Showing appreciation

Just before Christmas I read an interesting article in TES magazine entitled ‘How to say a proper thank you to your staff’. Helen Amass interviewed a number of different people as she explored how we can best show our appreciation of the efforts of others, and the article is full of good advice.  At the end of one of the toughest terms, in arguably the toughest year in recent times, Head of English Laura May Rowlands said, “This is a term and a year like no other, and we are all working flat out. Gratitude and understanding are at the heart of keeping our schools functioning.”

Joe Brennan, a subject-leader of Geography, talked of the importance of knowing your team really well, so that you can time and frame your thanks in a way that is most likely to be well-received: “Making it meaningful is about the relationship you have with the staff and making them feel you’re not just saying it for the sake of it.”   Deputy head Angus Harrison agreed: “I think tailoring gifts to staff shows you know them,” and, “I find my staff are the most receptive when I write a thank you from the heart.” Laura talked of giving her team the gift of time, wherever possible, as this is what they need and appreciate most at the moment.

Assistant Principal Rachel Ball spoke about getting the timing and frequency of gestures of appreciation right: “I think all staff benefit from explicit thanks, and it’s a really important part of our job as leaders to recognise and celebrate our staff. But I think if done too much, or to the same people, it can seem empty.” And Executive Head Kate Owbridge agreed that if thanks are overdone they can seem perfunctory: “When I make cakes for the staff, I do it as a thank you and as a gesture of ‘Come on, we’re on this, we’ve got it, keep going’.  But I try not to do it every week as I think it will become meaningless.”

All agreed that, especially as we navigate Covid, with the challenges that has brought, and continues to bring, to schools, making clear that the efforts of everyone are appreciated is especially important. In Kate’s words: “I am leading these people to provide an education and more for our children. I will be thanking them as much as I can for doing that in these horrible times because I couldn’t do it on my own.”

This encouraged me to think about the different teams I have led over the years, and how I communicated my thanks at different times to individuals and groups.  I know I didn’t always get it right – I remember one Christmas I gave a gift of chocolates and brightly coloured socks to my PA and to the women on my Senior Leadership Team, only to discover after the holiday that in my pre-Christmas rush I had picked up four pairs of socks which were child, rather than adult, size… But showing people I was grateful for their efforts, and wanted to make a gesture to mark this, was something I was mindful of and committed to throughout my career.  I was also aware that I have worked with some staff who are quick to feel ‘patronised’ or ‘insulted’, and that the best of intentions can backfire sometimes.  (I remember a senior leader in my second school referring to one perpetually disgruntled colleague as a ‘professional insultee’…)

I thought of this at the end of the autumn term, when in their ‘Education Person of the Year’ awards, TES magazine chose, in first place, ‘you’, dedicating the place to all those in education who have gone above and beyond in their efforts to serve their children and their communities throughout 2020.  I tweeted about this, and one tweeter, (not someone I follow or who follows me, but who had read my tweets via someone else), took exception to the gesture.  They said they found it pointless and patronising.  That saddened me.

So how can we show our appreciation is a way which is most likely to be positively received?  This is clearly something that requires thought and care, and we have to beware empty gestures that don’t effectively communicate our gratitude.  I’d suggest the following:

  1. Where possible, connect the thanks/praise/reward to something specific, and explain why you appreciated it so much and what a difference it made.
  2. If you can, show in the gift you give (and it could be something like additional time, as Laura May Rowlands suggested in the article, rather than something physical) that you know the person who is the recipient – what they value and what they may need at this point.  Personalisation is good.
  3. The words that accompany whatever you are giving – whether written or spoken – are as important as the gift itself.  I always found hand-written notes, where time and consideration had clearly gone into the words, went down well.
  4. Sometimes something you have created yourself, rather than simply something you have bought, can be especially welcome.  Probably the best present I have ever received from a parent was a multiple course curry, lovingly cooked and packed into Tupperware boxes and delivered to my office on the day I left my deputy headship.  The parent had remembered that five years before, as a newly appointed member of staff, I had been interviewed by the school magazine committee and had identified my favourite food as ‘Indian’.
  5. Lastly, always double check the size of the socks you buy.

What do you think?  What is the most precious and treasured gift you have received in a professional context?  And what have you done to show your appreciation of others which has been especially warmly received?  Thanks, in advance, for your comments!

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