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Expressing Gratitude

Mark Shpall

From the Head of School on learning the importance of saying "Thank you."

Sitting in synagogue during Rosh HaShanah, I had the time and space to reflect on what has been meaningful to me this last year and what can I improve on next year. It brought me to the Alice Walker quote, “‘Thank you’ is the best prayer that anyone could say. I say that one a lot. Thank you expresses extreme gratitude, humility, understanding.”

I think often of how much I have to be grateful for. From a supportive and loving family at home, to a workplace that challenges me to be the best leader and educator possible, I could not help but feel grateful for how my life has evolved. I was left with the thought, “have I adequately expressed my gratitude to the people who have helped me become the person I am today?” This of course led to, “how do I teach gratitude to my children?” And then, “are we doing a good job of teaching gratitude at de Toledo High School?”

We know intuitively that giving thanks and appreciation to others makes us feel better. However, it is much deeper than that. There is an entire field of study about the effects of positive psychology and how gratitude increases our sense of personal well-being (see: The Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania). In fact, there are studies that confirm this hypothesis. In 2001, the “Nun Study” was published. This longitudinal study of 678 Catholic Nuns was startling. The nuns’ autobiographical notes were examined over numerous years. The more positive emotions – contentment, gratitude, happiness, love, and hope – the nuns expressed in their notes, the more likely they were to be alive and well 60 years later. The difference was as much as seven years in life expectancy.

So, how do we teach this lifelong approach to our students?

Gratitude is a skill. Like throwing a football or playing the violin, it must be taught and repeated. As we see with our children as they begin to talk, thanking others is not natural. Whether relying on articles (or here) to help inform my parental and pedagogical vision or reading academic studies, these resources help remind me to be thankful and to help those in my charge remember the power of the words “thank you.”

At dT, a focus on gratitude has been an important part of our values from the beginning. Our mission statement emphasizes Jewish traditions and values to create good character and shalom (peace). Also, the school’s Expected Schoolwide Learning Results focus on students’ sense of “hope, joy, self-confidence, personal meaning, and passion.” The goal is for students to learn and practice gratitude for the life they have been provided and will continue to develop. In addition, the value and skill of gratitude are woven into our curriculum, whether it be in our academic or experiential courses.

As as we start both the school year and enter into the Jewish New Year of 5779, I want to continue to feel and express the appreciation I have for the people in my life.

  • I am thankful for my wife who has been my rock and soulmate over our 25+ year journey together.
  • I am thankful for my children who have opened my eyes to the wonder of parenting and taught me more than I could have ever imagined.
  • I am thankful for the family I grew up with, specifically my parents, who instilled in me a sense of purpose, Judaism, and values that have guided me my entire life.
  • And, I am thankful for the school I have the honor and pleasure of walking into each day. A place where values and soul are as revered and respected as academics, where students are viewed as b’tzelem elohim (in the image of G-d) and where our faculty look at, teach, and treat each student as an individual worthy of Godliness.

So, with the start 5779, I think about John F. Kennedy’s quote, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” The first step is to “utter” the words of appreciation, the next is to live those words. So, in addition to the many reflective prayers I read during these High Holy Days, my prayer for myself is to live by these words and always express and live my gratitude.

Mark Shpall, MA.Ed, J.D.
Located in the San Fernando Valley portion of the City of Los Angeles in Northern Los Angeles County. de Toledo High School is accredited by the California Association of Independent Schools (CAIS), the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) and Builders of Jewish Education (BJE,) and financially supported by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Jim Joseph Foundation.