Michaela was an orderly place- strikingly orderly, even by my standards and that’s probably saying something. But it was also a happy place, to a degree that was a tiny bit surprising even to someone like me who came in believing that students are happier in an orderly school. Smiles were everywhere. Could have been the bright October weather, I guess, but it was something I found myself ruminating on all morning.
Example: When I asked Kavit and Hayley, my student tour guides, to take me to their favorite class they briefly but cordially negotiated–whose favorite would they choose?–and then rushed me to Barry Smith’s French class. Their faces said, ‘Wait till you see!’ And they stood in the back beaming while their classmates happily rocked the subjunctive (or whatever tense that was… full honors to you, Barry Smith, full honors).
Or in the hallway: as students lined up for class or hurried into stairwells they’re faces were pleasant, content, proud, happy.
So, how to explain it? Let us first tick some boxes:
- Do kids love a place that is safe and predictable, where they won’t be bullied, where they can be who they are without embarrassment and censure? Surely yes.
- Do they love a place that communicates in everything it does that it thinks they are remarkable, capable, just possibly bound for greatness? Does that message shape culture, even if the kids may groan a bit about how hard it is? I think so.
- Were the kids proud of how much they were learning? Proud of how impressed adults were with them and their school? Proud of the look in adults faces when they saw what their peers prattling away like native French speakers? I go with ‘yes’ there too.
But there was something more to the smiles and later it hit me that part of it was due to the school’s strong culture of gratitude.
Michaela prizes gratitude. To some degree it requires it of students, which may seem strange at first but being there helps you to see why. It has subtle and far-reaching sinews.
The most palpable expression of gratitude came at lunch when, after eating, the pupils stood and offered ‘appreciations.’ Allowed the chance to express gratitude in front of half the school, their hands shot into the air. All of them. Everyone wanted to be chosen to say thanks.
Students thanked their classmates for helping them study. They thanked their teachers for expecting a lot and helping them. They thanked them for planning great lessons. One student thanked the lunch room staff for cooking for them. And still the hands shot up into the air. A student thanked his mother for everything she did to provide for him. He was perhaps 13, this young man, and shared his appreciation in front of a few hundred other teenaged boys, speaking haltingly but honestly about how grateful he was for how hard she worked and the sacrifices she made. You don’t see 13 year old boys do that every day.
A student at my table—it’s communal meals at Michaela—thanked me. He wasn’t really sure who I was and why I was there but it was unusual to eat with a man with a strange accent who said he had come from America to see what they did here and now he, Hassan, could show that he was a man and not a child and understood that it was a good thing and that it was right to show that you appreciated that. “I want to thank sir for coming to see us,” he said.
Hassan had finished but still the gratitude came pouring out of them until the teacher in charge gave them feedback on how to make their appreciations even better next time and they went back to class.
I found myself wondering about it. Here were kids from some of the poorest sections of the city, kids who faced difficulty at home and on their way to school. Many had left (or even lived still) in places wracked by violence and despair. But at Michaela, students’ days were punctuated not by someone reminding them that they had been hard-done but by the assumption that they would want to show their gratitude to the world around them.
What did this mean? Well first of all it gave rise to a culture of thoughtfulness. Everywhere I looked students did things for one another. In one class a student noticed another without a pencil and gave her one without being asked. In the hallway a student dropped some books and suddenly three or four students were squatting to pick them up. Students left class and said thank you to their teachers.
Maybe thanking makes it so. Are kids inclined to be good? Many, yes. And when they know that their goodness is seen and valued, not just by their teachers but their peers, it spreads. Maybe at first it’s due to the plausibility of appreciation. But after a while it just takes on a life of its own. People are kind and considerate because, at Michaela, it’s what they do.
But the gratitude, I think, is as much about the giver as the recipient. Maybe that’s the most important point. To show gratitude does two things.
It changes your perception of the world. It causes you to look for and then to see the goodness around you, and therefore to perceive a world full of goodness all around you. Which makes you happy. And just maybe optimistic- to think the world is the kind of place that will embrace you when you give your best.
But a second gift is bestowed upon the giver. To express gratitude is to give something to someone. And to give is to be in a place of power. After all you must have something of value to give it away. And so all that thanking—all that valued and honored thanking, all that making a big deal of the moment when you say, “I appreciate what you’ve done” and assume this is immensely important—is a way of saying to the students: you have something of value. You have stature. But you also must remember that you derive your strength from your willingness to help others. When you give you make yourself rich.