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Interfaith group sends hundreds of thank-you notes to Pittsfield school employees

A thank-you note sent from congregants at the Zion Lutheran Church in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to Matthew Behnke, a special education math teacher in the Conte Community School.
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Matthew Behnke
A thank-you note sent from congregants at the Zion Lutheran Church in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to Matthew Behnke, a special education math teacher in the Conte Community School.

Members of at least eight churches and synagogues in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, wrote thank-you notes for each employee in the city's public schools. The idea is to thank staff for their work during the thick of the pandemic — and since..

The more than 1200 thank-yous went to bus drivers, teachers, cafeteria workers and others for educating and caring for children. They were handed over to the school district at an interfaith evening service last month at Zion Lutheran Church.

Rabbi Liz Hirsch of Temple Anshe Amunim opened the service with a song about building a world with loving kindness.

Paper bags and baskets overflowing with letters were presented to Pittsfield Superintendent of Schools Joseph Curtis, who said they mean a great deal.

"The love and support that has been expressed this evening — I quite honestly am finding very overwhelming with emotion," Curtis said. "As hundreds of images of members of the Pittsfield Public Schools — staff, students, families — have been going through my mind as our educational system is tested in so many ways." 

Since 2020, educators have shifted from remote teaching to hybrid to classrooms with masks on — and off.

Jenny Gregg, pastor of the Cathedral of the Beloved, spearheaded the letter-writing effort. She is married to a Pittsfield educator. Her sister is a teacher. She said she has heard about the stress.

"The amount of pressure and just constant transition that school staff have had to make over the last two years — and people are tired. They're exhausted. And so, I wanted to figure out a way that we could say, 'We see you and we thank you,'" Gregg said.

She said each letter was written by hand.

"There is something about the care that goes into a handwritten letter," she said. "It's cultivating a heart of gratitude both in the recipient and the writer. "

Matthew Behnke, a special education math teacher at the Conte Community School, received a letter.

"'Thank you for your commitment to the students of Pittsfield Schools," it read. "You have faced the challenges of the past few years with dedication and creativity. Your hard work is appreciated by the community you serve."

Behnke said teaching this fall is challenging. Some students need help learning just how to be in school or filling in academic gaps.

"Almost every day we discover some piece of knowledge that we thought was there that is not there for either an individual or even a whole group," he said. "So, having to go in and assess what kids are missing from the years of interrupted school is a daily thing."

He said he has carried the letter with him in his backpack since receiving it.

"You know, it meant something to me just because this is more than a job for me and for everybody who is working with me here. We're doing this to make a positive difference and it's nice to get appreciated," Behnke said. " And I do get it from other places, but not usually from the community. It meant a lot."

Besides the thank-you notes from religious groups, several Pittsfield businesses and fitness centers are offering discounts to school district employees.

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.