The Silver Bullet
When I was a middle school teacher my principal had the habit of leaving handwritten notes in teachers’ mailboxes when we had done something worthy of praise. The notes were always short and specific: “Great job on the spelling bee” or “I appreciate the work you did on the curriculum committee.” I always kept my notes in my desk drawer, but some of my colleagues taped them to filing cabinets or tacked them on bulletin boards near their desks. Everyone, even the burn-outs, appreciated his notes, and he went out of his way to find positive things to say about all of us. It made us feel that he was paying attention to the small things we tried to do to improve kids’ lives. Leaving those notes enhanced his image as a leader who had a vision of what the school should look like. It was like the Lone Ranger leaving behind a silver bullet.
I remembered the warm feeling those notes gave me when I became a principal myself. I always carried a notepad with me when I did walk-throughs so I would remember some small detail of a classroom visit for a follow-up note. And I noticed that some teachers still taped them to file cabinets near their desks.
Verbal praise is always appreciated, but written praise is more powerful. Of course, the converse is true: Verbal criticism is painful, but written criticism can be even more so. Another principal I knew also left written notes in teachers’ mailboxes. He would fold them in half so they looked like little tents. “Oh, no,” teachers would say to one another. “I’ve been tented.” His notes tended to say things like, “Remember to keep all the shades in your room even” or “Students should remain in their seats until the bell has rung.” I never saw any of those notes taped to file cabinets.
Written classroom observations are further proof of the power of the written word. Despite a generally positive review of a lesson, teachers will dwell on the one line of criticism or suggestion for improvement. I know; I did this myself. Even when I was a principal, while my annual review from the Central Office was 98% positive, I’d focus on the 2% and agonize over what I needed to do to improve. Knowing this reaction to criticism, as a principal I always met with the teacher first and talked about what I had seen in the classroom before writing anything down. Teachers could be assured that nothing would appear in the written document that wasn’t talked about in the post-observation conference.
I know we’re busy, but a quick, positive, specific one-line note can make a person’s day.