Building Staff Culture: The Importance of Gratitude

As educators, we take a lot of our efforts and successes for granted. As we raise the bar and do more, implement new ideas, and have more success, our baseline grows and we seem to embrace this as a new normal. Although this continual drive for growth and increased success is exactly what we should be doing, we often forget to be thankful for what we have and forget to show appreciation for the efforts and qualities of others who help us in schools and beyond.

Teachers, admin, and school staff have very difficult jobs; these jobs can consume us with stress, fatigue, and, as a result, illness. Because of this, negative self-talk, venting, and negative conversations with colleagues can dominate the staffroom and office spaces. There can be a silent competition around who has had the most challenging day and, as Dean Shareski said a few years ago, we seem to [complain and] wear “busy” like a badge of honour. I have even heard someone say, “she/he is always so happy… must not be working hard enough.”. This stress, fatigue, negativity, and illness makes it that much more important to focus not only on student wellness, but also adult wellness in schools.

For the past few years, I have focused much of my reading on the ideas from the field of Positive Psychology (Martin Seligman, Shawn Achor, Shannon Polly). Ideas that were once considered “fluff” (such as strengths-based approaches, gratitude journals, mindfulness exercises, and a focus on happiness) are now supported by more and more research that shows the importance for not only personal mental wellness but also a positive organizational culture.

In the fall, I was at one of the lowest points of my career. Having a newborn (which is incredibly beautiful but lots of work) and trying to survive in a BC system that included a severe teacher shortage left me very unwell. Instead of looking for positives around me, I was resorting to using my “lizard brain” and constantly seeing threats and the negatives around me. I was unhappy as a principal and, at times, considered going back to teaching to see if I could once again find that joy in education. The odd thing was that things at a school level were going incredibly well… we had one of the most dedicated, collaborative and positive staff cultures I had ever been a part of… there was more laughter in the staff room and more willingness to take risks and try new ideas for the benefit of our students… and more examples of care toward each other that I had experienced before. Some days I saw all of this; most days, however, I was looking through “deficit-coloured glasses” and only saw the fact that I was teaching more than ever (as we were short teachers-on-call to replace teachers that were absent), I was spending more time working at night (as I had to catch up on stuff I could not get done at work nor in the evening as we had an amazing new little family member), I was engaging in very negative conversations, and external changes that were beyond my control (but affecting me) were causing more work and taking its toll on me.

Something changed in late November. This year, our district has made a commitment to improving adult wellness and our school had a team of four that are attending district wellness sessions. After the November session, I came home to a powerful note from my daughters (shared in the blog post: Maybe Dad) and this was a catalyst for some serious change for me. I started to focus on MY wellness. I went back to all that I had learned through Positive Psychology: I left work earlier; I stopped worrying about the things I had no control over; I shifted my self-talk;  a teacher encouraged me to use and focus more on my strengths; and I started to look around and see so many positives at our school.

Over the Christmas break, I spent a ton of time with my family. At nights, I re-read some old faves and started to reflect and make more changes. For years, I have read that a gratitude journal was helpful to feeling better, having more energy, and being happier… but it just didn’t seem like it was for me. When I was reading a chapter about gratitude, the idea of a “gratitude app” popped into my head. I did some serious research (actually, I picked the free app that was the top pick in iTunes) and selected a gratitude app called “Zest”.  It is a simple idea: take a few moments once a day to share what I am thankful for… and sometimes add a picture (if I had one).

I did this for a week and this week happened to be the first week of 2018 at work. During this week, I noticed a shift – I had more bounce in my step, more smile on my face, and saw so many more amazing things happening at school (and in my home). It has been 30 days of this gratitude app/journal and I can honestly say I have noticed a significant difference to my happiness both at work and at home. I see great things and say to myself, “remember this moment as it is something I should be thankful for”. I am retraining my brain to see the positives (which I used to be so good at).  Looking for the positives does not mean we ignore the challenges… but embracing the good things in life sure give us more energy to deal with the ‘not-so-good’ things when they happen! 

I have also challenged staff to show more gratitude not only to each other but also be more thankful for what we have at work and at home.

  • We continue to start every staff meeting with WWW (What Went Well) and encourage each other to share something we are thankful for and/or proud of (we have done this for years but I was forgetting to do this myself).
  • We continue to share a weekly newsletter, “10 Good Things to Talk About“, that includes 10 (often more) positive things that I have observed or staff have shared that we want our community to know about. I find writing this each week also helps me personally be more thankful for the awesome efforts of our staff members.
  • A staff member anonymously wrote a note of gratitude to EVERY staff member that acknowledged something very personal that each person brings to our school. You should have seen the smiles on people’s faces when they read these; we even had some people well up as they had never been acknowledged before like this.
  • We have started a “gratitude wall” in the staff room for staff to acknowledge the positives they see around the school (this is in the early stages).
  • Some staff have started their own gratitude journals/apps and even challenged their partners to do the same.
  • A teacher used a gratitude exercise with her grade 4/5 students and surround their classroom door with things they are thankful for.
  • A teacher did a lesson on kindness and gratitude with her grade 3 students and they then wrote personal thank you notes to classmates and staff.
  • Our PAC co-chair has asked every student in the school to write one thing they love about our school on a heart and these hearts will line our hallways. I loved seeing older students buddy up with the kindergarten students to help them with this!

Some other ideas that I use or plan on trying:

  • Send a loved one a video thanking them for something meaningful.
  • Write one thank you card/note or a gratitude email per week to a staff member/colleague.
  • Make one positive phone call a day/week to a family at your school.
  • Say thank you. Say it often and keep it authentic and personal (general appreciation is not as effective and be careful not to overdo it! :-))
  • Buy a coffee a week for someone and share your appreciation (getting a list of the staff coffee/tea preferences at the start of the year can be helpful throughout the year).
  • Encourage your children and family to share a WWW at dinner or bedtime.

The changes I have personally made have made me a better educator and principal. Let me be clear, though, it is not all perfect with rainbows and butterflies at school. We still have our struggles. We should have challenges as this is a part of growth and change as we try to do our best to continually improve for our students. So this shift is not about simply ignoring the struggles and challenges but, instead, using gratitude and a strengths-based lens to energize and support ourselves through the many challenges. Because of a focus on gratitude, I feel more patient, positive, and joyful at work and I have more energy when I get home.

As a school, the vast majority of the positives were already there (I just needed to see them more often) but this shift to gratitude has been noticeable. It has helped build staff culture by people taking the time to acknowledge the efforts and strengths of others and has left people feeling more valued for their strengths and efforts at school. This shift does not end with the adults as it spreads throughout the school and into the hearts and minds of students and families too.

Gratitude is a simple shift that can help each and every one of us; by making this shift it can help build school culture so there is more happiness and wellness in schools.

Have you noticed the many positives around you? Have you shared your appreciation with a colleague lately? If yes, please share some other ideas in the comments section below. If not, start NOW.

We used the video below to help create some dialogue among staff on the topic of gratitude.

A huge thank you to our staff for all the amazing work they continually do and for helping to bring more gratitude to our school. Thank you, too, to our district (hat tip to Renge Bailie, Gail Markin, and Megan Zazelenchuk along with the support of Maria Lerose and Kim Schonert-Reichl) for making adult wellness a focus this year.

NOTE: This post is part of my professional growth plan which is focused on building a positive school staff culture. I am no expert in this area but I have been honoured to learn from many others to help with my growth. It is my belief that one of our main roles as principals is to create the conditions for a positive culture. I will be using my blog to share and reflect on my learning journey. Other posts in this series:

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Chris Wejr

Proud father of twin girls and a son. Currently working as the Principal of James Hill Elementary School (K-5) in Langley, BC, Canada. Passionate about strengths-based education and leadership, reconciliation, assessment, and human motivation.


  1. Wow Chris….this is some vulnerable writing. Thanks for sharing your story. “Grateful for it All”

    • Thanks, Linda. My biggest fear was that someone would think, “of course, Wejr can have gratitude… look at all he has going for him at James Hill”… and thus minimize the efforts we have made. At our school, we do not have the challenges of an “inner-city” school but we do have different struggles that can be taxing in various ways. I hope people read this as something they can do in any school and/or workplace. Was great to see you recently at TEDx!

  2. Hi Chris. Such thoughtful and insightful writing. Saw this link shared by George Couros. I work as a teacher librarian and I am totally appreciating your reflections and tips on gratitude and wellness. It is much easier to focus on negatives and complain, yet it is so non-productive. Your suggestions make me think of concepts in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy where changing thoughts helps change attitude and happiness. Self care is huge here. I’ve read that lack of sleep and especially REM sleep will affect the areas of positive thinking in your brain. Difficult with a newborn! We need to actively look for those positives, acknowledge and celebrate them. Reading this post was timely for me. Thanks so much!

    • Thanks again, Vivianne! You bring up a huge challenge for me… SLEEP. I recently started wearing a fitbit as it helps me to analyze my sleep. My goal is 7.5 hours a night and I am usually 2 hours short of this (and our son sleeps really well). I need to make a better commitment to an earlier bed time as I am sure this will be one more way to help me have better days with more energy (and better thoughts). I truly appreciate your comments!

  3. Hi Chris, I am actually doing a Org Change course right now and culture in an organization is what we are focusing on right now. I have to actually write a paper on it by Sat. 🙂 I wonder if Appreciative Inquiry would be helpful in your workplace, I found it to be an awesome way to build up morale and found it fascinating how others perceived me. Really helped me be aware of my mental models. I love the gratitude wall too, great idea. Good luck, I know you lead with your heart so all will be good.

    • Hey Robynne! We have not done a formal version of appreciative inquiry (I only know the philosophy and not the structures/process). We often start with what is working and build from there… and this is much different than saying “we are doing this all wrong and we need to change”… yes, we still create change but building off of success (with a pivot) is so much easier than starting with a failure and needed to make huge turns. I would love to hear more about the mental models you mentioned… if you have a chance to share more, send me a message. Hope to see you really soon and glad to hear your coursework is going well!

  4. Beautifully written Chris. I’ve been focusing on mindfulness and gratitude for several years and it has made such an impact on my life. Every now and again you need a pick me up and that time was now for me so thank you! I needed this right now.

    • Awesome to hear, Shelley. It is not easy in a field that we are often faced with the challenge of solving (seemingly endless) problems for others. I hope more educators begin to realize the power in this.

  5. This was a wonderful article and it makes you think deeply. I am going to use the video that you have for a morning meeting with my 8th grade class to start off the topic of what they want to be.

  6. Hi Chris,
    So much from your post resonates with me! I always appreciate your insights and honesty. You have a way of getting to the heart of a matter. I love your strength based perspective and am always inspired by your willingness to share. Sometimes when we feel challenged, it becomes harder to start from abundance and recognize how much we have to celebrate. I love these ideas for taking the small stories by stopping to notice their significance and celebrating them.

    Thanks, Chris!!

    • Thanks so much, Carolyn. Yes, the small things add up quite quickly… and the negatives often prevent us from seeing these. What we have often becomes normalized and we forget to “cherish the awesome”. When we do this, it makes dealing with the no-so-awesome a little bit easier.

  7. So timely for me Chris, starting a gratitude journal immediately! Thank you for sharing.

  8. You continue to inspire the best in people Chris. Thanks for being vulnerable and painfully honest. I appreciate you! So much of what you have written here resonates deeply with this dad and new VP.

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