According to research, trust between staff members is key to cultivating a positive school climate. And yet, because of the complexity of human relationships, trust can be one of the most difficult things to foster in our often-stressful educational environments.
Scientists who study trust have found that one of its most important components is benevolent intentions towards another person. In other words, if we believe that a colleague’s actions directed at us are motivated by kindness and understanding, then we are more likely to trust that colleague—even when he or she falls through on a commitment or doesn’t perform the best.
So how can we build benevolent intentions within ourselves and between each other? One of the most effective ways might be by simply saying “thank you.”
Leading Together, a program from the Center for Courage and Renewal and one that I wrote about here, uses a variety of processes and protocols—including ones that focus on gratitude—to help the adults in schools develop trust.
Christy Nealon, an educator from Massachusetts who used the program’s gratitude activities with her staff, found that gratitude had a subtle yet powerful influence on staff meetings. “I’ve seen firsthand that supporting staff members in setting their inner thoughts towards being grateful helps the whole meeting,” she says. “Meetings that we open with gratitude practices often have a more positive tone and warm energy.”
The principal at Christy’s school, Ed Kaufman, was struck by the depth and emotion of many of the teachers’ expressions of gratitude and, as a result, made “gratitude” the theme for the school year. “We will be planning a major gratitude event for the school community,” he says, “and we’re very excited about it.”
Often the teachers who use the Leading Together protocols in their staff meetings use them in their classroom as well. Sherilynne Parretti, another educator from Massachusetts, noticed a difference in her students when she practiced gratitude with them. “I started hearing students say thank you more and they became more verbal about how much they could help each other,” she states. “The students also started to notice and self-regulate when they were not being grateful and they reminded each other to be happy about what they do have.”
A school display that reflected school-wide gratitude prompted enthusiastic replies from the staff teachers at Parretti’s school. “They said the display made them feel joyous about the work they had achieved this year,” she says.
To encourage other school staff to bring gratitude into their staff meetings, the programmers at Leading Together have graciously given us permission to share two of their practices below. Enjoy!
1. Thank you circle
Setting/context: This is an activity that comes from the classroom, but it is equally powerful in the adult community and can be used meaningfully at the beginning or end of a staff meeting. This idea can be adapted for colleagues, parents, and students.
Space: No special requirements.
Time: 15 minutes or less.
Materials or other needs: None.
Facilitation: Have people take a moment to think about their interactions during the last week and a time when another staff member did them a favor or a small kindness that may have gone unnoticed or unacknowledged. It could be something as simple as holding open a door when they had a pile of papers in their hands, or sharing an article they thought they might enjoy, or covering a recess duty for them.
This circle is about taking the time for a shared “noticing” of all the little things we do for each other in the adult community. It isn’t necessary that everyone participate every time you have a “thank you circle” or that everyone receive acknowledgement every time. It’s just a way of heightening our awareness of kindness in a public way. It’s good to acknowledge that you probably won’t get to everyone in the “thank you circle” time, but there are lots of other ways to say thank you, like a note in a mailbox or a flower on a desk.
And, as we tell children when teaching this protocol, this is not for the great big thank yous like “Thank you for being my best friend” or “Thank you for being the best teacher in the world.”
One at a time, as people feel so moved (“popcorn style” rather than going around in a circle), encourage them to speak directly and specifically to the person they are thanking—for example, “Thank you, Sam, for that cup of tea on Thursday morning. It was such a nice surprise on a morning I had so much on my mind.”
This is direct thanking as opposed to indirect: “I’d like to thank Sam for bringing me a cup of tea on Thursday morning. It was a nice surprise. I had a lot on my mind that morning.” After all, Sam is in the circle and can be spoken to directly, and by practicing thanking someone directly, we become more likely to offer thanks in the moment.
Sam’s response can be a simple, “You’re welcome.”
When silence seems to indicate that people are finished, say, “We’ll wait a couple more moments to see if there are any more sharers before we close the thank you circle for today.” Often someone has been getting up the courage to speak and may come forward at this time.
Debrief: At the end of this centering exercise, it is sometimes good for facilitators to draw attention to the fact that we seldom get to know about these little kindnesses because of the busyness of school, but they are going on around us all the time. As we acknowledge them more and more, we may start remembering to make time for them ourselves.
2. Widening our circle of gratitude in our school community
Setting/context: This exercise helps us become more aware of all the individuals we count on each day at school, even if we may not interact directly with them or their contribution may seem tangential at first.
Space: No special requirements
Time: 15-20 minutes
Materials or other needs: None
Facilitation: Ask everyone to journal for a few minutes as they think, beyond their closest colleagues, about the many people in the school community they depend on in order to do their best work. Think broadly and specifically about what each person contributes. Begin to list individuals and their contributions. For example, the custodian for cleaning up the mess your class made during a science experiment or the school secretary for comforting students when they’re upset.
Return to the whole group and share some of these contributions. Then think about ways you might be able to show gratitude to these people.
Get into groups of three and share someone in particular you’d like to thank. Make a commitment to do so in the coming week and describe what you will do.
Most teachers have experienced the heart-warming satisfaction when a student tells them, “thank you,” but how often do the adults say it to each other? When we do, we ultimately are acknowledging the other person’s worth. In other words, it’s a simple, but powerful, way to indicate our “benevolent intentions” toward them.
For more information about Leading Together, click here—and watch the video below to hear students at Woodland Academy talking about what they’re grateful for.