Parents Talk Back

Jenni Mahoney noticed one of her middle schoolers was having a rough day. She pulled out her stationery and wrote her an encouraging note.

The message she wanted to share was simple: “I see you. You’re doing good things.”

She wanted to cheer up her student with a little handwritten pep talk. The girl didn’t say anything to Mahoney, an eighth grade English language arts teacher in a suburban St. Louis school district. But Mahoney noticed the girl kept the note in the front of her binder for the rest of the year.

That was almost three years ago. Mahoney started writing notes to other students if she saw one of them having a bad day. The small gesture seemed to make a difference. At the start of the next school year, she was thinking about ways to incorporate more praise and positive feedback into her teaching.

Mahoney resolved to write two to three notes for each of her students throughout the year whenever good behavior or effort caught her eye. She has 60 students. Would she really be able to write 180 notes, on top of all the regular teaching, planning and grading?

For the past two years, she’s made it happen by incorporating the practice into a weekly routine. She picks three students from each ELA block, writing nine notes weekly. Additionally, at the end of the school year, all 60 students get an individual note she writes over the course of four days when the students are taking the state-required standardized tests.

“I follow the same format,” she explained. She begins by focusing on specific positive traits she sees in the student and noting the things he or she does well. She tells them she enjoys having them in her class and mentions something specific from their time in her class.

One note might say, “I can tell you are really loyal” or “kind-hearted.” Another might include something the student is working hard to improve. The letters at the end of the eighth grade year also include encouraging words about starting high school in the fall.

It seems like an incredible amount of extra work for a teacher to take on. I asked if it’s been worth it.

“I think the payoff is huge,” she said. It helps develop her relationships with all the students over the year.

“They see that I know them,” she said, “and that I enjoy having them in class.”

This message is especially powerful for students who don’t typically get that kind of recognition or reinforcement at school. Parenting experts say the strategy of praising good behavior is a powerful way to change children’s actions and attitudes. 

But this is middle school. Surely there are some difficult students who are disruptive or rude or slackers. How does she find something praiseworthy for the students who chronically misbehave?

“I always have to think about the positive traits they have,” she explained. She might consider the friends they have. Sometimes, she compliments a great sense of humor or how a student gets along with his or her friends. “It can be hard sometimes, but I always find something.”

She doesn’t say anything to the students when she gives them the notes. She simply leaves them on their desks. Most of the time, they won’t say anything in response to what she’s written. For middle school students, it can be uncomfortable if a teacher approaches them in person. Genuine praise said aloud might be greeted with an eye roll or cause embarrassment in front of their peers.

“This is a quick way to tell them without making it uncomfortable or weird for them,” Mahoney said. Even if they don’t acknowledge it directly, she notices that many students keep the note in their binders. She overhears students ask one another if they’ve gotten a note yet. And a handful of times, students have written her kind letters in return.

Those are the things that motivate her during that marathon week of letter-writing near the end of the year.

“I’ll write 10 at a time, then take a break and do something else,” she said. “My hand hurts for sure, by the end.”

She’s found a way to teach an important lesson without saying a word.

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