While a pandemic is still reshaping public education in this country, teacher appreciation is more important than ever. But in a year where we went from being hailed as heroes who should be paid $1 million a week to being denounced as the people blocking school buildings from reopening, we need more than flowers or a #1 teacher mug.
We need a voice in shaping our profession and we need recognition for the struggles, sacrifices, and successes of the past year. School and district leaders should consider these four ways of showing genuine appreciation:
1. Include teachers in education decisions. Teachers are often the last to know about the very policy or curriculum changes that we are charged with implementing. It was a sense of powerlessness over the decisions that affect our profession most that led one of us—Kimberly Hee Stock, the 2021 Delaware Teacher of the Year—to run for a school board seat in her home district this year.
Teachers are in the best position to identify the collective and individual needs of our students. Does a transgender student need a safe space in the learning community? Listen when that student’s teacher requests a mechanism for updating names and pronouns in the district’s student-management system. Are students having a hard time connecting with topics and texts found in a district’s adopted curricula? Welcome their teacher’s appeal for the autonomy to design learning experiences that let students both see themselves and learn about others.
Now is a good time to remember that teacher ideas solved many of the challenges brought on by the pandemic. Create space for teacher voice and expertise at the table. Teacher leadership is what connects the decisions made in legislatures and district offices to students.
2. Treat—and pay—teachers like professionals. Effective teachers are experts in our fields and can make a big difference in empowering our colleagues. Master teachers should lead professional learning for less-experienced colleagues and be compensated accordingly. Too often, leaders add this collaboration to an already overflowing list of “other duties as assigned,” without any recognition or additional resources, leaving teachers burned out. Work with the resources in your school building by bringing your in-house experts to the table.
Attracting and retaining those experts means paying teachers what we’re worth. It means keeping promises when it comes to pension benefits. And it means trusting us to make important decisions about our classrooms. Feeling trusted and valued can help teachers find the confidence needed to grow. Risk-taking teachers develop unique ways to reach the most difficult students. But we can’t take risks if we are not sure we will be supported.
3. Don’t make assumptions. These days, teachers face accusations of indoctrinating children or bringing politics into what should be a space free of bias when we encourage students to be informed, critical thinkers. Our commitment to our students is challenged when we voice concerns over workplace safety during the pandemic, even while many of us have been teaching in person prior to being vaccinated.
Instead of assuming that teachers are driven by politics or self-interest, ask us.
Instead of assuming that teachers are driven by politics or self-interest, ask us. Talk to us. Approach us with an open mind.
Modern classrooms replace rote memorization with analysis, observation, and inquiry—the building blocks for developing empathetic, empowered, critical thinkers in a democracy. Teaching students to think critically for themselves is arguably a messier project than memorizing facts. We bet that the more you learn about why a teacher is approaching a particular lesson with particular students at a particular time, you’ll have greater appreciation for the complex work of a teacher.
4. Respect and support all methods of teaching. Remote learning, modified in-person instruction, and all manner of hybrid models have made this year uniquely challenging. Many teachers pivoted to virtual or hybrid landscapes without adequate training or the time and resources to properly use these new digital resources. We spent countless hours retooling curriculum to make it engaging and interactive online, reaching out to students and parents to help them succeed in this new modality, while also learning how to use new tools. As we transition back to in-person learning, let us remember teachers’ herculean efforts during the pandemic. All modes of teaching come with their own challenges.
As members of the class of 2021 State Teachers of the Year, we want to let our fellow teachers know: We appreciate you, we know what this year has meant both to you and your students, and we are with you. And to education leaders and the general public: We hope that when you are thinking about the teachers in your lives and wrapping that box of chocolates this week, you also remember to have our backs. Our families, communities, and country wouldn’t be the same without teachers. And we didn’t need a pandemic to prove it.
A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2021 edition of Education Week as What It Really Means To Appreciate Teachers