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October 20, 2021
ASCD Blog

Hey Principals, Let's Show Some Gratitude

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LeadershipSocial-emotional learning
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What offers great benefits at little cost? Gratitude, taking the time to express appreciation.
I suspect this doesn’t surprise you. And yet, many people underestimate the power of gratitude. How recently have you taken the time to thank someone in writing, either in a personalized email or, better, in a handwritten note? When was the last time you truly thanked someone? And by “truly,” I mean more than giving a perfunctory “thank you,” sincere as that may be.
Chances are that you haven’t done this as recently or as often as you should, not because you are unaware or even unappreciative, but because doing this takes time—and the one thing we lack is time. Principals are always busy, too busy, especially during COVID-19 times. However, neglecting to show our appreciation to others is a costly mistake.
You see, far more than we might imagine, school leaders are behavior models. Sometimes teachers listen to what we say, and occasionally they read what we have written, but they always watch what we do. That’s especially the case when we are promoting social-emotional learning (SEL) in our schools. If we want to elicit kindness from others, we need to visibly show it, and a simple and appropriate way to do that is to express our gratitude.

Empathy Inspires Change

Gratitude is an integral component of empathy. In expressing our gratitude, we appreciate others’ actions of support and care, and we recognize their feelings and motivations. In leading a school where everyone grows, we need to be the CEO—Chief Empathy Officer—by developing everyone’s empathy: our staff, our students, and our own.
Why start with empathy? Well, there’s no question that we need a kinder world, and empathy, based on understanding others, leads to kindness. Empathy is also at the heart of embracing diversity, another area in which we need to progress. If we really want to develop empathy among our students and staff members, if we want to lead as a Chief Empathy Officer, we can do so by modeling and showing our appreciation to others.

Make It Routine

Habits are powerful things (as my addiction to Starbucks reminds me each morning), so why not decide to form a habit of writing a thank-you note [to a teacher or colleague] before you leave school each day? Or commit to writing five notes by the end of the week? Having a set schedule can net a great yield of positive impact. Appreciation is contagious, and in no time at all you will see that appreciation comes back around. As Jamil Zaki, author of The War for Kindness, says, “We catch one another’s empathy.”
Be creative about those thank yous. Go beyond the usual recipients of recognition and send a note to salute that teacher who is not quite there yet but is trying his best. Commend the cafeteria worker who always smiles, and acknowledge the colleague who never gives up. All thanks are appreciated, and, although it will take an extra minute, a handwritten note is more meaningful in today’s digital world than an email, even when the handwriting is hard to read. (I know this from experience because teachers have asked me to decipher my own notes of thanks.)
It is essential to be specific. “Nice job” isn’t nearly as meaningful as “Nice job. I loved how welcoming you were when students entered your room!” or “Nice job. You were tenacious in getting the class to consider the implications of tariffs.” or “Nice job. Your support for your teammate was wonderful.” Process is important; we should focus on folks’ effort and trajectory, not simply applaud their achievements.

Commend the cafeteria worker who always smiles, and acknowledge the colleague who never gives up.

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Thomas Hoerr

Lastly, appreciating others should be an integral part of your faculty meetings and professional development activities. After making the case for the value of appreciation—and having shown that you walk the talk by your thank-you notes—let teachers know that the first five minutes of each monthly faculty meeting will be devoted to them writing a note of thanks to whomever they want, and you’ll provide the stationery and postage. You can further inspire this practice if you start meetings by asking everyone to turn to a partner and express something that happened during the last week for which they feel gratitude. Or you might routinely begin each of your meetings by publicly expressing your gratitude for something or someone. It’s one thing to advocate appreciation, thanks, and empathy; it’s another to create the context and provide the time for it to happen.
What are you grateful for? To whom will you write your first note of appreciation?

Becoming Your School's "Chief Empathy Officer"

Join Tom Hoerr's live author workshop on November 22, from 6:00–7:00 pm EST, for steps on becoming an exemplary Chief Empathy Officer in your school. Designed for small groups with conversational learning, limited seats will be available at this virtual event.

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Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

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