School & District Management

In Unprecedented Times, These Principals Are Going All Out on Teacher Appreciation

By Denisa R. Superville — April 30, 2020 10 min read
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You’ve seen the photos: teachers driving through their students’ neighborhoods to let students know that they are thinking about them—even though they can’t see them in-person every day during the coronavirus school closures. Another teacher helping his student through a glass door with an algebra problem with which she was struggling.

As in-person school instruction halted across the country over the past two months, teachers have been challenged to ease their students’ fears and anxieties while keeping them on track academically.

And as Teacher Appreciation Week looms next week, some principals and school leaders are trying to ensure that their teachers know that they see them—and what they’ve been doing in these extraordinary times.

Here’s what some principals are planning:

Make it an Adventure: Vicki Kilpatrick, the principal of Frances M. Rhodes Elementary School in San Antonio, Texas, always dreams up themed celebrations for Teacher Appreciation Week, during which teachers are “spoiled” with daily surprises and a luncheon from the PTA.

This year’s theme will be a take on the Wizard of Oz, called “There’s No Place Like Rhodes.”

The weeklong celebration will start Monday, where the Rhodes school community will be asked to wear their school shirt. On Wednesday, there will be a drive-through on campus (Follow the Yellow Brick Road), where teachers can pick up a goody-bag of Wizard of Oz-themed snack items, like animal crackers (lions, tigers, bears, oh, my); Skittles and Starbursts (the rainbow); Ding Dongs (Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead) and Hershey’s Kisses (The Tin Man).

Kilpatrick and staff also plan to dress up as characters from The Wizard of Oz, with Kilpatrick as Dorothy. There will be signs when the teachers drive up, and music from the musical. But Kilpatrick also will play a song that teachers have told her motivates them.

“We always look to spoil our teachers during Teacher Appreciation [Week],” she said. “And now more than ever, I feel like they need a little pick me up. They have been working really, really hard. They really have grown so much and learned so much during this time.”

Teachers will also be given paint and a canvas as part of a self-care exercise and will display their paintings during their virtual staff meeting on Friday. (That meeting will have a rainbow theme.)

It’s “to remind them that there is hope at the end of the rainbow,” she said. The paintings will be displayed on campus when school reopens.

“They have done a fantastic job with distance learning,” Kilpatrick said. “They jumped right in and just rolled with the changes. They’re learning so much new technology. Our silver lining through all of this is just how much they learned and how much they’re going to be able to incorporate into their classrooms when we are back at school.”

Like many school leaders, Kilpatrick will extend next week’s appreciation to all staff.

Rhodes Elementary staff will also place yard signs with “A Rhodes Elementary Superhero Lives Here,” along with the school’s Raptor mascot, on teachers’ lawns or outside their apartments beginning this weekend.

Students will be tapped to use the messaging app, Padlet, to upload a message or picture of appreciation for teachers, and teachers can see those messages at any time.

Take the Appreciation on the Road: Ben Rodriguez, principal of Buckeye Union High School in Buckeye, Ariz., and his administrative team plan to hit the road to visit the homes of all 125 teachers, paraprofessionals, and classified staff over the course of the week, beginning Tuesday. (They will be abiding by social distancing measures, with only two people in the minibus at any one time, and they will not be entering the teachers’ homes.)

They’re calling it the “Champion of Education” tour and will carry with them “Champion of Education” cards, which will have a personal message from the principal to staff members letting them know how much they are valued. Teachers will also get a goody bag that will include notes and snacks from the student council and vouchers from local restaurants.

“We want to bring a smile to their faces, reduce the stress, and show them how much we appreciate them,” Rodriguez said.

“They’ve all really stepped up,” Rodriguez said. “That’s just been really impressive. This is a time when the kids are going through change. They are a little bit stressed out. There’s change for their parents. ... It’s been positive for [students] to hear from teachers so often. It’s a daily charge to check on every kid, individually.”

The district is also considering a districtwide event on Monday, at 8:20 p.m. (20:20 military time) to honor teachers who didn’t get to complete their year-end projects—like CTE and performing arts teachers, and athletic coaches. Students will drive past. Lighting teachers will display special lighting, while athletic teachers will hold up banners.

No Communal Lunch? How About Drive-Through? With teachers at home, Manuela Haberer, principal of Murray E. Boone Elementary School in San Antonio, still wanted to show her appreciation for teachers. Ordinarily, the PTA would have catered a meal for the teachers.

This year, Haberer is teaming up with the local restaurant, Culver’s, which will provide drive-through lunch or dinner at no cost to the school’s teachers next week. It’s a local business that has worked with the school in the past, and contributes to its spirit week. The free meals—the restaurant offered a discount and the school is picking up the rest of the tab—are for all 55 members of the professional staff—not just for teachers.

“It’s a win-win,” said Haberer, who is in her fifth year as principal of the 550-student school. “Not only are we giving [teachers] a safe meal, but we are also giving back to a community partner at this time.”

Teachers will be greeted by the administrative team, with messages like, “Teachers: We Love You, We Miss You,” when they arrive to pick up their meals.

She also plans various surprises during the week, including another drive-through with a Krispy Kreme Wednesday.

Haberer is also creating a highlight reel of teachers’ work during the school year to show how they’ve impacted students and the school community and a video reel of students expressing appreciation for their teachers. The video will be posted on the school’s website next week and then e-mailed to the school community.

Add a Grab-And-Go Option for Lunch: Anthony Griego, principal of Valley High School in Albuquerque, N.M., normally caters a staff lunch from a local restaurant for the 70 or so teachers at the 1,110-student high school. This year he’ll carry on the annual tradition—except it will be grab-and-go.

“I really have to credit our teachers for really thinking outside of the box, being creative, doing things that are keeping our students interested and making sure that kids are logging in,” he said.

“I know that we are working harder and longer than we were when the kids were here in school,” he continued. “It seems like it never ends. ...You don’t really distinguish the weekend from the week; every day is the same.”

Teachers are not just doing “busy work” during the shutdown, but providing new content to help students master standards that have already been covered. And many have office hours where they are online working with kids while they complete their assignments.

Teachers have been creative in finding additional resources, said Griego, who has been a principal for 20 years.

“When you’re in school, your default is always to referring back to a textbook,” he said. “Now, kids don’t have the textbooks; so, they are having to look at a wide variety of resources that are out there.”

Send a Personal Message: Normally, the Parent Advisory Council at Wilson Elementary School in Alpena, Mich., cooks meals for teachers and serves them in the staff lounge every day during Teacher Appreciation Week.

That’s not happening this year.

Instead, principal Lisa Hilberg and her administrative staff will videotape a personal message to the staff, while members of the administrative team hold signs of appreciation.

The show of love is aimed at the entire staff—teachers, to custodians, to cooks, and the secretary. The PCA is also sending gift cards to teachers, she said.

Teachers and staff have done so much—from ensuring that meal programs were set up for students to rapidly moving to remote learning—and even going into the school when they do not have home internet access to keep lessons going.

Hilberg wants them to know how much she and the community appreciate their efforts.

“I am so excited to recognize and validate what they are doing and celebrate them next week,” she said.

Hilberg will also ask students to send electronic thank you notes to their teachers and to do so in their online SEL classes where they learn about coping skills.

“The reality right now for teachers is that many of them have been asked to step outside of their comfort zones, and deliver regular academic programming, and reach out to families, and offer support not only for the academics, but for things like, ‘do you need food, are you having trouble paying your bills, what supports can we offer you?’” Hilberg said.

Vacation-In-Place: Teacher Appreciation Week is generally a big deal for Jonathan Saiz, the principal of Governor Bent Elementary School in Albuquerque, N.M.

He spends months thinking about it, and every year there’s a theme. Last year, he was decked out with a flotation device around his neck, as part of an airline-themed celebration as he went from room to room with a cart, handing out snacks to the staff. He even brought in his luggage from home to add some authenticity.

He’s tweaking the vacation theme a little bit this year, by making it a drive-through affair. He plans to have a lei around his neck, and Hawaiian music will be playing when the staff drives by to pick up their in-flight snack. The PTA will be handing out breakfast burritos, snacks, and ice cream for their week’s travel.

Saiz is also mailing cards to each of the school’s 60 teachers’ homes letting them know how much they are appreciated, loved and cared for by the community. Saiz has already sent out seeds to the teachers that he’s asked them to plant to show that “there’s hope, there’s growth” even in this difficult period, Saiz said.

A group of teachers has written messages outside of students’ homes about how much they miss and appreciate their students. They’ve also been holding virtual show-and-tell. Others have called students at home to sing them Happy Birthday, and they call parents every week to not just check up on how students are doing academically but also emotionally.

“They are always willing to go above and beyond, supporting our kids, and our communities, and our families,” Saiz said. “And this is one token of appreciation I provide them. It’s not just a one-day thing. It’s a whole week event. We truly, truly care about the staff here.”

He’s also asked parents to mail a letter of appreciation to the school, which he would then forward to teachers.

“It’s different facets of showing appreciation,” said Saiz, who is in his fourth year as principal at the school. “It’s not only from me—it’s from everybody, from the PTA, the administration, their own students,” he said.

“The appreciation will continue for a while. There is nothing more special than getting a letter or something in the mail.”


1. Reilly Bard, 11, left, and sister Charlotte, 8, hold a sign for Oshana Elementary School teachers as they parade up Knowles Avenue in Southington, Conn., last month. (Dave Zajac/Record-Journal via AP)

2. The administrative staff at Boone Elementary School in San Antonio, Texas, will hold up signs honoring teachers at a local restaurant next week, when teachers drive through to pick up a free meal as part of the school’s celebration of Teacher Appreciation Week.

3. Jonathan Saiz, principal of Governor Bent Elementary School in Albuquerque, N.M., is planning a vacation-themed event for Teacher Appreciation Week. (Photo by Anthony Lopez-Saiz)

4. Bonnie Dickson, a 1st-grade teacher at Governor Bent Elementary School in Albuquerque, N.M., plants seeds Principal Jonathan Saiz mailed to teachers. (Photo by Caroline Dickson)

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.