Thursday, May 9, 2013


I hope you were fortunate enough to watch the panel of education innovators on PBS' TEDTalks Education recently. If not, you can watch it here.

The person I was most interested in seeing was Dr. Rita Pierson. I was familiar with Dr. Pierson through a workshop on poverty I attended as a High School English teacher. She was very knowledgeable on her subject, interesting and entertaining. But instead of speaking about poverty, she talked about something near and dear to me: connecting with kids on a heart level. In case you don't want to watch the entire PBS program, you can see Dr. Pierson's segment here.

My favorite teachers were always the ones I connected with. They could teach, but they also made me want to learn.....want to be better. When I became a teacher, they were my inspiration.

It took a couple of years to get my teacher "legs" under me, trying different methods of connection. I finally found something that worked for me: the magic of letters. It was a wonderful way to relate to them on a more heartfelt level. I also felt like part of my job was to help prepare my students life after High School....real life. My subjects consisted of things like motivation, perseverance and gratitude.

Here's one of my gratitude letters from November 2005 (because gratitude ROCKS!):

Dear Class:

Since we will be leaving for Thanksgiving break soon it seems appropriate that this letter address the subject of gratitude.  I’m going to come at it from a different angle though. 

It’s really easy to be thankful for a cool present or an unexpected $20.  But what about those things that, on the outside, aren’t so wonderful?  What about when bad things happen?  What about when you lose something or you’re in a wreck or you break up with someone? Why would anyone be grateful about that?  If you look with an open mind, there are lots of reasons to be grateful for everything in your life.

“Thankful” means “aware and appreciative of a benefit; grateful.”  First let’s look at the awareness part.  That’s where you have to be open-minded and willing to look for what’s not easily seen.  Sometimes you have to look very hard for the gratitude in a situation. 

Once, I was in a relationship with a real loser.  It was very damaging to me emotionally.  In fact, it was probably one of the lowest times in my life.  At one point, I was really afraid of him and what he might do.  I hid all my valuables and I was terrified to be at home alone.  What good thing could come out of that?!?  For one thing, I had some friends who totally stuck by me.  In fact, they stayed with me, around the clock, for a week so I wouldn’t have to be alone until things settled down.  Their selflessness and support amazes me to this day.  Another good thing that happened was that I was forced to look at some of my behavior patterns that got me into the situation to begin with.   This experience gave me new insight and an opportunity to change.  It wasn’t fun or pretty but it was extremely beneficial.  I had to get beyond the fear, anger, shame and bitterness of that ordeal in order to find the good, but it was there nonetheless.  Everyone is my teacher if I am open-minded enough to see it.

What are the benefits of going through tough times?  The most obvious is getting through it.  Something may be very painful but eventually, time will heal those wounds.  Another benefit is that I usually gain some new awareness about myself afterward.  I see something I want to change or maybe I see some new strength I didn’t know I had.  Sometimes, I simply get to use my experience to help someone else who is going through a  similar problem. 

Besides the opportunity to help someone else, there is a valid connection between your mental and the physical well-being.  Studies show that people who live a life of gratitude have less stress, are more optimistic, healthier, happier and less materialistic.  People find that the most important things in life aren’t “things.” 

Since I’ve mentioned my weight before, I’ll tell you how I’ve tried to apply gratitude to that area of my life.  I used to talk to myself in terrible ways about my weight which, in my opinion, compounded the problem.  What I have done recently is to be grateful for the fact that I’m overweight.  Why?!?  Because I’m overweight I have to try to make a point of watching what I eat and getting some exercise.  What if I was at a normal weight and yet had a health problem that I didn’t address because I wasn’t worried about what I ate?  What if I had a stroke like my mother did because I wasn’t taking care of myself?  The fact that I’m overweight forces me to look for ways to improve my health that I might not do otherwise and is, therefore, something to be grateful for.

The Hebrew term for gratitude is hikarat hatov, which means, literally, "recognizing the good." Practicing gratitude means recognizing the good that is already yours.  If you've lost your job, but you still have your family and health, you have something to be grateful for.  If you can't move around except in a wheelchair but your mind is as sharp as ever, you have something to be grateful for.  One way I practice gratitude is to say a silent “thank you” for every bill I pay because it’s stuff I’ve already used.  Even the $250 electric bill is a source of gratitude for the power I’ve already used.  Gratitude can't coexist with arrogance, resentment, and selfishness. In other words, I can’t grumble about how high the bill is and be grateful for it at the same time.  I would rather be grateful.

How can you live a life of gratitude?  One thing you can do is start a gratitude journal.  Write down five things you are grateful for every day.  Include little things like the person who let you onto the freeway, the fact that the cafeteria is serving your favorite lunch or you and a friend shared a good belly laugh.  Think of good things that happened because something bad happened first.  For example, if that slow driver hadn’t pulled in front of you, you probably would have gotten a speeding ticket.  Think about places that make you smile.  Look for ways to add gratitude into your life. If there’s someone that you know that is usually grumpy, welcome him with a smile. Tell people when they do something that affects your life in a positive way.  I have written notes of gratitude to my parents and other family members telling them all the things that they did that meant something special to me.  Trust me, you will make their day.  Many people go through life thinking that they don’t make a difference in anyone’s life and it means the world to them to find out that they made a difference in yours.    And now, with my mother’s death, I am especially happy that I did that while she was still coherent enough to understand it.

Gratitude is action you take, not just words you say.  It’s a way to live your life.  It’s an attitude.  And it’s a gift to yourself and everyone around you.

Do you think this is worth your time and energy?  Would you be willing to try it?  Can you see how you can turn any situation around into something for which you can be grateful?

Think about the subject of gratitude.  See where and how you can add it to your life.  In your one page response, list things that you already do or are willing to do to add gratitude into your life.  Do you think that taking this action can benefit your life?  Why or why not?  I challenge you to try it – just for a month – and see what happens.

As usual, your response will be counted as a quiz grade.  Please understand that, although no one besides me will read this, if you reveal something that makes me believe that you are being abused in any way, it is my job to report it.

Although I may not act like it every day, I am grateful for each of you and my life is better because of you.  Have a great Thanksgiving break!

Have you tried letters as a means of connecting? Have you tried a letter of gratitude?

Have you been there?

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Yes! I've been there, Claire!