It’s that time of year when the “We Appreciate You!” emails start rolling in, along with their discounts, freebies, and flat video messages from classroom-distant figures. It is Teacher Appreciation Week, after all.
Such offers of gratitude are a nice start. But they’re not enough. In fact, when I was teaching, I found them mildly infuriating. I don’t get a raise to address the “teacher pay gap,” but I do get a free frozen yogurt? Is that really supposed to make me feel appreciated?
I’ve since left the classroom, but the empty words and gestures that too often accompany this time to honor educators still agitate me. So I put together the list below to give those who want to celebrate teachers a clue on how to do so meaningfully.
Do Pressure Politicians to Raise Teacher Pay
You may remember that in the not-so-distant past, there was a powerful #RedforEd wave gaining steam—and attracting politicians’ attention. In the wake of this movement’s strikes and demands for higher pay and better school funding, several of the top Democratic candidates in the 2020 presidential election laid out their plans to improve teacher pay. Senators Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Bernie Sanders presented their proposals. Vice President Kamala Harris and President Joe Biden did, too—and now they’re in a position to do something about it. So what happened? Where are these raises we heard so much about?
Today, with unprecedented teacher shortages, many districts have been forced to increase teacher pay—however modestly—to try to retain their workforce and attract new talent. But on the 2020 campaign trail, presidential candidates made bigger promises. They vowed widespread, federally-subsidized, significant pay increases, and much higher minimum salaries. The now-vice president proposed an average raise of $13,500, and Sanders suggested $60,000 starting salaries.
Three years later, and with inflation rates at 40-year highs, those of us in education are still waiting for this to happen—and teachers are needing it more than ever.
So if you want to show teachers you appreciate them, don’t let politicians get away with dropping this issue now that they’re done campaigning. Write and call your representatives, and ask them about their teacher pay plans. Let them know that you’ll be using your vote to elect representatives who will get educators the compensation they deserve—rather than those who just pay lip service to the issue.
Don’t Battle Tax Hikes to Fund Teacher Raises
Most people in the U.S. support teacher raises. Just don’t ask them to foot the bill. A pre-pandemic poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 78 percent of Americans felt teachers deserve higher pay, but just 50 percent would be OK with higher taxes to fund increases.
Much of the frustration with Teacher Appreciation Week stems from people saying they appreciate teachers but doing little to prove it. This pay-teachers–more-but-don’t-ask-me-to-help attitude is a perfect case in point. If you want educators to know that you actually care, be willing to show it with support for fundraising initiatives. If you don’t agree with how raises will be financed in your community, don’t just oppose the pay hikes; get involved in finding other ways to fund them! Attend school board meetings, elect members who will manage budgets well, or run for the board yourself.
Do Amplify Teachers’ Voices and Support Their Causes
Labor unions have been dwindling in the U.S. over the last several decades, but teachers’ unions remain strong. In 2019, over 60 percent of striking workers in the U.S. were educators.
These teacher strikes are valuable to society because they help to improve education through their demands for increased school funding, beefed up staffing, and better learning conditions. And they serve as a model to other sectors that collective bargaining works. To show teachers appreciation, support their union initiatives. When they’re striking, empathize with and publicly endorse their demands—and, of course, honk when you drive by the picket lines.
In addition to backing strikes, support teachers’ other initiatives, too. It’s hard to imagine a police officer posting a GoFundMe page to raise money for guns and batons, but for teachers, crowdsourcing funds for classroom supplies is the norm. When you see such a campaign, like it, repost it, and, most importantly, contribute to it. And then reference the above point about calling your elected representatives to push for change.
Do Involve Teachers in Decision Making Processes
It’s tough to be a kid, because a lot of the time you just have to do what people tell you. “Get home by 7.” “Be in bed by 10.” “Read this book today.” “Study for that test tomorrow.” And the list goes on. Sometimes, though, being a teacher feels similar.
For many educators, all too often, they have a long list of folks (administrators, parents, politicians, and curriculum developers) telling them what to do and how to teach. “You can’t teach this book.” “You must address this standard on this day.” “Start teaching this new curriculum this year.” “Stop teaching the curriculum we introduced last year.” It’s no way to work, and it leaves many teachers feeling like they lack agency and autonomy over their classrooms.
To show teachers that you appreciate them—and their expertise—get rid of the top-down decrees and involve teachers in the decision-making process when making choices that will impact them. Administrators can do this by having teachers vet new programs that they’re considering, and edtech companies can bring teachers into their product development process.
At Zinc Learning Labs, the edtech company where I currently work, we have a teacher advisory board and regularly engage educator users in (paid) feedback sessions. When admins and developers get teacher input and buy-in, it doesn’t just make teachers feel better; it increases the chances that any new initiative will be successful.
Don’t Weigh in on How Easy Teaching Is Unless You’ve Been a Teacher
Whenever I hear the saying, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” I wonder if a teacher originally said it. Since almost every adult once went to school and had teachers, they often feel like they understand what it’s like to be a teacher. They don’t.
Teaching is one of those things, like swimming, riding a bicycle or parenting, that I can describe to you, but you won’t understand fully until you actually do it. When I was teaching, and even still today, I hear too often about how easy teachers have it. “Summers off! Done by 3! Work with fun, loving kids! What more could you ask for?”
These non-teacher teaching enthusiasts are misinformed. Many teachers never take summers off, and, as documented in EdSurge reporter Emily Tate’s recent article, most have side gigs even during the school year. Kids are fun and loving, but building a fun, loving, and well-managed classroom takes skill, commitment—and sometimes even tears. During my first year teaching, I cried often, because managing multiple classes of 30-plus students of differing academic and English-language levels was hard and overwhelming.
When you witness good teaching, with engaged students and solid lesson plans, it may look simple, but it’s not. Great teachers just have a way of making their jobs look easy.
Do Offer Tokens of Appreciation
I’ve had many jobs throughout my career, and none was as rewarding as teaching. Any time I think about my time in the classroom, my heart warms with memories of my students’ growth and joy. To be able to relish in those positive feelings, I saved the cards and letters that kids gave me commemorating their gratitude and newfound loves of math, science and history.
Don’t stop giving teachers these small presents that have big meaning. Handmade cards and drawings, letters from the heart, and specially choreographed celebratory dances (yes, students did that for me one year) are great. And parent gifts of homemade delicacies and store-bought gift baskets are nice, too—as long as they’re backed up with the more substantial gifts mentioned in the dos and don’ts above.
Don’t Only Appreciate Teachers This Week
This may go without saying, but just because Teacher Appreciation Week lasts seven days a year doesn’t mean we should only show our gratitude during that time. Educators are shaping the next generation; what could be a more important job? Appreciate and support teachers year round.