Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Contemplative Education: Modeling Gratitude in the Classroom

a butterfly on a sunflower in front of a red barn.
Finding ways to express authentic gratitude.

Gratitude, as most college students will understand, is a sense of gratefulness, an appreciation for what others give, or thankfulness.  Just as simply as students should be able to define or explain gratitude, each should each be able to demonstrate or give an example of what behaviors, or speech acts, demonstrate gratitude: Generally, a "Thank you."  

What students may not know is that people who exhibit prosocial behaviors that demonstrate gratitude are more satisfied in life than those who do not display the same behaviors.  They also may not understand the antithesis of gratitude, which is entitlement, a value and set of behaviors associated with narcissism.  

Just as Gunaratana (2002, p. 90) teaches that a positive emotion can replace a negative emotion, Twenge and Campbell assert that "One of the best ways to combat entitlement is to be grateful for what you already have" (2010, p. 241).  This can include stating thanks or behaving in other ways that show appreciation, like taking great care with an item on loan or keeping the classroom tidy.

Whether what faculty have are abstractions, like the attention or respect of students, or commodities and resources, like comfortable classroom furniture and access to technology, faculty can model gratitude in the classroom to help encourage students to do the same.

Opportunities for Authentic Gratitude

When modeling gratitude in the classroom, faculty must model authentic gratitude.  Faculty may already find themselves saying "Thank you," when students turn in work, but several additional opportunities to express true gratitude may present themselves throughout the term.  For example, faculty are generally genuinely grateful when students ask insightful questions, compliment the lesson, or arrive to meetings prepared and on time. Such behaviors should warrant a specific comment, such as "Thank you for asking an insightful question," or a personal note.  These are speech acts, which go beyond kindness and display an action that demonstrates the transference of gratitude.  Only with the speech act is the student aware of the faculty member's gratitude, and therein the prosocial behavior is modeled.  

Faculty can also encourage students to take pride in the classroom and show gratitude for having it made available to them by asking them or reminding them to take good care of it; cleaning up after themselves, turning off computers and lights, and leaving the boards clean and ready to be used by others.

Avoiding Entitlement

Furthermore, words and actions that demonstrate entitlement must be avoided.  Although all faculty have at one time been in classrooms where resources are scarce, technology is broken, or supplies are missing, faculty members must refrain from behaving, specifically verbalizing, as though they are unequivocally entitled to those things.  Just as modeling mindfulness, compassion, and gratitude can help students learn to live their lives by those values, modeling the opposite can have the opposite effect.  For example, faculty who leave trash in the classroom show little to no appreciation for the efforts of those who do keep the classroom clean and ready for the next person.  Students may follow that example and leave their own trash, as well.

As Arthur Zajonc emphasizes, the material items we are missing in the classroom are not worth as much as the opportunities we are presented that help us model gratitude. Higher education, he says, must focus on "a 'revolution of the spirit' that changes mental attitudes and values," not "the 'improvement of material conditions'" (2013, p. 90).


Gunaratana, Bhante H. (2002). Mindfulness in plain English. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications.
Twenge, J. M. & Campbell, W. K. (2010). The narcissism epidemic: Living in the age of entitlement. NY, NY: Free Press.
Zajonc, A. (2013). Contemplative pedagogy: A quiet revolution in higher education. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 134, 83-94. DOI: 10.1002/tl.20057

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Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Please contact the author for permission to republish.

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