I stood at the front of the room, while Elizabeth who was sitting in the last desk to my right, described how she had recently been mean to her brother when he tried to do something nice for her. She stated, “I’m not sure why, I just had this feeling like I wanted to get back at him or something.” “Yeah,” Billy said. “I felt the same about my little sister one time when I was six. She was just being a kid, but for some reason, I had this feeling like I wanted to do something mean to her, so I reached over and pulled her hair.” At that moment, a low rumble erupted as students around the room started whispering to their neighbors about times when they too had that feeling.
We were discussing James Hurst’s short story, “The Scarlet Ibis,” and students were still trying to grasp how the narrator of the story could have run away from his brother who was yelling for him, only to later come back and find him dead. Hurst’s story was a constant winner with my ninth graders, because so many of them could relate to its characters. On this particular day, student engagement was extremely high. It was one of those moments that captured so many of the reasons I went into teaching the first place.
It was in the middle of our discussion, that my principal walked into the room and sat down in a desk at the back of the class. Like all first year teachers, a feeling of panic began to rise from within. “Why is he in my class?” I asked silently to my self. “Is he here because I’ve done something wrong?” These questions raced through my mind as another student began relating an incident that had occurred in his life a few years earlier. I have to confess I don’t remember a lot of what this student said because of our new classroom visitor. As students continued to relate their connections to the characters in the story, I noticed that now my principal was writing something on a legal pad. For all practical purposes, I was rattled.
In spite of the stress, I survived the visit that day. My principal remained in my class for the entire period. Eventually, I was able to move my students from the discussion to completing another assignment, but I spent the rest of the day, wondering why my principal visited my class. That afternoon, I found out why.
At three o’clock that afternoon, I went to check my mailbox next to the office, and I discovered a handwritten note there. It read:
“Thank you for teaching such a fantastic class second period today. Your efforts to engage your students in the discussion of that story was right on! I want you to know that your class was one of the most engaged classes I have seen so far this year. Keep up the good work!”
In all my years as a teacher, this one note gave me the inspiration and drive to do whatever was necessary to become the best teacher I could. I never told my principal how much that note meant to me, because he moved on to another position soon after, but it was powerful. It gave a fledgling teacher enough confidence to continue to grow and learn for quite some time. It was a simple note, handwritten on a memo pad, but it is a gesture I have never forgotten.
I asked the question in the title of this post, “Do teachers every get enough praise from their principals?” I am not sure I can answer that positively or negatively. Praise is one of those things that can be cheap and awkward if it is not sincere, and we are all skilled in spotting its counterfeit versions. But as school leaders, we have got to stop once in awhile and drop a little handwritten note to our teachers and sincerely tell them that we do notice the great things they are doing with our students. Or, perhaps we need to take moment in our next faculty meeting and let them know sincerely, that we notice how hard they are working.