May 13th, 2019

Footnote, Endnote, Thank-you Notes

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Footnote, Endnote, Thank-you Notes

Thank-you notes make people happy. For as much joy as they give me, I don’t send them enough. In fact, I think writing thank-you notes is a dying art. They’re overlooked forms of positive closure. Gratitude on its own is powerful, and when it’s exchanged, it feels amazing. After I thought about what notes of gratitude could accomplish, I started emailing thank-you notes to my students, waiting until well after the semester for the most impact. 

As someone who teaches mindfulness, I know writing out gratitude both extends mindful behaviors and concludes the lesson. Thank-you notes also merge mindfulness with reflective teaching. In taking the time to reflect on our practice by reconnecting with learners, we communicate what Schoeberlein and Sheth (2009) call reciprocal awareness, where “inner awareness parlays into more energy for focusing on other people’s experiences” (p. 72). We also move one step further into reciprocal action when inner awareness moves us to produce something that acknowledges another’s experience.

In spite of the fact that I like hand-written thank-you notes better, timing and content are more important. Regardless, I want to build on mindful connections through the content instead of the wrapping.  After writing a handful of them, I noticed patterns, even an anatomy, to explain not only the parts, but also the purpose. 

  1. Salutation

The salutation has three parts: the subject line, greeting clause, and recipient’s name. The subject is as direct as if I’d bought a card: Thank You. It might be standard, but it’s also novel in its rarity. I rely on recipients’ curiosity to read the message.

Since power is a part of the teacher-student relationship, I try to equalize the hierarchy in the greeting. My opening words, Hi, Ahoy, Good morning, are relatively informal. When I write their name, however, this is where I start to flatten the power structure. My choice is between a first name or an appropriate honorific, e.g. Ms., Mr., Mx., with their last name. I will only ever elevate a student, which happens by adding an honorific. In class, I usually call students by first names, but if I’ve used their honorific during class, I don’t arbitrarily use their first name. 

  1. Succinct

What’s a note?  A reminder. Brief, written, personalized records of appreciation. I try to keep gratitude messages short enough that recipients don’t need to scroll down. 

  1. Specific

Recall a turning point. Mention something precise that happened during our interactions. I use this as evidence that I appreciate the positive character of a student. 

It helps to use a Classroom Assessment Technique [CAT] (Angelo and Cross, 1993), the minute-paper, to recall details. CATs aren’t just for students’ learning; they can also help us be more reflective. Therefore, in a couple of minutes post-class, I jot down my thoughts about one of these questions: “What’s the most important interaction from today?”; “What point remains least clear to students?”; “What kind of fun did we have with the material?”

  1. Sincere

In a classroom, I feel energy as people trickle in, sense shifts in interactions, and perceive changes in attitude. Honestly, being this sensitive has its pros and cons, but ultimately, it serves me when I write a thank you later. This mindful attunement solidifies my memories. Usually, all it takes is referring back to my minute papers to write sincerely. The most powerful way I’ve been able to do this is to explain how they changed my teaching to affect the future positively.

  1. Sign-off

The sign-off also has more than one part: a closing phrase and a signature. My choices are comparable to the salutation because, again, I can chip away at the power structure.  

My stash of closing phrases includes Blue Skies, Fair Winds, Smooth Sailing, Onward to Horizon, etc. I’m more careful with signing my name. These notes break classroom boundaries, which include time [a semester and set class meeting time], classroom geography [online or in-person], and inherent judgment [grading], but that doesn’t mean issues of power have disappeared. If I might have the student again, I keep the teacher-professional title, mostly because I don’t want to confuse them. Notably, I have a professional-playful title, too: many students call me Dr. Pyrate. My choice will match the tone in the honorific I use in the greeting. Otherwise, I depend on the nature of my relationship with the individual because, as with anyone, levels of intimacy are on a case-by-case basis. When I sign off, the level of formality of my signature matches that of the address. They’re either both first names, or they’re both honorific. 

When it all comes together, I feel a rhythm in my notes, such as this example to a former student:

Hi M-,
I haven’t talked with you in a while, but it was time to send you a quick message. Just a thank you.

I’ve been reviewing my notes from our semester. Do you remember the day that I forgot to take our meditation break? The energy we had in the room got away from me, and suddenly, our 2-hour class was over. I realized what had happened right before we had the last word that day, and I saw your face. You were so disappointed. You told me right then how you always look forward to those minutes. Told me it was the only time in a day when you could really breathe.

I’ll never forget that. Not ever. You are who I do that for. Doesn’t matter if some learners decide not to take my invitation to pause, you are who I’m protecting. I decided to have someone in the class, someone who benefits from those pause points, give me a heads-up if it looks as if I’m going to miss the pause point. Because of you, I’m also inserting meditation tracks strategically in online courses. Even if I can’t see their faces, I hope those students might find some peace in that learning space, too.

You have power, even when you feel like you don’t. You did something by being vulnerable enough to show me your disappointment. When I can help someone in the future to just breathe, you’re doing it right along with me.

I appreciate you.
Smooth sailing,
Stacy

Writing these notes is a way for me to be an advocate-educator well after submitting grades. Though the messages reflect the past, they’re also a promise for a hopeful future that students can see themselves a part of.

Once I started to send thank-you notes, I received a flood of return positivity. Some come with  snapshots of their lives just as vivid as the memories of our time together. They know they aren’t just a footnote. I decided to build a collection of these messages. These are the endnotes that also empower me as a teacher. 

References:

Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Schoeberlein, D., and Sheth, S. (2009). Mindful teaching and teaching mindfulness: A guide for anyone who teaches anything. Somerville, MA: Wisdom. 

Stacy Greathouse is an instructor and instructional designer at Texas Woman’s University.