A teacher began encouraging her students via quick Post-It notes: “Thank you for being consistently kind. You made my days better.” “I can see you as a businessman in a $$$ suit. Keep working hard to make that happen.” “You should be a professional voice over artist.”

Teacher offered encouragement on Post-It notes. It changed her students.

One of the most well-read guest columns ever on this blog was by Georgia educator Rachel Williams Grimes, a language arts teacher at Ware County High School.

Many of you will remember it. Grimes addressed the public ridicule after tornadoes that prompted school closings failed to materialize, writing:

So far, a drop of rain has not fallen, and our school system was ridiculed by a meteorologist on TV in the next major town.

That meteorologist has never been in a classroom. Taught 115 kids for 180 days. Pinned their homecoming boutonnieres on; visited them in hospital rooms after football injuries and car wrecks; held their hands in funeral homes after their relatives died; videotaped their promposals, having first been complicit in the hiding of the Teddy bears and Snickers bars. That weatherman has never been knee-deep in children.

I have been. I am.

That piece – “I’m a teacher and I don’t want to die with your child in a tornado” -- drew hundreds of thousands of readers. You can see it here.

Today, I am happy to share an excerpt from a Christmas piece that Grimes posted on her blog this week and alerted me might be of interest to Get Schooled readers. You can read the full piece by clicking here

I wanted to share an excerpt because Grimes is talking about something I think is important -- the power of small acts of kindness. (Whether in the classroom or anywhere.)

She talks about a tiny gesture she began years ago – writing encouraging notes to struggling teenage boys on Post-It notes – that produced outsized responses.

Grimes explains that small acts of caring matter more than many teachers realize, saying, “This Christmas Eve, think about the young men in your life. The things about them that make you smile. The first time you held them. The funny things they said when they were 3. The times now that you are just so proud. And capture your heart’s smile on paper, in words. Your affirmation, your acknowledgment, your written truth – these are the best gifts you could give them. And the ones they most want.”

Here is an excerpt from her blog, but I encourage you to visit her site and read the entire piece. It is worth it. 

Nine years ago, when I first came to the Title 1 public high school where I now teach, my primary outreach was to listless, visionless boys. I am not an optimistic person, nor am I a cheerleader (if I say anything remotely enthusiastic, it sounds fake, and teenagers hate fake). What I am is a plodder, a trudger, a goer-oner, and I try to get my kids–particularly those enduring trauma–to also continue to walk. To try to find their way “up, out, and over.”

About seven years ago, entirely by accident, I wrote my first life-changing Post-It note. I took a kid, a huge fellow, out in the hall, and I told him, “Listen, you’re going to hate yourself at 45 if you don’t get it together now and quit acting like this.” And, still irritated when we went back in the classroom, I wrote that on a Post-It note and handed it to him.

Years later, when he was a senior, days before graduation, the same young man came up to me, stood with me outside my classroom’s back door, looked at the sky and offered, “You know that Post-It note you wrote me? I hung it on my bedroom wall, and I looked at it every day.” 

I was dumbfounded. He just chuckled. After his confession, other students said, “Yeah, I kept mine.” They laughed at me, too – an English teacher who didn’t know the power of words.

In town that night, I bumped into the mother of one of the kids.

“I saw the note you wrote,” she said.

“Oh, yeah, that’s something I do sometimes,” I explained.

“He has it in his phone case. It’s a clear case. He has it there where he can see it, every time he looks at his phone. That means it’s important.”

When I look back at my own experience in school, I still recall several small gestures of support from teachers. They weren’t elaborate awards at school-wide assemblies or profuse public praise; they were a brief uplifting comment after class or an upbeat note on a term paper. 

Few of the college freshmen in the basic journalism classes I taught chose to become journalists. (They had much higher-paying options including law school.) One who did become a newspaper reporter sent me a copy of her first front-page story with a note reminding me what I had written on her final news story in the class:  “Can’t wait to read your first front-page story.

That single line of encouragement, she told me, made her believe she could be a reporter someday.  There is power in words, even a few of them on a yellow square of paper.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.