Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Have Some Challenging Students? Thank Them.

For the second year in a row, students in all of my classes recently wrote thank you notes to members of the school community. I printed out small papers with the following prompts:

Dear _____________

I am thankful for you because....


I encourage the students to complete at least one thank you to anyone they choose at the school; this includes K-12 teachers, administrators, custodians, cafeteria workers, secretaries, and paraprofessionals. I have never had a student refuse to participate in this activity, and many students decide to write more than one thank you. On the morning before Thanksgiving break, I deliver the notes to the staff members, typically to their district mailboxes.

As I was thinking about this activity over the weekend, I started pondering: Do students ever get a thank you for the unique qualities and talents they bring to their classes and learning communities? Probably not. If I was asking them to write their thanks to a staff member, maybe I should do the same for them.

Two things were in my favor for making this idea a reality. First, I have the ability to send individual messages to all of my students via Schoology, our district-wide LMS. Secondly, since I'm only teaching students part-time this year (my other position as a District Technology Integrationist takes up the rest of my time), I only have about 75 total students in all of my classes.

So yesterday afternoon, I sat down at my computer and started writing individual thank-you's to each of my students. It was hard to get going at first because I wanted to make each one personalized and specific to that student's qualities. However, I eventually got into the "zone" and finished them within a little over two hours.

After completing my final note, I sat back and realized how happy I felt. For every one of my students, even those that challenge me on a regular basis, I was able to come up with one or more positive attributes he or she brings to the classroom. I realized that some of my students are really great leaders, some are patient and thoughtful teachers of their peers, and others have an infectious sense of humor that sets the whole class at ease. I even was able to appreciate those students who ask, "Why is this important?" and, "Can't we do this a different way?" on a daily basis. Those are the students who constantly push me to be a better teacher and to reflect on how students are learning. Writing the notes forced me to take the time to think of my students as an individual, and not just a part of a class, for a few precious minutes.

Besides the insight into my students that this exercise surprisingly evoked, I also received many grateful replies from the students after they read their messages.

So whether it's Thanksgiving or the middle of March, if you're feeling overwhelmed by your most challenging students and it seems like nothing is working in your classes, consider writing thank you notes to your students. Not only is it a powerful mental exercise to find the good in all of your students, but it may just be that one connection that makes a difference in a day, a year, or a life of a child.

Photo "Thank You" by Katharina Friederike from Flickr, licensed via Creative Commons.

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