Ted Talks: The Power of Acknowledgment

Ted Graf, Head of School
The Forward, our annual hill country trip in the fall for middle and high schoolers, always concludes with an Acknowledgement Pitso on our last morning (Pitso is a Sesotho word meaning "meeting of the people."). The night before has been spent celebrating each other and student voice at the Performance Pitso and then, before returning to Austin, we acknowledge each other. It's such a simple gesture and a remarkably powerful one.
Imagine being the sixth grader at your first Forward and you're acknowledged by an older student for caring for your classmates in compassionate ways. Or maybe you're a gangly senior who acknowledges his classmates who invited him to participate in the midnight soccer game. Or maybe it's a guide acknowledging another guide for her work in comforting a student or a student acknowledging the parent medical volunteer after getting hurt on the zipline. Maybe you're a sixth grader publicly thanking his guide, the cabin leader, for managing a cabin of raucous middle school boys, so he could sleep. These acknowledgements and examples of gratitude build relationships and connection; they also build community and expand the hearts of the giver and receiver. Those of us who give acknowledgements say aloud that our life has been enriched by another and the person receiving the acknowledgement gets to hear how they made an impact.

When Khabele and Primavera began, I wonder if those teachers knew how impactful open, intentional gratitude is for all people. I am grateful to the founders for their good instincts and courage to start schools so deeply committed to these practices. Eighteen years later, there's a whole sub-field of psychological and brain-based research that shows how gratitude helps us detach from negative or toxic emotions; even if you don't share your acknowledgement (as we do in Pitsos) being grateful still helps your mental and physical health; actively practicing gratitude is reported to improve well-being by 10%, and gratitude is linked to increasing sleep quality and duration. For me, one of the most fascinating (and hopeful) findings is that, while a gratitude practice takes time to see benefits, it's different from other pro-social actions. The benefits of most intentionally positive actions DECREASE over time, while the benefits of gratitude actually increase. (Wong, Joel, and Joshua Brown. "How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain." Greater Good Magazine, June 6, 2017.)

At a faculty meeting during my first year with the school, we closed the meeting with acknowledgements from teacher to teacher, and I grinned. To be candid, offering acknowledgements (then, I viewed them as appreciations) was not new to me. In fact, I had first seen it at The Schoolhouse in South Burlington, Vermont, and it was used among students, parents, and teachers. At that time, a particularly challenging one in my life, I began keeping a small gratitude notebook and it's a practice I have carried with me here to Austin and Headwaters. We now offer acknowledgements in our administrative and faculty meetings, and we even have begun to do them in Parent Education Pitsos. I have come to believe acknowledgements are as important to us as centering or debrief. When we're together, let's be sure to build them in.

As we prepare to pause for our Thanksgiving break, here are just a few of the things I am grateful for about our school and our school community:
  • Parent attendance at games, concerts, and performances and helping us to transport students hither and yon to those games
  • Parents who volunteer across the campuses
  • Guides who send home additional communication and make additional effort to connect with a student
  • Students who recognize the talent, wisdom, and warmth of our guides
  • Students who speak up and speak out
  • Students who serve as Community Leaders and Admissions Council reps
  • Trustees who help us build new systems and negotiate on behalf of the school
  • All of us who volunteer
  • All of us who give monetary gifts over and above tuition and other fees
  • Colleagues who stay late at events and stack chairs and close up buildings
If you want to share what you're grateful for about the school, please send it to thanks@headwaters.org. We'll compile and publish the list in the December Current.

Resources about Gratitude:


Springs Campus

18 months to Pre-K
6305 Manchaca Rd.
Austin, TX 78745
Phone: 512-443-8843

Creek Campus

Elementary School
9607 Brodie Ln.
Austin, TX 78748
Phone: 512-804-2708
Fax: 512-628-4810

River Campus

Middle & High School
807 Rio Grande St.
Austin, TX 78701
Phone: 512-480-8142
Fax: 512-480-0278