Early in my graduate program I took a class called The Neurobiology of Stress. Years now since the course, much of the learning has unfortunately escaped me. But one of our main texts, The Heartmath Solution, regularly resurfaces in my consciousness as I go through the yearly emotional peaks and valleys of teaching and turn inward for emotional fortitude. 

The Heartmath Solution provides easy to apply methods that strengthen the mind and heart. The authors make the case that simple practices, such as recording three daily gratitudes, helps cultivate heart health leading to both emotional and physical well-being. The results include lower stress levels, higher emotional clarity, and even a stronger immune system. Over time a person rewires their brain to default to optimism, hope and joy. 

As a major assignment, the instructor challenged us to record three gratitudes each morning, never repeating the same one twice for two weeks. The first few days were pretty easy (family! warm house! health!). But as time went on, the task became a bit more challenging, until I started “seeing” gratitudes everywhere, sometimes in the most unexpected places. The method was working!

Despite the simplicity of the practice, I’ll admit to having fallen in and out of it over the years. But for the last few weeks I’ve been back on the wagon, using a white board in my kitchen, the corners of loose papers in my school bag, the notes app on my phone, and even the back on my hand to jot down gratitudes as they come to me. 

In no particular order, here are a few from the list I have going:  

*My town’s librarian, Lisa. She works hard to make our little library a cozy place you just want to go hang out on a rainy Wednesday afternoon. 

*The strength I feel in my body. Activities like riding bikes and hiking mountains are where I feel most like myself, and spending time outdoors teaches me unique lessons in humility and vulnerability, which I need. My body makes those experiences possible. 

*The chance to listen. This fellowship is giving me the time to be curious with colleagues, administration, and professionals in the field, rather than having all the answers. Without such a long list of “to-do” each day, I can feel the space to be fully present, and just listen. 

*Podcasts! If I can be truly engaged and get smarter while commuting or making dinner, sign me up. Top picks from 2019 include WorkLife, Forever35, 1619, Wild Ideas Worth Living and The Cult of Pedagogy, and Missing Richard Simmons

*Live music. In October I saw the band Hiss Golden Messenger perform this song live in a tiny venue, which still gives me chills whenever I listen to it. Before he performed it he asked every teacher in the audience to raise their hand, and he thanked each one of us. 

*When a friend brings you a special treat. On a chilly bike ride last week a friend pulled a chocolate almond butter bar out of her jersey pocket for me. Needless to say her act of kindness made that day’s list!

*Freedom to fail and try again. Pushing my practice and trying new things in the classroom means that, a lot of the time, it isn’t going to go perfectly at first. I am grateful to work in a culture of second chances. 

This holiday season (or all year for that matter!), try giving yourself the gift of gratitude. It’s a quick and easy process that is truly attitude-altering. But the key is to do it for several days, so start now, and see how you can surprise yourself with the little things you’re really thankful for by the time you sit down for Thursday’s meal. 

Rachel Cohen is a 2019 Rowland Fellow and humanities teacher at Colchester High School. Her fellowship work explores how Vermont high schools can better utilize the outdoors to expand place-based learning and leadership development opportunities for students. In 2017 Rachel was a Fulbright Roving Scholar in American Studies in Norway. Follow her @Cohen_Noted 

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