Gratitude has been on my mind a lot this week. In some ways, gratitude has been easy; in other ways, it’s been hard. And all along the way, it’s been interesting to examine how the character strength of gratitude can make us and our students the kinds of people we want to be.
“I need bersherber. No. Bersherber. No…”
In the wee hours of this past Wednesday morning, my wife Crystal woke up with a bad headache that quickly escalated into an inability to speak coherently — she literally could not speak clear sentences like “I need mouth wash.” It was as if she knew in her head what she needed to say, but then when she went to say it, gibberish came out. And she knew it was gibberish, so she kept trying to correct herself to no avail.
Fearing that this was much more than a headache, I called 911, and by the time the ambulance got to our house, Crystal couldn’t tell me how old our daughters are or who the current president of the United States is.
The one thing she could say? “I love you.” Over and over again, she’d intersperse her garbled sentences by looking into my eyes and saying, through the pain and confusion, “I love you.”
Scary doesn’t work well to describe it.
Thankfully, about 12 hours after her symptoms started, she began coming back to herself in the hospital. A CT scan and EEG and MRI and spinal tap later, doctors determined that she had a case of the best kind of viral meningitis you can get. No stroke, no tumor, no number of other very bad things that it could have been. She’s been home for a day now, and as I write this, she’s resting in bed.
Needless to say, I’m a thankful husband. It is not difficult at all right now to think, hundreds of times per day, of how grateful I am for Crystal.
We underrate the connection between gratitude and being good at life
Guess what? Repetitively thinking of how thankful I am to simply have my wife, Crystal, has a powerful effect on the frequency of my loving actions toward her. With these thoughts of gratitude on a loop in my mind, I haven’t had to muster up energy to love Crystal. No matter how tired I’ve been, there’s no resistance to speaking tenderly or cleaning the house or dominating Kid Duty or tackling mundane tasks that I know she’ll try doing despite her need for rest.
This is because of gratitude, which acts like a fusion reactor of willpower, energizing us to do the work we need to do, whether it be the work of love or the work of teaching or the work of studying. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is for us as teachers who want to teach well, who want their students to flourish in the long-term, and who want to lead good lives.
Doing the work we were born to do — the relational work, the intellectual work, the creative work, the Work Boots work — takes energy, which, for many of us teachers, is in short supply. Gratitude adds to that supply.
This is why our students desperately need it, too. Meet Cabdul.
Why we need to teach gratitude: Cabdul’s story
Prior to our mid-week scare with Crystal, I was hard at work revising Never Finished: Continually Becoming the Teachers We Want to Be (and Staying Sane in the Process). In one part of the book, I briefly touch upon each of the character strengths I use in my classroom, and when I address gratitude, I tell the story of Cabdul.
I love telling my students about Cabdul Ciise, an undergraduate student at Grand Valley University. When I first met Cabdul as a high school freshman, he was remarkably quiet. I quickly learned why: Cabdul lacked the ability to write or speak anything more than the simplest sentence in English.
I learned that Cabdul and his family were Somalian refugees; years before, they had fled the Somalian conflict when it began to threaten their neighborhood. They traded a life of middle class comfort in Somalia for safe passage on a ship to Turkey. Over the next few years, Cabdul would lose a sister, spend three years in Turkey, and after having finally received refugee status from the United Nations, he would end up in Michigan. When I met Cabdul, he had been in the US for just a year, and during that year he’d been in another district where he was shoved into an over-crowded ESL program. The program did have some fellow Somalian refugees in it, however, which lent comfort for Cabdul and his siblings while restricting immersion in English. As a result, Cabdul, as a freshman in high school, was by far the lowest reader and writer in his entire grade.
And yet, four years later, Cabdul graduated in the Top Ten of his class. The reason, from my observational and teacher perspective, was obvious: Cabdul had incredibly well-developed character strengths, things like grit and self-control. Cabdul studied every day for as many hours as he spent in school — this included snow days and weekends. He probably asked dozens of questions per day, and he took advantage of any teacher’s offer for after-school tutoring. Basically, there wasn’t anything Cabdul didn’t do to be successful.
At his graduation open house, I asked Cabdul what motivated him to work so hard, he essentially answered that it was gratitude. He was grateful for the many teachers who gave him extra help; he was grateful for the sacrifices his parents had made to get him to safety; he was determined to show his gratitude by being successful.
What would our classes be like if all of our students had the gratitude of Cabdul? What would our nations be like?
Teaching a skill is one thing; helping someone use it consistently is another
The thing with gratitude, like all of the character strengths, is that we know it’s a powerful predictor of success; we know it’s a trait of people we tend to admire; we know we need it. And yet.
And yet, as is so often the case, there is great difficulty in consistently acting in light of the things we know to be true.
I know that the man who proposed to Crystal Edwards in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor had no intention of ever taking her for granted. And yet I do.
I know that, as a punk undergraduate freshman who decided he wanted to teach, I had no intention of ever taking this job for granted. And yet I do.
I know none of my freshmen students, at the beginning of the school year, have any intention of failing to realize their semester one goals. And yet so many of them do.
Knowing isn’t enough; it’s the doing that counts. And while character strengths seem to be one heck of a promising sword in our battle to do the work of teaching as best we can, there’s still so much we need to learn about helping our students (and ourselves) transform it from head knowledge to consistent behavior.
The power of habit
I’m reading Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business right now, and it comes at a good time. It seems to me that our brain’s ability to create habits is part of the key to more consistently living according to our ideals. My hunch is that, for the folks who are gritty every day or self-controlled or socially intelligent, there’s both a skill element and a habit element. The skill part enables them to do the skill; the habit part enables them to do it with less energy, less thought.
I don’t have the answer here to truly building the character strengths in our students, but this idea of helping them habituate the strengths is one of the things I’m most excited about in that area of my work right now.
When habits collide
So it’s last night (Friday), I’ve got all my girls in bed, and my determination kicks in. I grab a cup of coffee, throw a dash of Kahlua in there for good measure (hey, it’s Friday night — gotta be cray somehow), and fire up my laptop.
Why so lame? Because I’ve got about 20,000 words of ebook manuscript to revise before shipping it off to my freelance copyeditor, who has said she can get it to me by the 14th if I get it to her on the 10th. The timing is important here, as the ebook is supposed to release on 1/15/15 at 1:15pm (cute, right?).
Because of the crazy events of the week, I was super behind on my revision schedule, but I was still determined to make it work.
This was habit, too. It was the habit of getting it done and out the door, of making good on commitments, of using deadlines and schedules to force me to produce a body of work I’ll be happy with in five years . Basically, it was grit.
But as the hours waxed on and Friday night became wee Saturday morning, my old man’s body started complaining, my brain began shutting down, and guess what? I started forgetting all that I had to be grateful for this week; instead, I started resenting all that had happened to get me so far behind.
By 2am, I had collapsed in on myself. I went to bed defeated, having not finished the work I needed to do to meet my deadline for the day.
Going to bed defeated only 48 hours or so after wondering if my wife’s brain was going to be the same again is what we call a gratitude epic fail.
All part of the game of getting better.
I’ll close with a few brief thoughts and one announcement:
- Just because something isn’t a silver bullet doesn’t mean it’s not a great thing. I failed at gratitude last night, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop working toward building gratitude in my kids, my students, and myself. We can be too quick in education to throw things out that are actually quite good just because they didn’t produce a desired result quickly enough (ahem, Common Core, maybe?). My friends, hear this: character strengths like gratitude are important; character is important. We need to keep working at it, without sacrificing the critical knowledge and skills in the curricula for each of our subject areas.
- Part of being a Never Finished teacher is realizing that failure is a normal part of growth. Gratitude is more like a muscle than a merit badge. You don’t earn it; you develop it and then work to keep it in shape.
- While my upcoming, self-published ebook will get finished, it won’t release this week Thursday as originally planned. The new release date is Monday, 1/19. Crystal is still on bed rest, but I think this new date allows me enough time to make up for the decreased workload I’ll be taking on as I seek to be at home during as many of her waking hours as possible until she’s 100% got this viral meningitis kicked.
Thanks for reading, everyone. It’s comforting to know that I write for a group of like-minded, supportive friends. Cheers.
1. Thank you to Barrett Brooks for this concept of a body of work to be happy with in five years.