One afternoon, during the last trimester of my first year of teaching, my principal grabbed my attention during lunch and asked me to come see him as soon as school was over. He mentioned that he had received a letter from a parent of one of my students and he wanted to get my take on it.
On the outside, I responded confidently. “Sure, not a problem,” I said. On the inside, it was a different story. I started thinking if there was anything that had happened in my class over the last few days that could have warranted a parent letter sent directly to the principal. Needless to say, I sweated bullets for the ensuing hours. My first year of teaching had been at times bumpy (see Evidence Exhibit A: my first evaluation observation). I wondered if this would be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Or, in this case, the letter that broke the teaching career of a young, well-intentioned educator
The bell rang. The kids left. I took a deep breath and stepped into his office. As I sat down at the conference table, I actually felt my knees shake. Our assistant principal appeared in the doorway and, to the principal, asked, “Did you have a chance to go over that letter with Nick yet?”
She also knew about the letter. No good could come of this.
The principal opened a drawer in his desk and produced an email printed across two pieces of paper. He placed it on the table. He slid it over to me. He asked me to read it.
I began to read a letter from the mother of one of the girls in my third-grade class. The day before, she had received a hand-written letter from me detailing all of the small, amazing things that I noticed her daughter doing throughout the day - raising her hand, saying excuse me as she passed another student, waiting patiently to get a recess ball instead of diving into the scrum head first. The letter I read in the principal’s office explained that it was the first time in her daughter’s education that she felt like the teacher made an extra effort to know her daughter. To see her as a real person and not just as a student. It was the first time that she had ever heard that her daughter did all of these small things at school, without being told to. My letter, she said, allowed her to feel so proud of her daughter.
As I finished reading the letter, I looked up to see my principal smiling. He told me that sometimes being a principal can be a thankless job, but letters like these made it all worth it. Letters like these counted as a win for him as much as it did for me. It made him feel like he did a good job choosing the right person for the job and that, in turn, he was making a difference.
Back when I was in my teacher education program, I remember writing my personal philosophy of teaching and planning out how I would manage my classroom. These were theoretical exercises that were done before I had a real classroom to practice them in. They were utopian plans where red, yellow, and green flip cards actually made students more intrinsically motivated to be better members of our classroom community. Reading this letter from this student's mom was the moment that I realized what kind of teacher I actually wanted to be. This was the moment that I developed the basis of my classroom management plan and philosophy of education that I have carried with me through all of my years in education.
Simply put: Show the people you serve that you actually care about them. Put others on pedestals whenever you can - shine a light on their effort. Make sure the positive, awesome stuff that happens in your classroom doesn't go unnoticed or unappreciated.
Before my visit to the principal's office, I was spending so much of my time trying to correct the negative behaviors in my classroom - the shouting out, the tattling, the slow, unfocused routines - that all of the small good stuff was going unrecognized. I found myself going home feeling the weight of a full day of scolding and flipping cards from green to yellow, yellow to a threatened, but rarely flipped, red. And then I realized that the majority of kids were also probably feeling that weight, despite the fact that they would show up everyday and participate and go out of their way to be kind and attempt to help me at their every chance.
I took my red, yellow, and green pocket chart off the wall. I erased that group points tally marks off the whiteboard. The prize bin with those external motivators stayed in their cupboard. Those were all things kids and seen and done before. And they were not working in my classroom.
If you are reading this right now, and you feel like you can relate to how I felt - that you were spending a disproportionate amount of time and effort trying to correct bad behaviors instead of recognizing and praising the good behaviors… I have a challenge for you. Actually no. It’s not even a challenge. It’s too easy to carry that that descriptor. Don’t think of it as a challenge. Just do this and see what happens.
Before school begins tomorrow blindly choose a student in your class. Any student. Don’t tell them that you chose them. Silently watch them throughout the day and make a note of all of the good small things that normally go unrecognized. Maybe they make the decision to raise their hand instead of shouting out. Maybe they completed their work and transitioned to a quiet activity. Maybe you see them invite another student to play with them. Maybe you see them pick up a small piece of trash off the floor that was not theirs and throw it away. Maybe they show resilience when the work of learning becomes challenging.
A few minutes before the end of the school day, pick up a pen and a piece of binder paper and write their parents a letter detailing all these great things that you just witnessed their kid do. Acknowledge that they are small things but, when you add them up, cumulatively, they are the things that allow us to find success in school and in life in general. Don’t send an email. Take five minutes and write it on a piece of paper. Fill up the page. Yes, the end of the day is often busy, but just try it, it will be worth it.
But that is not where it ends.
Right before the end of the school day, right before the bell rings, read the letter out loud to the class before handing it to student. Ask them how they think the it will make their parents feel to receive this letter. Let them know that you genuinely appreciate the effort they put into coming to school. That you recognize it. Tell the rest of the class that maybe you will do the same thing tomorrow. Then do it.
I know you’re thinking. I know if you’re thinking. What if the kid that I choose doesn’t have a day that is worthy of having a positive hand written letter sent home? No problem! Just tell the class you didn’t choose a student today or, in the last moment, choose another kid who did have a great day and write a letter to their parents instead. I never held these letters over the kids' heads, and I never let a kid know that they were chosen but didn’t get a letter. This activity was only meant to bring joy and positivity to the end of the classroom day. It was a carrot, not a stick.
This activity became a foundation of my classroom practice. I quickly realized that this kind of validation to a student's parents meant more to them then getting an extra few minutes of recess or winning a table points competition for a cheap toy out of the prize box. It showed them I understood that, in the end, kids want to make their parents proud. As their teacher, I could help them accomplish that goal.
It was an awesome note to end a day on.
One last thing. Maybe even more so than the kids, I looked forward to this activity as a teacher. Some days are hard in education. These letters gave me an opportunity to sit for a few moments, before students went home, and reflect on the good that happened in the day. No matter how challenging a day was, reading a letter about the good that took place in the classroom allowed us to end our day together on a positive note. Even on the hardest days, if I wrote a letter, I knew that I was bringing at least a little joy into the world for that family.
Try it! It will be worth it.
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