Last week was Teacher Appreciation Week and Americans everywhere were generous enough to take to social media to #thankateacher. The nostalgia was palpable and the stories of the transformative impact of the teaching workforce were free-flowing. If you failed to give teachers their due last week, you were out of vogue. You might as well be that person who missed the moment during the prior week when Beyonce turned lemonade from a drink into a “revolutionary work of black feminism.” But before you’re publicly shamed for disrespecting one of the noblest professions, it is probably worth asking whether we should be moving beyond thanking teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week. We can’t help but treat educators like widgets, assuming they’re monolithic in their desire for appreciation in the form of thank you notes, tweets, and Facebook posts. But what if they’d prefer their appreciation come in the form of actions and not words?
I’ve never been a traditional classroom teacher. But as an educator who spends every Saturday teaching high school students, I have always been less interested in words and thank you notes as a form of appreciation. I must confess. One of the first things I think about when I receive a thank you note from a student is whether it is grammatically correct, uses college-level diction, and is truly reflective. Because for me, and perhaps many other educators, the best form of appreciation is seeing students apply what you’ve taught them. It is nice to have someone acknowledge your hard work via a card. It is even nicer to see a student match your intensity in an effort to master content or engage in deeper exploration of the subject you teach. Thank You’s are sweet. But sometimes educators are seeking appreciation in the form of savory substance.
If we elevate the discussion from the individual-level to the education system-level, we’ll see many people inclined to say sweet words of appreciation but have little appetite for substantive action. Cognitive dissonance is to be expected in the politics of appreciation. And it is not limited to within the education system. Some have highlighted how America’s effusive praise for mothers on Mother’s Day is inconsistent with the nation’s inadequate parental leave policies. Others have pointed out the hypocrisy in thanking veterans for their service while not addressing the shameful way America treats its veterans. Likewise, while we were crafting catchy commendations (side note: I shouted out my high school literature teacher last week for developing my love for alliteration!) last week, the news broke that nearly half of teachers would quit now for a higher-paying job. In Delaware, the situation might not be as dire. In another survey, 81 percent of teachers said: “I would like to continue working as an educator as long as I am able.” But clearly, lip service and paltry plaudits leave something to be desired among America’s teaching workforce.
So perhaps everyday folks can show their appreciation by working to address some of the following:
- Sensible, not political changes – “When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.” The elephant in the room is that bad policy and the constant change experienced by educators and students is a result of political games among state education leaders (legislators, the Delaware Department of Education, teachers’ union, administrators association, PTA, etc.). Multiple studies have indicated that the “constantly changing demands on teachers and students” and “state or district policies that get in the way of teaching” are the biggest frustration for teachers. The pendulum always swings in a political arena where leaders are looking to get “wins” and appease their loudest constituents. And the demands of vocal constituents are generally more extreme than necessary. For example, in a recent national study, the majority of teachers want to reduce testing time and make assessments more useful. Less than a third want to eliminate state testing. But two years into Delaware’s new assessment, the teachers’ union is calling to have it nixed. Examples like these — where money is wasted, time is wasted, and educators/students experience unnecessary upheaval — abound in the education system.
- Equitable funding – Teachers’ ability to “address the needs of economically disadvantaged students” was reported as one of educators’ major challenges in the education system. Teachers’ ability to educate low-income students has been the source of much debate. But as some have noted: “There are no ‘better kids’ waiting in the wings.” The majority of students nationally and in Delaware are now considered low-income. In Delaware, our 70-year old school funding formula fails to account for this new dynamic. Delaware is one of approximately 15 states that do not provide some type of targeted funding for low-income students. Additional funding will go a long way to ensuring low-income students and their teachers have the resources needed for success. But without the right leadership, talent, and structural change we’ll get the same results. In New Jersey, the Camden School District, for example, spends about $23,000 per student and outcomes have not yet dramatically improved.
- Great school leaders– If we want to appreciate teachers we need to ensure their buildings are led by a high-quality school leader. School leadership was cited by Delaware educators as the factor that most affects their willingness to keep teaching at their school. Aspiring teachers in Delaware also cited the quality of the school leader as a major factor in their decision where to teach. Recent school leader evaluation data in Delaware would lead us to believe all schools are staffed with a great school leader. Yet, we know administrators vary in their ability to provide instructional leadership, give actionable feedback to teachers, promote a positive school culture and climate, recruit and retain great teachers, etc.
- Compensation- Don’t just #thankateacher…advocate for a fair compensation system for teachers. Teachers definitely entered the profession for altruistic reasons and see student success as a major reward. But Delaware’s starting salaries are the lowest in the region and our current compensation system prioritizes degree acquisition and years of experience over success in the classroom. Most teachers take on additional leadership roles in their schools and are rarely compensated accordingly. A more robust overhaul of Delaware’s compensation system appears to be off the table for now. But the Governor is pushing for increased starting salaries and a teacher leadership compensation pilot program. The Delaware Talent Cooperative initiative is providing financial incentives for highly-effective teachers to continue teaching in a subset of high-need schools. But there currently isn’t much movement toward paying educators more to teach in high-poverty schools.
- Teacher preparation and professional development– We should show our appreciation for teachers by making sure they are prepared for the classroom, have mentor support during their earliest years, and are receiving meaningful professional development. In the Listen to Us report, only 1 out of 5 veteran teachers felt “very well prepared” to teach during their early years as teachers. In a 2013 Delaware survey, only 44 percent of teachers felt “professional development is differentiated to meet the needs of individual teachers.” Delaware has taken major steps to improve teacher preparation and is one of only three states that requires districts to provide multi-year support for new teachers, and provides funding for new teacher induction and mentoring. Still, there are a lot of opportunities to increase the quality and relevance of teacher preparation, induction, and professional development in Delaware.
- Teacher voice and engagement- Teachers largely feel that their voices are not factored into decisions made at the school, district, state, and national levels. Only 2 percent of teachers nationally feel their opinions are heard at the state level. Half of Delaware teachers felt they did not have an “appropriate level of influence on decision making” in their schools in a 2013 survey. Education policy leaders need to do much more authentically engage a diverse set (not just the usual players) of teachers in policy conversations. The National Network of State Teachers of the Year has provided some clear recommendations on how to accomplish this. Teachers also need to be aware of the power and opportunities they already have to create change in the education system. In 2015, only 16 percent of Delaware teachers were aware their districts could create an alternative teacher evaluation system customized to their needs. Similarly, most teachers are unaware that they can conduct classroom observations. District leaders in the Colonial School District informed their teachers about such opportunities and were able to work with them to create a new system.
- Appreciate performance– Last year I visited a first-grade classroom with a colleague in a high-poverty school in Delaware and it was immediately apparent students were experiencing excellent instruction. We praised the teacher after the class and mentioned that the school should recognize her and share her techniques with others. She indicated that her classroom is not being recognized and mentioned that we “shouldn’t cause any trouble for her.” It is hard to say we’re appreciating teachers and honoring the profession when our efforts to evaluate, reward, promote, and retain teachers are performance-agnostic.
Few of these suggestions are easy. And they definitely lack the virality factor you would expect with #thankateacher. But teacher appreciation should be more than a week of shout-outs and status updates. It should require sustained investment, engagement, and commitment to the success of the profession.