hear or see the accomplishment 
    • Examples:
      • Suggesting teacher A go work with teacher B because teacher B is doing great work with X
      • Praising teacher A for their compassion and asking if they might subtly check in on teacher B who is having a rough week
  1. Team Gratitude

    • When to Use: Actively acknowledging the collective efforts and/or achievements of a team as a whole
    • Benefits: Cultivate a feeling of collective success
    • Potential Drawbacks: Avoids specific praise for the individual, so individuals may not feel seen and/or could feel inauthentic
    • Examples:
      • Sending an email to the whole team to thank them for their work at family-teacher conferences
      • Praising a team for the new common assessment they created in their PLC
  2. Unexpected Gratitude

    • When to Use: Whenever! Surprise people on the regular 
    • Benefits: Naturally reads as authentic and “in the moment” 
    • Potential Drawbacks: Leaders could risk unequal interactions among the group, leaving room for bias 
    • Examples:
      • Sending a PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention System) recognition/hand-writing a thank you note
      • Verbally praising/thanking a teacher when passing in the hall
  3. Mastery-Based Gratitude

    • When to Use: When providing feedback; honestly starting pathways for improvement IS gratitude when it’s specific and actionable
    • Benefits: Growth occurs while feeling supported and appreciated 
    • Potential Drawbacks: Individual readiness and vulnerability impact the success of this conversation (can just feel like criticism) 
    • Examples:
      • Naturally occurring conversations within evaluation systems
      • Individual and team-based conversations around student achievement data

The research continues to grow in support of the power of gratitude across industries and institutional groups. Of course, how leaders choose to build structures around gratitude varies greatly based on the team(s) they lead, the setting in which they work, and their personalities. There is no one right way to express gratitude, and it is our hope that you spend some time reflecting on the ways in which you express gratitude to your team. Education leaders like Lainie Rowell have written books about the power of gratitude. In Evolving with Gratitude, Rowell writes about unexpected gratitude, “A principal recently shared with me that she takes a pad of Post-it notes with her as she makes her rounds on campus. As she walks through classrooms, she makes a quick note about something she appreciates the teacher doing and leaves it on their desk. She loved doing it so much that she started leaving them for kids as well, and families have shared that their child's Post-it can be found on a highly visible place in the house, like the refrigerator so all can see. it takes very little time, but this genuine act can have a huge impact.” Culture like this isn’t something that develops overnight, but the intentional and varied use of gratitude sure can help move any organization forward - even the most stressed and challenged of teams.

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