How to Spread Gratitude at Your School

Spike Cook, Millville, NJ

Over the last year and a half I have been dedicated to practicing gratitude every day. Yes, every day when I wake up I reflect on the previous day and identify 5 things that I am grateful for.  After identifying these 5 things, I incorporate them into my daily meditation. In short, this daily practice of gratitude has transformed my life. No matter how tough my day was, I know that I can find at least 5 things to be grateful for. Based on this transformative work, I began to initiate activities at my school to spread this unique gift.

My first step in spreading gratitude at my school was sharing my personal journey with the staff. This wasn’t easy as I had to display vulnerability in front of 150 educators. Fortunately, best selling author and Ted Speaker Brene Brown gave me the courage to be vulnerable as she said, “Staying vulnerable is a risk we take if we want to experience connection.”

Staying vulnerable is a risk we take if we want to experience connection. Brene Brown

It got easier to share my experience the more I allowed myself to be vulnerable. In staff meetings, I continued to discuss my gratitude journey. I talked about how it transformed my perspective on life. In addition, I worked closely with the administrative team and we spent time in each meeting discussing our own gratitude. Encouraged by the positive feedback from the staff and administrators, I sought ideas on how to spread the gratitude throughout the school.

Based on the feedback from the staff, we implemented a Week of Gratitude at Lakeside Middle School in the fall of 2016. During this week, we delivered blank thank you cards to staff and encouraged them to thank someone, anyone. In addition, we gave blank paper to students and also encouraged them to write thank you cards to each other or staff. What may have seemed like a benign activity turned into an incredible buzz throughout the school. Teachers started spreading gratitude on their own by buying each other flowers, sending anonymous gifts and candy to each other.  

Over the summer I reflected on the impact of gratitude. It was clear from the positive feedback that gratitude was having an impact on the school. I could tell because of the conversations with staff at the end of the year and how they cherished the way their colleagues were treating each other. Some of these conversations brought me to tears. Who would have thought that seemingly random acts of gratitude could have such a profound impact?

I decided to take the gratitude to the next level. At the first meeting of the 2016-17 school year I distributed blank journals to each staff member. I talked with the staff about how they could use these journals to write 3-5 things each day that they are thankful for at Lakeside Middle School. I modeled how I use the gratitude journal personally and professionally. I shared that sometimes it is easier to find things outside of the school to be grateful for so that I was going to start a specific gratitude journal for the school.

After distributing the journals, I asked the staff to write their gratitude list individually and then share it with their small groups. I then asked for volunteers to share with the entire group. One teacher shared that she was grateful for her colleagues because her personal life had become very challenging. She then connected it to the experience that some of our students have and how important it is for us to create a safe space for them. This sharing brought tears and validation that we were going in the right direction with gratitude.

The teacher planted a seed with me as she shared her connection with the students. Prior to the Thanksgiving break, I decided to create a process for staff to share their gratitude with the students and families.

Here is what I did

  • Developed a Google Form for the staff with areas for them to identify about 3 students, why they are grateful for them, and the staff name.
  • Sent out the Google Form to the staff and gave about 2 weeks for them to fill it out.
  • I wrote a general letter for the parents and left space to add in the individualized information from the form.
  • Over a weekend, I copied each student name, staff name and gratitude into the letters. I would recommend doing a mail merge. 
  • We then printed out and mailed 140 letters the week before Thanksgiving.

Here is what I learned

  • The impact of these letters was incredible. Staff reported that parents sent them thank you cards, called, emailed or even pulled them aside at an event to personally thank them for the kind words. Many parents took pictures of the letters and posted them on Social Media, and their friends left positive comments on the activity.
  • The staff received the activity very well and were appreciative that I provided the platform.
  • As the principal, I learned about the identified students through reading the comments about them from their teachers.
  • I decided that this needs to be done several times throughout the year.

Since the gratitude letters had such an impact on the school climate and culture, I integrated this into my professional goal for the school year to hold myself more accountable. I then prepared another Google Doc for December. This time I allowed the teachers to nominate as many students as they wished and they responded. We sent 360 individual letters to students the week before the Holiday Break.

Blessed with another surprise in the mailbox today! The Staff at Lakeside Middle School nominated a total of 326 students they were grateful for. My daughter was nominated for her many fist bumps and positivity! Thank you to Mr. Williams for the nomination and to Dr. Cook for the awesome surprise. Michelle Asselta, Parent

One day as I was walking out to my afternoon duty, a student pulled me aside to talk about the gratitude letters. He said he was very thankful that we sent out these to the students but then he asked me this question, “How can the students do this for the teachers? Is there a way you could create a Google Doc so the students could tell the teachers why they are grateful for them?” I thanked him and told him that would be the next step in the spreading gratitude throughout the school!

Spike C. Cook, Ed.D., Principal, Lakeside Middle School, Millville, NJ. In addition to being a Principal, Dr. Cook published two book through Corwin Press (Connected Leadership:It’s Just a Click Away; Breaking Out of Isolation: Becoming a Connected School Leader). He is the co-host of the popular PrincipaPLN podcast and his blog, Insights Into Learning, was recognized as a finalist for Best Administrator Blog by the EduBlog Awards.  Connect with @drspikecook via Twitter.