Katie Waite, a 35-year-old high school English teacher from the Washington, D.C. metro area knew that she should have turned into bed without checking her work email one last time. However, habit prevailed … and into her inbox she logged.
She was fully expecting a rundown of what she would have to deal with the next day, but instead, she found a heartfelt email from a student she had taught five years ago. That simple note made such a difference to Waite that she took to Facebook to express just why gestures of thanks can impact educators in a big way.
“The reason I am sharing this is because when teachers say that notes from their students are appreciated, they REALLY REALLY MEAN IT,” she wrote in her post, which has since been deleted. “Look, I’ll never turn down a gift card and I’ll be super grateful for it, but that unexpected email just completely MADE my first week of back-to-school and is going in my HAPPY FILE forever.”
The “Happy File,” Waite went on to explain, is an old filing folder where she keeps notes and printed emails from students, and occasionally, parents. She keeps those heartfelt letters for a simple, yet important reason: to remind herself why she loves her job, even on the days when educating the next generation isn’t exactly easy work.
Waite tells Babble that she remembers one of the very first additions to her “Happy File”: a note from a student who wrote after he was in college to let her know that he was using what she had taught him in class.
“It was powerful and greatly needed, especially since I was still new and constantly questioning my newbie teaching practices,” she says.
According to Waite, most of the teachers she knows have their own version of a “Happy File.” Some are online, while others are physical like hers.
“I think every teacher I know has notes and letters tucked into a drawer or filing cabinet somewhere,” she explains. “They honestly are so powerful.”
For Waite and her fellow teachers, having those little gestures of appreciation after a long hard day helps to remind them just why their roles are so important — and how the effort they are putting in can make a difference in students’ lives, even far down the line.
Waite admits that burnout is a real struggle for many teachers and having those reminders can help combat the difficult pressures of the job.
“I look at the file and it’s such a huge pick-me-up and, without fail, it reminds me why everything is so, so worth it,” she says.
For 33-year-old math teacher John Bechtel in North Branch, Michigan, his “Happy File” is made up of both physical reminders and “memories,” and it helps to serve as proof that his efforts in the classroom are indeed shaping the next generation in a meaningful way. Known for his outgoing attitude and love of humor, Bechtel’s walls are quite literally littered with proof of how much his students appreciate him.
“Good test scores are great, but it’s the little things like a kid buying you a coffee mug with their own money that reminds you you’re doing something right,” he adds.
Bechtel adds that for him, and many other teachers, teaching is never limited to students merely learning content.
“That’s the challenge; it’s called ‘teaching,’ but there are a hundred different other things involved, not just content,” he explains. “I have an equation for it, it’s a math thing: Teaching = educating + coaching + counseling + parenting + managing + re-educating + mediating + disciplining + caring + guiding + listening + empathizing. Addition is commutative, so the order can be changed as needed for the day.”
Despite their different respective subjects, Waite agrees that teaching is about so much more than merely providing content, and she encourages her own 5-year-old son Jack to write his own teachers in an authentic way to show his appreciation, even at his young age.
All of this might come as a great relief to any parent reading (*raises hand*) who wonders if they have to craft a perfect Pinterest-worthy present for the holidays and end-of-the-year teacher gifts. Turns out, all teachers really need is a heartfelt note from your kid. In fact, that authenticity is everything.
“It’s organic, it’s not a thing that’s forced — so they are choosing to do that on their own,” says Bechtel.
As an English teacher, Waite may be a little biased about the importance of writing thank-you notes or encouraging students to tell their teachers what a difference they had made in their lives, but regardless, she hopes that more parents will have their kids contribute to teachers’ “Happy Files.”
“Go add to them,” she says. “Words matter.”