Public Education Case Study: What Can Gratitude Teach Us?

As we look on to a bright and new 2019, there are few sights as delightful as seeing our youth flourish. This new generation of children who are seeing the world for the first time have the advantage of youth and an untarnished modesty about how the world should be. Join us as we welcome Mrs. Becky Egan to The Journal. Becky Zetye, Franklin Middle School educator and Boettcher Award-Winning Teacher inspires students and parents in her novel approach connecting gratitude, mindfulness, and student outcomes.

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GC: Welcome! Thank you for joining us today as we uncover the latest emerging trend in schools today and the leaders who courageously lead change. Tell us more about your journey here.

BZ: Hello Grace! I am so happy to be here today. When I graduated from college I went into the business world excited to make my mark but quickly found out that I had a desire to make a difference through teaching. I came across a phenomenal opportunity to become a Boettcher Teacher through a teacher in residence program to address the achievement gap. Through that I received my masters in instruction and urban education with a minor in English Language Learners instruction through the University of Denver. It was there that I fell in love with the students I serve. I worked two years as a primary teacher and the rest of my career, an additional 7 years, teaching middle school as an English Language Learners (ELL) teacher, and I spent my whole career in title one schools where a large percent live in poverty.

I currently co-teach in social studies and science in 6, 7, and 8th grade, and I love helping students learn academic language and content through these opportunities. I particularly love teaching the students that I serve. Many of them are living below the poverty line, are immigrants and many have parents who are migrant workers, and a handful of my students are living in transitional housing (homeless) which adds a great deal of other risk factors and stress to their lives. When you listen to their story, you quickly realize how resilient my students are, and the urgency I feel to do right by them.

GC: And what an incredible impact that must be for children each year across your career! I was surprised to learn that elementary, middle, and high schools are already embracing mindfulness. How did this come about and what does it currently look like in Colorado public schools?

BZ: I’m not sure exactly when mindfulness started to gain traction in Colorado schools, but I do know that I am thankful they did. The longer I teach, the more amazed I am by students stories. Four years ago, I did a unit in my AVID for ELL class based on the scene from “Inside and Out” where the students needed to write their core memories down. It was towards the end of the year so the kids felt comfortable sharing their stories and most of them involved the abandonment of a parent through death, deportation, or incarceration along with other difficult things that are heavy for anyone, especially an eleven year old.

It was through that realization that I jumped on an opportunity the next year to pilot mindfulness in the classroom. It started off with a small group of us that meet once a week to practice mindfulness together and do a book study. I immediately loved it and integrated it into my classroom. For the last two years the whole school practiced mindfulness at the beginning of the day and after lunch as part of our innovation plan.

GC: That takes courage and commitment! How would you say that students have responded to this change in curriculum and mindset?

Mrs. Becky Zetye of Franklin Middle School in Greeley, Colorado.

BZ: It has been a great experience for everyone involved. I often tell the students that I need a moment of mindfulness as much as they do. When I am calm, my class is calm and I am more likely to respond with love and find a solution or the root cause of disruptive behavior. It also helps all of my students, especially my students who have experienced trauma, to identify triggers and self regulated through mindfulness. I have several students a week ask me if they can take a mindful moment which shows that they not only see mindfulness as a strategy to help them in their life, they are actively seeking it out in times they feel stress.

As a school we have noticed a sharp decrease in office referrals and an increase in tests scores. In fact, the only big change we did school wide two years ago was every student participated in mindfulness twice a day and that year we went from the lowest rating according to Colorado Department of Education to the highest which was based on student growth on our state testing! When kids feel safe, when they feel loved, and when school is a place they want to be they grow academically and they grow emotionally as they become the people that they are meant to be.  

As a school we have noticed a sharp decrease in office referrals and an increase in tests scores. In fact, the only big change we did school wide two years ago was every student participated in mindfulness twice a day and that year we went from the lowest rating according to Colorado Department of Education to the highest which was based on student growth on our state testing!

GC: Those are amazing outcomes and makes a lot of sense. What are some examples of what has been effective in the classroom and after school?

BZ: Part of our innovation plan is mentoring, that is where an adult meets with each student one-on-one ten minutes a week. It was through this mentoring opportunity that I noticed that mindfulness wasn’t enough. I have a student whose mom and dad are drug addicts and my mentee has a lot of fear around one of her parents being violent towards her and her grandparents. Recently, her mom got out of jail and every time I met with this young lady, she would cry about her family situation and other factors she has no control of like her great grandma’s health.

After researching the importance of gratitude as a buffer against a multitude of risk factors, it became clear that I need to offer my students/mentees more support through simple strategies that are research-based. I then started giving my mentees gratitude journals and I noticed that my students reported that they are happier and more positive. They reported that it was harder at first and after a while their mind was trained to seek the good in life.

GC: Why do you think students, parents, and educators are starting to take notice of mindfulness and gratitude?

BZ: The simple answer is that it works. Look up the research on gratitude and depression, it is more effective than Prozac at curing depression. Mindfulness is a great first step, but it is not enough. When you combine both, your life is easier and you notice the beauty in the moment, even the hard moments.  

GC: That’s fascinating, how have you seen gratitude journaling affect the students you teach? What have been the benefits?

BZ: I have personally seen several benefits from practicing gratitude daily. I noticed that it changed the way I see the world. I notice the little things, like the sunrise, and the small moments that fill my daily life with joy. The more I noticed and named the good things around me, the more good I saw.  

It wasn't until I found Kintsugi that I started integrating both mindfulness and gratitude into my life and my teaching.  I run a Young Women’s Leadership Group at our school and the only requirement is each member must use the Kintsugi app or a paper and pencil gratitude journal if they do not have a phone on a daily basis. They must record what they are grateful for everyday in order to be in the club because leaders see the good and seek the good. 

I believe that when gratitude and mindfulness are interwoven there is a synergy that is clear. Since doing this, I have noticed a positive change in the girls in our group, they are happier, it’s built a stronger culture in our group, and they are more likely to share the joy that other members give them without prompting. I am confident that the next move in education is the integration of mindfulness and gratitude.

I believe that when gratitude and mindfulness are interwoven there is a synergy that is clear. Since doing this, I have noticed a positive change in the girls in our group, they are happier, it’s built a stronger culture in our group, and they are more likely to share the joy that other members give them without prompting.

GC: What beautiful progress! What is your vision for schools and students ahead? What would you consider a success for 2019 and beyond?

BZ: In 2019, my vision for our school is that gratitude would be part of our daily practice. As a trauma sensitive school mindfulness is a great first step, but the science behind the preventive effects of gratitude is clear and my hope is that our school will integrate it into our innovation plan. I also hope that my mentees and our girls group can continue to pilot the integration of mindfulness and gratitude into the new year. I would like my girls group members to take on a leadership role and train other students and teachers in both mindfulness and gratitude.

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Thank you, again Mrs. Zetye for providing a fascinating perspective on making an impact on our future generation and your service to deepening the quality of connection for students, parents, and educators alike in the public schooling system. We wish our readers a grateful and mindful new year!