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Letters of Gratitude: An Assignment of Healing

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29 Mar 2016
Stories from the Front
Tags: liberative pedagogy   |   transformative teaching   |   student assignments

So central to my identity is teaching that when I think of the highest honor, the highest appreciation – I think of my gratitude for those who have liberated me through their teaching. I aspire, then, to instill in my students an appreciation for their dearest teachers. I want them to experience the practice of gratefulness as I believe it is a healing practice. When the cold, achy heart feels the warmth of gratitude – that warmth soothes, relaxes, and heals. I want my students to experience gratitude as that experience is a powerful spiritual salve for the wounded heart. Consequently, I have designed a learning activity which encourages the experience of gratefulness for teachers by students.

The assignment is straightforward and elegant. These are my instructions …. (1) Recall a teacher who changed your life. The person might be a professional teacher who you encountered in grade 3 or graduate school. Or, equally acceptable, the person might be your grandmother, your scout leader, your friend. The recall might be focused upon a recent event or it might focus upon a relationship from long ago. The relationship might have lasted for years and years, or the relationship might have been a week or two. Recall a person who taught you deeply and well. (2) Sit with this memory. Let the memory take full flower in your mind. Linger with the memory so that it is vivid. (3) Using the categories of liberation as described by Dr. Anne Streaty Wimberly in her book Soul Stories: African American Christian Education (Abingdon Press,1994, 2005), name, describe and reflect upon the ways your teacher liberated you. (4) As your analysis and reflection deepens and takes shape, write a letter of gratitude, in first person, to your teacher articulating (in the theological and pedagogical language of our class) the liberation you experienced. Your letter of gratitude should be 5 to 7 pages double spaced, with citations from our readings and lectures.

ImagesOver the years, I have probably read no fewer than 700 letters of gratitude written by my students to teachers. Each batch of letters feels like waves of love. Liberative teaching can be such a powerful change-agent in the lives of students that when students express their awareness and appreciation - the written word becomes electric. The letters are love letters – healing for the heart for those with gratitude as well as those ingratiated.

A few years ago I added a new dimension to the assignment. Out of all the letters I receive in any given class, I select a sampling of letters to be read aloud in class by the author of the letter. I want students to hear their own voices when in tones of gratitude. During the readings, fellow students hear the analysis of good teaching by peers, and the readings also infuse our classroom with the teeming energetic vibration of gratitude and gratefulness.

Students will often cry as they read their letters. It is, I have been told, a revelation, to speak your deep gratefulness aloud in front of witnesses. The intimacy of liberation is revealed.

I encourage students to mail their love letters to their teachers. If the teacher has died, I encourage students to find a ritual way to honor the teacher – light a candle, grow still and quiet, read the letter aloud prayerfully as if your teacher is present …. and wait.

Every now and then, a student will tell me that there has been no one in their lives for whom this kind of letter might be possible. They report that there is no teacher who is deserving of such gratitude or whose efforts warrant heartfelt gratefulness. I tell them to take more time in recollection. If they return still without focus – I tell them to take more time in recollection because without such a relationship I doubt if they can ever be a transformative teacher for someone else.

I know some students have written letters of fiction – letters to people who they wish had been in their lives. I am glad they found a way to get at the work, even in their own imaginations. This gives me hope. Only once have I had a student choose to submit no letter because there was no one to write to or imagine. I still pray for this man.

I encourage all of us to write a long, thoughtful, heartfelt letter of gratitude to the teacher who liberated us (follow the directions above). Then, mail the letter.

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. When I did this assignment last semester, I wrote to my youngest daughter. When she came to us, she became the first (and only) child in my very large extended family that (a) was adopted and (b) was not Caucasian. Over the years, I have admired how she fits seamlessly into the family dynamic and even adds her own unique identity as she grows. It is her uniqueness that, in turn, has helped her family grow and learn about how issues such as race and liberation are more than just soundbites. And this started almost from the very beginning. When she was just an infant, we began to notice that our church did not resemble her in any way, shape or form. So, we set out to find a church with a more mixed population. The impact of that seemingly simple decision was life-changing for all of us.

    In your book “Dear Sisters”, you talk about how Elizabeth Dodson Gray compiled a project about the sacred experience of women. But you point out that Gray never seemed to feel it was necessary to identify herself as white, while in contrast, “Black women do not have this luxury” (p. 31). As her father, I’m supposed to be teaching my daughter about life. But I submit that she has taught me as much, if not more. I only hope and pray that so many others would hurry up and get the message!

  2. Letters of gratitude; this is a very profound article and I am grateful for that. Just a week ago my senior pastor asked me to prepare a sermon to preach in church with the theme, “remembrance.” As I was preparing the sermon I was thinking about telling my congregation what to do to remember and appreciate significant impact other people have made in their lives. But something different happened, when I read the above article I realize that in my preparation of the sermon I was more enthused in telling the people what they should do; not realizing that I as the preacher has many people in my life to be thankful to. After a thoughtful consideration, one particular woman, Ma Maggi, came to mind. Though my biological mother is a good woman, Ma Maggi has been very supportive, caring and compassionate throughout my life journey since the death of my father. I can imagine how she even sponsored me to further my education here in the United States. There is a lot to say about her but I think one of the best ways to show my appreciation is to write to her my 5 to 7 pages letter of gratitude. Thank you, Dr. Westfield for this article.

  3. Peter I think that was a beautiful experience and you did the right thing by finding a mixed church that she could freely express herself from what seemingly posed a threat on her identity. When I first came to the US, as a young black African, I found it very difficult worshiping in most of the congregations in my neighborhood, they were all white congregations. This is not because of racial bias or anybody looking down on me as the only black but I had a problem with my own identity, trying to fit in. It was a moment of liberation for me when a good friend finally led me to a mixed congregation. But I am grateful that my learning experience at Drew has helped in making me more open and multi-culturally inclined. Now I do my supervised ministry in a white congregation.

  4. I recently wrote a letter to my old jazz professor from undergrad who was a liberating presences in the front of the class room (a.k.a. band). She became even more important because when I was looking for universities I was running it to a problem of standardized testing. I was horrible at taking them! Even though my GPA was good, every time I took the A.C.T. I would fail. Nonetheless I somehow survived the manifest of the educational banking system and was accepted in to university. But not by myself! In was only because my jazz professor who advocated for me in the admission office that my admission was accepted. She pleaded with the university that my ability to learn was not reflective in my ability to take a standardize test. My professor was not just a person who made higher education possible for me but she was someone who recognized and embodies a liberative pedagogical approach when it came to teaching jazz.

    All that to say my experience of education within a college classroom was energizing and life give. While in college and now, I have truly valued my jazz professor’s pedagogical approach. The mystery now is why did I never send that letter? In many ways this practice of gratitude was helpful for me as a learner as I gained a deeper awareness of my own educational needs but in what ways might my side of the story have encouraged and empowered my jazz professor whom, from her point of view was simply doing what she does? As I’m about to finish my first master degree, I am wondering if sending this letter might in fact be an empowering story for both my jazz professor and myself.

  5. Angel: In what way might preaching gratitude in the context of a local ministry be liberativing to educator, parents, pastors, secretaries, and etc.? In what ways might writing a letter of gratitude become a spiritual practice for children, youth, lay member and leaders within a pastoral context? “Remembrance” and remembering others is critical to the Gospel. Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” I hear this story and wonder what would Thomas, Peter or even Judas put in a letter of gratitude towards their rabbi? It might be a fun exercise for a bible study readying about the teaching of Jesus?

    Angel you also bring up an important point to always be remembering those in our lives who we appreciate as educators. I wonder if I need to write a letter or two to former/current educator? Lest we forget that we are always learning and growing thus need to be grateful for those who have liberated our minds.

  6. Peter: Education happens all the time, even from our children. An individual cannot learn how to be a parent soli through reading books and taking seminary (although it may provide some helpful insight). An individual learns by interacting and being with the there child/ children. Which as you said is a liberating experience.

  7. Dr. Westfield I actually did this assignment in seminary and it was very meaningful to me. I didn’t mail the letter but I will have the chance to meet the teacher who it is written to again next month. I’m considering giving it to him in person. He taught a three hour workshop for seminarians at the Samuel Proctor conference that changed my life forever. I’m so grateful to have had any space of time with such a great teacher. His well is very deep and my bucket was filled!

  8. Angel and Peter as I read your responses both dealt with the identity. One of the most powerful lessons we can learn and continue to learn is who we are and education helps us in that effort. As we learn who we are, we also learn to find our place in the world and occupy that place boldly regardless of what others may think.

  9. Upon reading this blog, I decided to complete the assignment to have the experience. I wrote it to my deceased grandmother, who was the pillar of strength and wisdom that I needed to get through some of the hardest times of my life. In her death, I didn’t have her strength, which forced me to become strong on my own. I thanked her for even in her death teaching me a lesson, but until I wrote the letter I didn’t realized I had learned it. Thank you Dr. Westfield for posting this blog!

  10. Angel, I enjoyed reading your comment to the blog post. My family comes from Haiti and my mother works as Certified Nurse’s Aide in Morristown. A great majority of her co-workers also come from Haiti. When I was in Undergrad and received a bill I could not pay, her co-workers raised the money and continued to sponsor me throughout my Undergraduate education. It is remarkable how people will make a decision that holds an impact on us that they could not even imagine.

  11. Parker, I recently had a conversation with the daughter-in-law of a former boss from my first job as a teenager. The man who was my boss has been gone for about ten years, but I had an opportunity to tell his son’s wife what a wonderfully warm and eminently forgiving man he was. When I need to preach about grace, I think about him as a Christ-like role model. While I’m glad I had the opportunity to tell this woman about her wonderful father-in-law, I’m sorry that I never got to tell him myself. All this to say, “send the letter”. Or better yet, tell her in person!

  12. I worked in the camp kitchen for 2 years before “moving up” to program staff where I got to work directly with campers and lead activities. The program staff spends the day outside and gets the direct contact and gratitude from volunteers, campers and parents. While in the kitchen I grew accustomed to the reality that we don’t often receive gratitude for the work we do. Behind the scenes, we cooked, cleaned, maintained and repeated it each day with few or no words of thanks coming our way. It sounds bad, and maybe it is, but we learned how to do our job with pride and love without dependence on praise. Later on in my time there I had developed a habit of picking up trash in order to show care for the place I loved. No matter where I was or what I was doing I stopped to pick up the trash and would pocket it or hold it until I could properly dispose of it. Most of my morning runs ended with my arms full of empty cans and bottles I found on the side of the road. I did it because I cared. One day I was talking to my manager and the camp director when they both took the time to thank me for my hard work and for all the cleanup I had been doing. This sudden praise warmed my heart in a way I had not expected.

    When I wrote my letter of gratitude I had a long list of people in my head who deserved thanks from me. I chose the former camp cook who had started after my time in the kitchen. He became a mentor to me and even after my time in the kitchen was over, it felt like I was still learning lessons from there. He gave praise through his food to God and all those who came to serve them and I was grateful for the nourishment through food, company, and wise words.

    The power of gratitude should not be not underestimated. That is what I heard from this post and, I believe it.

  13. Parker, it seems like your teacher spoke to the greater issue of the teaching to the test method many schools have been stuck in for too long. It is a good story to hear about someone who fought for the potential that existed in her student. I think it’s funny when you can look back and see this moment where someone did something that potentially changed your whole life. They fought on your behalf in some capacity that came to shape much of what you became. To what extent your teacher shaped who you are now is not for me to declare, but if she is responsible for assisting in you to become who you are at this time I think she deserves some thanks.