Some students toss a quick “Thank you, Mr. Marshall” as they exit my classroom. When I describe this phenomenon to teachers from elsewhere, they’re envious my school fosters such gratitude and respect.
During my own high school days, I lingered after class. Discussion often reached the good stuff just as the bell rang, and any glimpse of my teachers as real people with real personalities and real curiosities excited me. I slowly collected my books, my notebooks, and my pens and pencils, eavesdropping on off-the-record responses to classmates or, if I was especially lucky, conversations with colleagues. Occasionally, a favorite teacher directed a post-class question to me, and—as a public school kid—I savored exclusive notice. I lived for being particularly loved. I’d trade a tardy for extra attention.
However, I never said, “Thanks.” I didn’t even consider it. I was either too self-absorbed—weren’t teachers there for me?—or too sensitive to being misunderstood—can a person actually mean such transparent brown-nosing? I prefer to believe my gratitude showed in participation and writing. I tried to tell my teachers I appreciated them by smiling, nodding, laughing.
I’m oddly embarrassed when students thank me. I devise various unsatisfactory rejoinders:
- “Oh, please” which sounds too much like “more, more”
- “Why do you feel you have to thank me?” which communicates distrust and paranoia.
- “No, thank you” which fits an oily, mercantile version of education I loathe (besides being false).
- “It’s my job” which is too cold and unfriendly, suggesting it’s just a job.
- “You’re welcome, it’s nothing, my pleasure, anytime, think nothing of it, a trifle” which comes across as antic, perhaps flippant… especially if I say all of them together veryfast.
- “Don’t thank me.” which—with a period—expresses my own ingratitude or, worse, leads the student to believe I’m hatching some sinister plan.
- Staring a hole in the student is positively out. It’d land me in the headmaster’s office.
So I redirect my attention to shuffling my materials and mutter, “Sure.”
I always said “goodbye” to Ms. Raulerson, one of my beloved high school teachers. Her room was a marketplace where we haggled over information and ideas. Even in high school, a place that seemed absolutely artificial to my adolescent mind, she was genuine. She gave herself and convinced me someone could be a person and a teacher. In short, I loved her.
Which makes me think—what might she have said if I’d ended each period with “Thank you,” instead of “Goodbye” or “Have a great day” or “See you, Ms. R” or “Later”? Would she have thought “Thanks” unnecessary and possibly suspect—as I do—or would she accept it with grace I can’t muster?
At the end of the year, I wrote her a card saying how much I’d enjoyed her class. Since then, I’ve sent her a copy of an essay describing her influence on me. Yet I wonder if expressing appreciation later, after nostalgia fogs your recollections, makes praise more or less real, more or less heard. I wonder if she’d have appreciated more regular gratitude, especially on those dark teacherly days when class wasn’t quite what she hoped.
Each spring, as the rest of the school listens to speeches of candidates for next year’s offices, the seniors repair to a giant room to write thank you notes to their teachers. This year, for the first time, I didn’t receive any—not one—and didn’t know how to react, particularly when, standing in the teacher’s lounge, I could see colleagues’ mail slots full of them. Thanks aren’t why I teach, but that stung.
I told myself to calm down, to believe my sense that, most of the time, students know I care about them. I tried to recall my Raulersonian moments—however muted and inconsistent they sometimes seem in comparison. I pondered seniors well-prepared for college because of challenges they’d faced in my class. Yet self-assurance isn’t always enough. I wanted to stack daily thank you’s to dam my doubt. Suddenly I was desperate to believe casual thanks I’d been ready to disqualify as too easy and too empty.
And I worried. Do my students know I appreciate their thanks? Do they know how much their gratitude means, however it appears? As I’m off for the summer, I have time to think. What should I say to the first “thank you” next fall?