What does a gratitude practice look like?


I would like to share with you a story that was sent to me by a participant in one of my workshops on gratitude in education. The story moved me not only because of the impact that the teacher written about had on so many but also because his wide-spread reputation was based on his practice of gratitude.

Over forty years ago I was teaching at a boys’ boarding school, at Maritzburg College in Pietermaritzburg (Natal) South Africa. I had just started teaching and was assigned a very well-loved and respected teacher as my mentor. He was the most popular teacher in the school and his reputation spread far and wide. Before every lesson, he would pause outside the classroom before going in to teach. He would close his eyes almost as if in prayer. When I asked the teacher what and why he was doing this he told me it was a ritual he had followed all his teaching career. He paused to be thankful for the opportunity to teach, reminding himself he was about to enter a class where there would be students brighter and more articulate than he was and who would be going on to achieve greater things in their lives than he ever would. He felt privileged to share the learning experience with them and paused to prepare himself to give of his best in this coming opportunity. Thankfulness has to be learnt by constant repetition. That was the lesson I learnt from my mentor. I felt that I never taught as successfully as he did, but learning thankfulness made my own teaching experience much more enjoyable.

This story describes many of the essential elements of a gratitude practice. The teacher not only felt gratitude for his students but expressed his gratitude in a very tangible and purposeful way over a period of time.

His action of greeting the students was a gratitude practice because it involved genuine acknowledgment of what he received from them; his greeting was a way of giving back. This is what distinguishes gratitude from praise or acknowledgement. Another teacher might greet his or her students each day but without this inner attitude of gratitude, the greeting would not be a gratitude practice.

A practice deepens our gratitude because it moves us from the sense of being grateful for something – in this case the teacher’s gratitude for his students and all that he was learning from them – to expressing this in an action, and doing so intentionally, authentically and consistently.

Gratitude should be practised for its own sake, out of a sense of being motivated to give back. The teacher did not need his greetings to be reciprocated by his students. Once we make our gratitude conditional on others and measure its impact in terms of how others respond, it becomes transactional and loses its power; it has morphed into something else.

To express gratitude to another also involves humility – a core pillar of a gratitude practice – because we need to be open to what we receive from others. We see in this teacher such beautiful humility in how privileged he felt to teach his students. If you are a teacher, my book, Gratitude in Education: A Radical View, contains more inspiring stories of how educators have undertaken gratitude practices to gain greater resilience, improved relationships and increased student engagement.  The University of Tasmania also offers a Gratitude in Education online course.

I hope this story helps you on your own journey of deepening gratitude,



Dr Kerry Howells is an author, award-winning educator and experienced researcher.

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