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Blog #20: A Thankless Thank You

Thanks. Gracias. Thank You. Thanks a lot. Thanks a million. Thanks a bunch. ‘Preciate ya. Merci. Mahalo. Ngiyabonga. Dank u. Grazie.

Thank You. A phrase that only has two syllables in English, but brings so many (mostly) positive emotions when it is said in many situations. It is a phrase that is universal in conveying gratitude for a job well done, or a favor completed, or an unexpected gesture extended and received. With the sometimes sarcastic exception to the rule that you might get from over-dramatic teenagers whose life you ruined, “thank you” is a positive reinforcement of gratitude that too many people don’t take the time to utter (especially within any fast-paced workplace, where time is of the essence, and pleasantries are sacrificed for profitability.) Of course in education, we replace profitability with test scores and growth.

I am sure that you have seen this and felt this before. You helped a student understand a problem that they struggled with outside of your normal class time. You helped a colleague who was struggling to get all of their lesson plans done on time, so you gave them some pointers and maybe some worksheets. You covered a class for somebody on your prep hour without any sort of expected compensation. You gave a student an extension on paper that you really shouldn’t have. You stayed after and helped load the buses, even though it wasn’t your day. You called home to half a dozen parents just to tell them that their kids are doing an excellent job in class and are improving, only to hear a dial tone or a “Good to Hear”. It’s a pretty thankless job. And I am sure that you can think of so many other times you would like to be thanked for something and don’t get recognition for it. I am here to tell you that it’s okay to feel that way, and it may or may not get better, but I am here to offer another option other than begging for thanks, not getting it, and feeling underappreciated. I am here to tell you that you can go the extra mile just for the sake of going the extra mile. We don’t need a “thank you” or “‘Preciate Ya”. We just need to have confidence that whatever it is that is done, has been done for the benefit of children and in the end, for ourselves.

Anytime I bring up this concept of receiving recognition as a teacher, my friend, who is also technically a millennial, tells me that it’s because I am a millennial and I need to be recognized for what I do. Now, I tell him it’s not so much about being recognized, as it is about receiving feedback; feedback on how I am doing, what I am doing well, but mostly on what I can improve on because I hate the feeling that I am stagnant in my work. Stagnant water can be full of disease and pollution and is just waiting for a day that’s hot enough so that it can be evaporated up into the air. It holds no purpose in its present state. Only harm and weakness. That is why I like feedback. I don’t want to fill the air with my unknown disease.

In the corporate world, Forbes did a study and found that 83 percent of companies were what they termed “deficit in recognition”. What they also discovered is that even in that 17 % of companies, all of the recognition was based on how long somebody had been employed there, not necessarily on doing a good job day-in and day-out. On the cooler side of the pillow, you find companies that they label as having a “recognition-rich culture” having a 31 percent lower voluntary turnover rate. So to summarize: If you praise your employees more than every 5, 15, or 25 years with a pin, a pen, and a watch respectively, then you will have employees that will want to stay at your company. And isn’t that part of the problem that schools are always facing? Where are all of the quality teachers? They are at the schools that give them recognition for the work that they’ve done. But some of us aren’t so lucky. In fact, statistically, most of aren’t so lucky. So what do what you do if you are not one of the lucky few? You do you.

Recently, I read a fascinating book about the end of the world called Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, which I highly recommend. While I am not going to give a synopsis because it would take too many lines to fully explain, I will talk about one character: Miranda. Miranda is married to Arthur, who is a somebody that she knows from the small island that she is from in British Columbia. That may be the only thing they have in common. She is an introverted artist and is the necessarily reluctant extrovert Hollywood actor. Miranda finds herself at a dinner party surrounded by all of these people who she can’t understand and don’t understand her. They do things for show. Miranda is an artist who is creating a set of science-fiction graphic novels. In the malaise of conversation, a person in Arthur’s entourage asks her what she is going to do with the artwork, and she says “Nothing, just knowing it’s done and completed is enough for me” or some version of that. The plot for the comic ends up being a critical motif to the story.

Now, I give you this little insight into “Station Eleven” and Miranda to say this: Sometimes you just need to do things because you know that it’s something that you need to do for yourself. A lot of people are not going to understand it, including other teachers or people in your friends’ group. Why? Because it’s completely counterintuitive to the culture in which we live. We live in a world that is all about the spotlight. How may I show myself off? How can I make myself look better than other people? Why am I not getting recognized? LOOK AT ME! That’s what the world outside of education says. It’s flashy. There are companies whose job it is to make you believe they are the best supplier of sticks of gum over another stick of gum. Companies spend millions of dollars on advertising to sell a product that costs $1 at the gas station. Is it any wonder that people believe they have to put in as much effort to get noticed in a 7 billion person and growing population that is constantly bombarded with a deluge of self-fulfilling propaganda?

Yes, I am on my soapbox, but I have a point.

As teachers, we are the model for millions of students as what a mostly stable human and professional looks like. These students are looking for jobs, going to college, going into the military, and eventually growing up. The person that can have a huge impact on their lives is you. And they watch you. They watch how you go about tasks. They watch how you interact with your colleagues. They listen to how you talk to their parents during conferences. They see how you interact with the referee as a coach or a fan. They are watching and taking it all in. It may not look like they are because they have their heads in their phones, but they are. And the example you set can mean a lot to the future and how it shapes our culture.

So in the end, expect not to always get thanked or recognized for what you do. It will come in ways that you may never be able to see or understand. You’re a teacher. You chose this career knowing that you will have to wipe butts, grade papers, mentor students, stay late, work the basketball game, call home, monitor the school dance, write thousands of lesson plans, etc., all with the knowledge that you are doing what needs to be done. You are fulfilling a purpose. I assume that most of you got into this profession because you felt a calling. Miranda felt a calling to Station Eleven, even though she kept her work to herself, but it would have a monumental impact on the story to come.

You may say, “Seth, but I don’t live in the dystopian future where society has been wiped out!”. That’s true, but you never know when a little bit a selflessness rooted in self-fulfillment may lead to something much larger than yourself.

Best Wishes.

Thanks for reading.

Seth Tripp