Written by Sara Sheridan Preston
This past February, we took the opportunity to focus on practicing gratitude. This practice actually began in response to an implementation challenge we encountered a few years ago (and continue to address to this day). Across many of the schools we were working with, we found it challenging to inspire adults staff to engage with the program in meaningful, impactful ways. More often than not when adults (or children) aren’t doing what they are “supposed to” we assume the worst and meet the behavior with criticism or even punitive responses.
From our perspective, when folks are willing to do what they’re “supposed to” it’s not just because they don’t want to- there’s usually something deeper at play. Often when we’re working with someone who is resistant or oppositional (an adult or a child) we’re working with someone who is overwhelmed, over-stressed and/or under-supported. Rather than adding to the burdens our resistant colleagues may have been struggling with, we decided that we would actively practice gratitude for all of the wonderful, meaningful work we were seeing, and see how that shifted perception around the program, and the adults’ willingness to participate.
We know that we live and work in increasingly stressful environments, with others who are often depleted. When adults are depleted, they give us lots of clues- they may be resistant to change, unwilling to help, or just generally short-tempered and irritable. None of these are qualities that support nurturing and educating children. When we can use self-care, mindfulness and movement to fill our own cups it becomes easier to base our interactions in gratitude. These kinds of interactions foster the nurturing, supportive relationships with our colleagues (or our students or children), that build the coping chemicals and connections that support optimal states for learning and teaching.
Our gratitude practice included a special celebration to honor outstanding staff members, and smaller day to day practices of gratitude at both a program and a school level. The shift wasn’t a magic fix- I’ve already mentioned that this is something we continue to work on. That being said, we saw a lot of power in these practices. On a personal level, it made it much easier as a coach to approach someone who wasn’t necessarily following protocol. Rather than simply pointing out areas of improvement, I work to center my feedback first in gratitude for the energy and wisdom each person brings to their work, and to follow that acknowledgement with potential next steps. When I’m able to keep my own work rooted in this gratitude I find that the feedback I give is better received and more likely to be followed through.
Practicing gratitude (especially in challenging situations or relationships) is no easy feat, but I can tell you from personal experience that it can be worth it.
Years ago I was struggling in a family relationship, I spoke with one of my mentors and she encouraged me to build active gratitude practices into my self-care routines and interactions with the person. I turned to journaling, gratitude alphabets, and expressing my thanks to the person with whom I was struggling every chance I could. In general it seemed to be helpful, our relationship started to improve, and I stopped ruminating on all of the ways I felt wronged by this person. The true test came one evening after we had a major disagreement. I went to bed with my mind reeling- I can’t even remember what we fought over, but I remember feeling so self-righteous and taken for granted. I lay in bed for what felt like forever. I tossed and turned and fumed, growing increasingly anxious and angry over the fact that I had an early start and a big meeting the next day, and now on top of everything else, this person was robbing my good night’s rest! Those self-righteous feelings were giving way to feelings of self-pity, but somewhere in the process my gratitude practices flickered in my mind. I was desperate for sleep, and thought to myself, “well, if I can find gratitude even amongst all of this drama, perhaps I’ll at least be able to get some rest.” It was not easy, my mind went back to all of the things that were wrong more than once, but when I committed to working my way through the alphabet to find all the reasons I could still feel grateful for this person, there was a massive shift… I was sound asleep before I got to the letter H.
To help you visualize the kind of gratitude practice I described above, I’m going to share my “Self-Care Gratitude Alphabet” below. This is one I re-read to help me remember the multitude of tools I’m lucky to have at my disposal when I need to refill my own cup. I would encourage you to try your own gratitude alphabet and see how it may help to shift or broaden your perspective.