Flipping the Script: How Students Can Help Teachers Right Now | Liza Garonzik | 5 Min Read

May 24, 2022

We all know that the best teachers make every student feel seen and valued. But what if part of being great students at the end of this year meant making your teachers feel seen and valued, too? 

This idea feels especially powerful as schools face the Great Teacher Resignation; hard-earned thank-you’s from students can help teachers see their impact. I am not suggesting that a student-driven thank-you campaign become a strategic bribe to keep teachers teaching or a method for shaming teachers who are leaving—the #transitioningteachers swirl on LinkedIn might leap to that—but just as a simple acknowledgment of a difficult job well done. 

Here’s the other thing: asking students to thank and acknowledge the impact of their teachers wouldn’t just benefit teachers. The science of gratitude is real, and the act of thanking teachers can also help students process and punctuate yet another challenging year. 

It has the potential to be a win-win, but success here requires structure. Here are four tips for parents or advisors who want to structure a student-to-teacher thank-you campaign between now and the end of the year.

Choose an hour, a pen, some stationery, and a reward. 

This is not as impossible as it may seem. Put time on the calendar now, and talk with your kids about it. Decide in advance whether you are going to ask kids to thank every teacher, or just their favorite one or two. Get stationery with enough room to write four full sentences—but not four paragraphs. Know what the delivery plan will be. When it comes time to write, you want the road to be smooth! 

Prioritize student voice, not parent pocketbooks and perfect wording. 

Encourage your kids to give teachers gifts only if they are authentic; otherwise, re-frame the note itself as the gift…teachers don’t become teachers for the free frappuccinos and scented candles they get at the end of the year! Note that thank you notes don’t need to be proofread by parents or adults; teachers see students’ raw writing all the time, and they actually delight in authenticity. 

As a teacher, I received all kinds of thank-you’s that were likely not parent-approved—and I loved them! One student informed me that for the first six months of class he thought my course was “insignificant, excessive, and useless” before finally “seeing the light” in the Spring. Another girl thanked me “for my sense of style” and recommended I “check out Madewell ASAP.”  One student told me that “the best part of your class was definitely the cookies. I’ll miss that the most. Thanks for them.” The best one? “I hated your class because you made me talk but it was good for me and I learned I could. Like eating vegetables. Metaphor-wise, thank you for the broccoli.” 

None of these notes was proofread by a parent and all made me laugh—and feel seen and known. All showed me that I had an impact, even if it’s not quite what I intended.

Feel like you have something to say, too? 

Write your own note instead of influencing the students! It was always incredibly meaningful to me when parents wrote to tell me how my class impacted their kid’s life. They might tell me their daughter talked about my class at the dinner table, that their son hadn’t thought of himself as an English student until now, and that their twins loved how I was the only teacher who could tell them apart. Similarly, every now and then I would get a note from an advisor telling me about how their advisee appreciated something specific in my class. 

Encourage specific gratitude, not platitudes.

Thank you notes mean more when they are specific. In fact, there’s little worse than getting a generic thank you, particularly when it comes to something as personal as educational growth! So, how can you help students write notes that will communicate specific gratitude to their teachers? In writing and foreign languages, teachers often use “sentence stems” to help students’ brains warm up to the task. Here’s a list of sentence stems that students can use to show teachers they are seen and valued: 

Thank you for helping me learn ____. 

In your class I felt __________. 

I appreciated when you did ____________. 

I felt your support when you ___________________.

Something I’ll remember for the rest of my life is ______________. 

My favorite class of the year was ___________________.

Even when you did ______________ and I seemed ______________, it mattered because you were showing me you saw me.

The way you did ______________ every day made me feel ____________. It was a little thing, but thank you! 

And what about the teacher for whom your adolescent has literally-nothing-nice-to-say? I would vote that being honest is better than being generic. What about something like:

Thank you for coming to school every day, even when it was probably hard for you and your family. I bet you were tired like me. I just wanted to say thank you for being my [grade level and subject] teacher.

Reflect with students on the power of saying “Thank You!” 

This school year is leaving everyone—teachers, students, parents—with a lot to process. The act of expressing gratitude—even during such a tumultuous time—can be grounding and provide important closure. For adolescents who are biologically hardwired to struggle to see beyond themselves and are experiencing record levels of disengagement, it can be a particularly useful exercise to zoom out and recognize their connections to others.

The science of gratitude is real, so you might notice positive emotions—joy, relief, excitement—emerge after students write these notes. This is a wonderful moment to encourage kids to name how they are feeling—How does everyone feel after writing these notes?—and with every group of students I’ve ever done this with, at least one kid has asked for another piece of stationery….for someone else they want to thank! Parents or advisors can ask simple questions like: How did it feel to deliver to your teacher? How do you think s/he’ll feel reading your note? Who else in your life makes you feel seen and valued? Do you want to thank them? What if you found something each day to be thankful for?

Let’s end this school year by making every teacher feel known, seen, and thanked for a hard job, well done—and students empowered to say thank you and see the impact of their voices. Regardless of whether a teacher is returning to the classroom next fall, she deserves authentic appreciation for all she invested in each student in her care this year. And regardless of their age or stage, students deserve to discover the power of gratitude!

Liza Garonzik

Liza Garonzik is the Founder of R.E.A.L. Discussion, a program that trains faculty to (re)teach Gen-Z students the discussion skills they need for success in learning — and real life. Her work is informed by an interdisciplinary research base and experience as a student, teacher, administrator, and trustee in diverse independent schools. Get in touch at Liza@REALdiscussion.org — there's little she loves more than a great conversation!

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