Sunday, May 11, 2014

No one who achieves success does so without the help of others. The wise and confident acknowledge this help with gratitude. Alfred North Whitehead

As a rule, teacher rewards are not a daily occurrence.  This is true in that an entire week has been deemed "Teacher Appreciation Week", just so the overworked and underpaid may receive a few kind words. I was very fortunate during my career to receive numerous accolades from parents and principals and students, but the gifts that really mattered were the handwritten student thank you notes.  On a bad day, I could pull those notes out of my desk drawer and read them over and over to erase any sad or bad feelings of the day.  Even better, I found a way to share these notes full of wonderful feelings with my colleagues in a unique way, and everyone on the staff looked forward to the notes from Mrs. Rittman's classes!

Near the end of each school year for 35 years, I talked to my students about the fact that teachers never get to see a finished product; thus, they never really know if they have been successful in the classroom.  I explained that in our school, where every teacher had a minimum of 150 students per day in classes, that it was impossible to know if the students cared or felt they were a part of the learning process, and sometimes, it was difficult to know if students were even enjoying the class.  I explained that teachers spent hours creating a lesson that would last just 40 minutes, and then they would work at home for long hours again to create another lesson. I found out through the years that students thought teacher lessons came from a book, and then later from a web page. They always seemed surprised to discover that most lessons were teacher-made.  I was blunt in saying that teaching was not an easy job, and that most of our staff used the summer to improve their education and to improve their lessons.  I let them know that thank you notes were SO appreciated, explaining how much a hand written note from a student meant to me, personally, and  that I kept such notes in my desk drawer as an antidote for a bad day!  They were shocked.

Next, I asked students to think about any teacher or guidance counselor or principal or school nurse or para-professional or other support staff member who had helped them in some way, shown them a kindness, or made class fun and interesting.  I let them know that today's class would be a writing day, and that they had the great opportunity to "make someone's day" with a personal note. They were allowed to write as many notes as they liked, to any teacher in the district. (I sent these through inter-school mail.) Every year when I planned this day, the voices would start with "Do you remember . . . ?  I loved that class" or "Mrs.___ is so nice to me in the library every day.  I have to write her a note."  Sometimes students sat together and wrote a group note to a current or former teacher.  

I made thank you notes from colors of papers with various designs with THANK YOU and IN APPRECIATION pictures on the masthead. I reviewed the acceptable form of the notes, with the date, the salutation, indented paragraphs, the closing, and the signature (full name.)  Students could choose the color paper/design they wanted to use, and the class went into full writing mode.  I made suggestions for words to use in the notes (appreciate, enjoy, grateful, etc.) and any questions about how to spell a word or name were answered with the correct spellings on the board.  I also provided colored pencils and some students drew a little flower or cartoon on their notes.  All notes were folded in half with the teacher's name and department or school building on the outside, printed legibly.  I posted a notice in the mail room that the notes were from my classes, and the staff felt very valued.

I must tell you that during this lesson, I told students that they were not to write a note to me; that we were doing this for others in the school.  Although I issued that admonition every class period, I usually received 30-50 notes every year, and I kept every one of them. Each one is so special to me.

In the 35 years that I did this lesson, there was only one incident in which a boy wrote an inappropriate note to a teacher.  Luckily, I recognized his handwriting and the issue was addressed.  Most students really took this lesson to heart, and they were thrilled with the compliments and feedback they received from the staff members.  In fact, I had students who wrote 5-10 notes and even took extra stationery to finish their notes at home. This lesson was a win-win for all involved.  Personally, I still believe that a thank you note goes a long way. Although handwritten thank you notes may be close to a lost art with the advancement of emails and all electronics, there is something so satisfying about opening a note and knowing that someone took the time to write a personal note. 

I cherish every hand written note I have ever received.  So does every teacher.  (Just ask them)

Feel free to use this lesson in your classroom if you would like to try it.  

Rittman Publishing, LLC

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