The lost art of the hand-written thank-you note

3 07 2012

     I’ve just come through the end of a school year where many accolades are given and parting smiles are exchanged. I received more than my share of teacher gifts, handwritten cards and pictures from students, parents and colleagues. It’s a warm and fuzzy time of year where petty disagreements are forgotten and difficult conversations are shelved. In approaching the countdown, I had to make a decision on how I would express my sentiments to each of the members of my staff. The downside of the “post and fill” process that hundreds (thousands?) of teachers go through in our province is that the staff team you were a part of may not be the group you will join in September. So, I asked myself, Should I send them an email or write them a note?

I came to the conclusion that it’s too easy to fire off a 3 sentence email of appreciation: Collect your thoughts, hit “compose” on Gmail, type for 60 seconds and hit “send”. Done. Accomplished. Finito. For it’s the thought that counts, right? I thought about the gesture of acknowledging someone’s kindness and I acted on it. In that sense, there’s a lot to be said for the spontaneous thank-you by form of an impromptu text or an email.

I have been the both the sender and the recipient of these emails and texts and so have you. It’s nice to express appreciation and even better to be appreciated.

But think now of the handwritten thank-you cards that you received throughout the year in your staff mailbox, on your desk or delivered in person. The sender had to purchase that stationery and spend some moments thinking about the suitability of the picture on the cover. Think about the way you felt when you untucked the envelope, cracked the folded note open, scanned the scrawl and quickly peeked at who sent it before reading it in its entirety (everyone does that, don’t they?).  Notice the colour of the ink, the smudges, (especially if the sender is left-handed) and the date at the top. Perhaps your eyes are drawn to the slightly downward angle of the first line and you notice that the subsequent lines tail off even steeper. Block letters, loopy cursive or the star that was used to dot the “i” (or a smiley face or a large circle). You can tell immediately if it was written quickly or if care and attention was given to each sentence, each phrase, each word and each letter. Handwritten letters have so much personality and room for creativity!

But I feel that it is the signature on the bottom that exemplifies the uniqueness of the gesture and the thoughtfulness of the individual. That is something that cannot be replicated with a word processor or the querty pad of a cell phone. Bottom line: it takes more time and effort to hand write out a note and I suppose that is why it means so much to the one who receives it. That the sender felt that I was important enough to go the extra mile. These most personal of messages are relationship builders and friendship sustainers.

I hope that these types of notes survive. They may not be as efficient as other modern day options, but they’re certainly more meaningful. And if they end up at the back of a drawer or displayed on a table for a few days, it will probably last longer there than in a computer’s inbox.


Less praise, More encouragement

11 02 2012

Two Saturdays a month I travel to a neighboring town where I meet with my M.Ed. cohort for the day. We’re more than halfway through our requirements and it’s really a pleasure to meet with my “study family”. More often that not, the discussions are rich and the learning is deep. The conversations on the ride home aren’t so bad either.

     We had our pedagogical worlds rocked last week when our instructor challenged us to “encourage more and praise less.” We were all quiet after that one. “What’s the difference?” somebody asked. “They are worlds apart” came the reply. “Many good meaning teachers confuse the two and unknowingly contribute to many of the classroom behavior issues they seek to stamp out.” Collectively, the wheels were grinding in our heads. I’d known about the word praise from Sunday School classes when I was young, and I’ve received lots of praise from my parents and teachers growing up. In my Teacher Ed. program we talked about Authentic Praise and Specific Praise, (“good job!” vs. “you’re got great printing!”) and I’ve found myself intentionally noticing things about a student’s behavior that deserved a compliment from time to time. In light of the new information my brain just absorbed, was that alright? Have I been doing it all wrong?

As we discussed the two approaches and the role of a teacher with respect to them, it became apparent that there was a definite line (although quite subtle) between the two terms. My intentions didn’t need to change, but my choice of phrases and the way I expressed those thoughts did.

      Praise (in the school setting) happens when a teacher expresses a favorable judgement and gives approval. It addresses the doer and can be quite patronizing (“You are such a good boy”, “I’m so proud of you”, “I like the amount of blue you used in your picture”). A feeling of worth is given only when others approve. At first, this seems okay, right? But say you were the student sitting next to the artist that got the “I like the amount of blue you used” praise, how would you feel if you looked at your own picture and saw oranges and reds, but no blue? There is a certain dependance on others for approval that is created when these types of phrases are used.

Contrast that with encouragement: to put courage in or to inspire with courage. Encouragement addresses the deed, not the doer (“Thank you for helping”, “Who can show me the proper way to sit in their desk?”). Encouragement asks questions (“What is an appropriate level of noise in the library?) while Praise gives way to should statements (“You should be quiet like my last class”). Perhaps the most important contrast is found with respect to evaluation: Encouragement gives way to self evaluation (“Tell me about your painting”) while praise gives way to evaluation from others (“I like it”).

See the difference? It’s taken me a while to figure out, so here are some questions for you and I to consider:

a) Am I being respectful to students (E) or patronizing to them? (P)

b) Am I helping students discover how to act (E) or am I trying to manipulate behavior (P)?

c) Am I seeing the child’s point of view or my own?

d) Am I inspiring self evaluation (E) or dependence on the evaluation of others (P)?

Master teachers are encouragement artists and their methods create an atmosphere where people feel worthwhile without the approval of others. A subtle shift in the way a teacher phrases these thoughts will increase confidence, and esteem in the classroom setting.

Our Introduction to Counseling Instructor, Jim Skinner, gave us a list of several Methods of Encouragement that I’ll be seeking to integrate into my own practice. He also gave us some sample sentence starters that would be effective ways to encourage others – especially English as a Second Dialect learners. I’ve included some of these below. If this is helpful to you, use them. (If not, I’ve got some blogs from previous months that you may enjoy ;o) Here’s a brief list:

a. Place value on the person as they are, not on what they should have done or should become.

b. Give recognition for effort and improvement, focus on strengths and assets.

c. Be a non-judgemental listener. (Hard to do! Listening without “fixing” or offering advice is difficult!)

d. Look for the logic behind the mistakes.

e. Avoid bribery & other methods of rewarding to control

1. “I like the way you . . .”

2. “I can tell a lot of work went into that.”

3. “Tell me more about it.”

4.  “Since you don’t seem to be happy with that, what will you do differently?”

5. “Knowing you, I’m sure you’ll do a good job.”

6. “I appreciate your help.”

7. “I think I understand. Can you tell me more?”

I believe that most teachers are quite good at giving compliments and recognizing goodness in the students around them. Some may think that the Praise vs. Encouragement debate may in fact be a debate of semantics. But armed with my new knowledge I’m going to try to implement the subtle shift in my language and see what results. When we have the opportunity to improve our ability to inspire others, I feel this is always a worthwhile shift that I’d be willing to make.

The Risk of Being Educated

12 11 2011

A friend of mine is a Teacher/Librarian and is continuing her education at a local university. Recently, she updated her facebook status and it has impacted me deeply:

While working on a university paper today, I found this in my textbook (author unknown). It really touched me:

“Dear Teacher, I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness. Gas chambers built by learned engineers.  Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates. So I am suspicious of education. My request is this: help your students become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.”

Wow. I’ve read and re-read that paragraph carefully and the sheer weight of this person’s plea is something that’s hard to shake. I’m thinking that it’s more the theme that moves me, not just the actual words. Think about some of the things that we catch ourselves complaining about to our families and in our Staff rooms and stand those up alongside the gravity of what you just read.

Teaching is a risk and teachers live with different degrees of risks everyday. I suppose though, I’ve not really considered that the subject matter of what I present at the front of the classroom each day carries with it an element of risk to my students and society as a whole. How can we be sure that the stuff we’re teaching and the knowledge we’re passing along won’t be used in a harmful way? Bottom line: we can’t. Knowledge can be a wonderful thing and we would agree that the positives far outweigh the negatives with respect to advancing a person’s education. But there are downsides as well.

a) Do you think that the Wright Brothers ever considered that their advances in (or the introduction of?) aviation would one day cause widespread harm to millions of people through the use of military aircraft?

b) With the recent passing of Steve Jobs, there have been oodles of accolades for this man’s work in the advancement of the electronic age – and rightly so. Apple’s Ipod is now 10 years old this month. But consider this: Do you think that in those early discussions with engineers that he realized that the invention of the ipod would one day make pornography portable and accessible to any student of any age? I’m not suggesting that the introduction of apps on digital devices hasn’t been a good thing. Those of us involved in education have seen how effective these can be for student achievement. But there has been another side to the monumental growth of digital technology – an industry Mr. Jobs helped create.

c) Or consider the era when the automobile was introduced. Yes, it has revolutionized the way people move by increasing the speed at which we travel, the distances we can cover and the areas that we can explore. Entire industries have sprung up employing millions of people that are directly associated with the production, the maintenance and the future of automobiles (Look at the scope of the auto parts industry and the Department of Highways for instance). We’re not as quick to dwell on the thousands of people who die annually in car accidents. In fact, I am told that car travel is the most unsafe way to travel. Would I say that cars are not beneficial to society? No. But I’m reminded that there is another viewpoint to consider.

“My request is this: help your students become human. Reading, writing and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.”

Teachers, we have an obligation to think about, and re-think about the way we treat each other. This can be certainly be reinforced in the school setting by the way we present ourselves in our conduct with staff and students.  Politeness. Courtesy. Humility. Selflessness. Respect. Or, as it was said above, to be “more human”.

A First for Phillip

26 10 2011

The new kid arrived late to basketball practice. I had just started a drill with the other players and I could tell that Phillip felt apprehensive about interrupting what was already going on in the gym. The other players were doing their thing, but for the moment they had their attention diverted to the new face near the entrance. Some coaches may have carried on and ignored the intrusion of a late player. This would never happen on our team.

I spent the next few minutes setting up Phillip in a sport wheelchair, ensuring that there were adequate foot straps and that the black velcro band that sat across his lap was able to be tight enough for him. He hadn’t sat in a sport chair before and I could tell he was looking forward to trying out his new set of wheels. He sped off and joined in to what he was able to do and by the end of the night, felt very much included by the others.

That was last week.

At practice yesterday, it seemed like Phillip had been there for years. Eager. Confident. He was calling other players by their nicknames and simply put, he was having a blast. I’m not sure even he was ready for what was about to happen.

In wheelchair basketball, we teach our kids to position themselves to the side of the hoop where their chances for scoring are far greater than if they were to face it head on. Using the backboard is critical and so layups are a fundamental drill we do. Start out wide up at the top of the key, cut to the hoop, make sure your chair is pointed at a 45 degree angle to the basket, wait while you coast closer, and at precisely the right time – shoot off the backboard and hope for the best. Some of our kids are very skilled at this and are excellent role models to rookies like Phillip.

If you were to ask him, having Cerebral Palsy presents an additional challenge in the gym for Phillip’s core strength is lacking and his shooting range is limited. I placed him under the 8 1/2 foot hoop where I thought his chances of success would be greatest, but his shots barely hit the rim time after time. He was determined however, and looked to me as to what he could do to get it up that precious 6 inches further. “Let’s try something else” I offered.

A National Team Coach taught me that momentum can be a fantastic thing for players like Phillip. The sheer momentum of a moving wheelchair may be just the thing that would allow Phillip to improve his shots. So from about the 3 point line, he got in his shooting position and I pushed him toward the hoop and waited for the results. It wasn’t a textbook shot, but he did hit the backboard up high which was a good sign. “Let’s do this again Phillip – remember what we talked about” I offered.

His second shot was like something one would see in a movie like Hoosiers. It went off the backboard, it bounced around up there and eventually it went in! I was so proud that his determination paid off. “I scored! I scored!” was all that we heard. The moment was his. “I scored my first basket!” What I didn’t realize at the time was that this was the first basket Phillip scored – ever. Not just the first of the night, it was the first of his life. A very special moment indeed. You can imagine the smile on this 15-year old’s face that seemed to extend as wide as the gym itself. What  made it even better was there was even a few parents in addition to the rest of the team that got to see it firsthand.

As teachers, we live for the moment when we can see in our student’s eyes that the concept has been caught. As coaches, moments like these ones with a basketball and a wheelchair make it all worthwhile. What a privilege to be involved in a first for Phillip!

“Just Try” (3 somewhat related vignettes from my week’s activities)

2 10 2011

“Mrs. Hagkull?” My gaze shifts away from the pages of the book I’m reading to the Kindergarten class as Jaden’s voice interrupts mine. For the 3rd time of the day, I gently correct her. It’s hard for a young student at the beginning of the school year to remember all the rules and routines of the classroom. “Jaden, a boy teacher is always a mister.  Girl teachers can be a Mrs. or a Miss, but a teacher who is a man is always a mister. You can call me Mr. Hagkull, okay?” Her gaze drops and she seems uncertain. “I don’t think I can remember that,” she says with a look of genuine concern. “Just try Jaden. I think you can.”


Wednesday was our school’s annual Terry Fox Run and this day has a lot of meaning for me. At Tyson Elementary, we began with an assembly in the gym, including a very inspirational video clip and then each class filed outside to participate in a school-wide run through the neighboring streets. As a Prep teacher with no class in particular to supervise, my role was to stay back with the dozen or so students that did not have their off-campus permission slips signed and we walked/jogged around the perimeter of the school fields. “Your not going to let old Mr. Hagkull pass you, are you?” I joked as I caught up to a group of Gr. 4 boys.  One of them replied with a “I can’t run very fast.”

“Just try” I said. “We’re doing this for Terry today.” After a brief pause, (after I assume he was reflecting on what I said) he started to sprint. It made me smile.


“Hey Brad, what are you doing?” The voice was from one of girls who was in my youth group years ago. “Blowing up tires, what does it look like?” I replied. We were both at our town’s Community Centre – she was working out and I was in a storage room with 21 sport wheelchairs and getting ready for the first Chilliwack Cheetahs Wheelchair Basketball practice of the season. As the coach, this is one of the preparation responsibilities that other coaches in the stand up game don’t get to experience. “Have you ever sat in one of these?” I asked her.

“Uhhh, I don’t think . . .”

I intentionally cut her off: “The gym’s empty right now. Why don’t you take one for a spin? I’ve even got a basketball for you. Just try” Once Kate sat down in the wheelchair and tried to push and dribble at the same time, a big smile overtook her face. “This is harder than it looks!” she said. For the next 20 minutes, Kate, her new husband and his brother each had their own wheelchair and motored around the gym, laughing at each others inabilities. It was pretty cool to watch.


I’m a big believer in the fact that extra effort deserves to be recognized. And when people around you respond to a challenge you’ve given to try something new, it’s an especially rewarding thing to watch unfold. This week I found that there is power in the “Just trys”. I’m thinking that I need to incorporate that phrase into my conversations a  bit more.

An apple for teacher . . .

24 09 2011

Ever wonder where the give an apple to the teacher tradition came from?

My parents have a variety of apple trees on their hobby farm and September is the best time of year to take advantage of the harvest before Newton’s principles of gravity kick in. Although I worked in the Produce Department of a local grocery store to pay my way through university, my ability to distinguish the pomme varieties at my parent’s place certainly needs a boost. I’m really good at identifying apple colours though.

There’s one scraggly tree near the chicken house that doesn’t get a whole lot of sun. The tree itself looks diseased and it hasn’t grown a whole lot in the last few years. The fruit it produces however, is something to behold. These apples are never uniform in shape, they an odd greenish-phlegm-yellow colour, but boy do they taste good. I brought a whole basket to my Ed 300 class a few years ago and it was a hit with my classmates – these apples had the perfect consistency, the correct amount of crunch and were very sweet to the taste. I’ve convinced my parents that this is my favorite apple and in doing so, I’m sure I’ve extended the lifespan of this particular tree (which is in a terribly inconvenient location).

According to, the juicy fruit is a traditional present for teachers in the U.S., Denmark and Sweden. Some think the practice of giving apples to teachers originated as a simple gift of food for poorly paid educators (insert your own editorial here). Others believe that the good health associated with apples made the present particularly meaningful. Whatever the case, I’ve talked to teachers who have received these from students at the beginning of the year and the simple gift always seems to bring a smile to the recipient’s face. Very cool.

This tradition received a boost from the scientific community recently (see According to an exhaustive European study involving over 20,000 people over a span of 10 years, it’s hard to dismiss the health benefits of eating apples.  The findings counter the widespread belief that the most healthful fruits and vegetables are those that come in deep, rich colors inside and out. The dark green of spinach and deep red of raspberries are produced by phytochemicals that are associated with better heart health and lower rates of cancer, prompting the common advice to “eat your colors.” Apples and pears, although red, light green or yellow on the outside, are typically considered “white” fruits because the inside of the fruit, which represents the largest edible portion, is white.

All the participants in the study, ages 20 to 65 and living in the Netherlands, were healthy and free of cardiovascular disease at the start. During the next 10 years, the investigators documented 233 strokes among the study participants. There was no relationship between stroke risk and consumption of any of the brightly colored fruits and vegetables. However, people who consumed at least 171 grams of white produce daily — equal to about one medium to large apple — had a 52 percent lower risk of stroke than those who ate less than 78 grams of white fruit a day. On average, every 25 grams of white fruit eaten daily was associated with a 9 percent lower risk for stroke.

So there you have it. Give your teacher an apple and in turn, lower their risk of a stroke. Besides, this teacher can tell you that giving away the homegrown, organic variety from a hobbyfarm will always put a smile on the recipient’s face. ;o)

The Power of a Wave

25 07 2011

While traveling to Alberta to a family reunion last week, my wife and I noticed on our long drive that all motorcyclists wave to each other in a unique way. It’s not actually a wave as much as a quasi-open-palmed, “low-5” gesture – but without the contact. The hand never extends above the handlebar plane. And more than that, hog riders don’t seem to exert any extra energy beyond their left arms – no eye contact, no neck movement . . . well maybe a smile, but ultimately the hand disengages from the handlebar in a lazy cadence, the low wave gesture is made and then returned again in a smooth motion like nothing ever happened. These guys and girls are the ultimate in cool and I’ve noticed that the peculiar greeting is reserved only for others in the bike fraternity.

I should know. I tried to wave back at them in this way from the confines of my vehicle, but to no avail.

How come no one told me of this style of greeting for 2-wheelers before? Do truck drivers and scooter riders have such a deep affinity for one another that they too have a common acknowledgement? And why do we even wave anyway? Who invented that?

My curiosity led me to uncover that in ancient times, people would wave to each other to show the one they are greeting that their hands are free from weaponry. These days, it’s a universal peaceful greeting and a gesture of friendliness. On the rest of our trip, I deliberately began noticing how people wave to each other, I took stock of the types of waves that I’ve seen (and given) and with the help of some others, came up with a few other reasons for waving:

a) the “Your Welcome” wave you give when you let someone merge in front of you. The mystery driver is grateful to you and they give you highway payment because they know that you’ll be arriving at your destination one car length later because you let them in.

b) the “Red Light Squeeze” wave. This one needs a bit of explanation, but we’ve all been on the receiving end of this scenario: You pull up to a red light and the guy in front of you squeezes into the intersection an inch at a time so that you can make your right turn faster. Pure joy. As you pull up to make your move, it’s time to thank that special someone  for shaving 2o seconds off your travel time.

c) the “Pre-wave” as in, I’m thanking you because the front of my mini van is already pointed into your traffic-jammed lane and I know that you see me so please just let me in. Sure, you can try to avoid eye-contact, but that wouldn’t be friendly at all. Besides, I’m determined to Pre-wave you to build up some motorist goodwill.

d) the “Apology” wave. Although this looks similar to the Thank-You wave, don’t be fooled. The Apology wave is usually accompanied by a big grimmace instead of an eyebrow raise. So the next time you almost sideswipe a fellow traveler because your attention was diverted trying to recover a french fry that fell into your lap, be sure to offer a heartfelt Apology wave.

e) And finally, the “Go-Ahead” wave – my absolute favorite. You know the one. You roll up to a four-way stop at exactly the same time as another car and you (in your state of motorist generosity) decide to let them proceed first. Maybe it’s a sweet old lady barely peeking over the wheel or maybe you just want to avoid the world’s slowest car accident. Either way, you give them the most pleasant, open-palmed Go-Ahead wave, which is sort of how the pretty ladies on The Price Is Right unveil a new washer and dryer set.

I’ve noticed that proper courtesy-wave etiquette keeps the non-verbal, two-way talking alive on our streets and highways and prevents mayhem from ruling the motorways. So when you do something generous, keep watch for a wave and when your needing a highway favour, be sure to give the acceptable hand gesture – in the form of an appropriate wave.