What Do We Appreciate About Teachers?

What Do We Appreciate About Teachers?

Last week was Teacher Appreciation Week.

When something gets a special week or month set aside for recognition (poetry, African-American history, etc…), it’s something of a bad sign, a suggestion that this thing doesn’t receive sufficient attention on a daily basis.

(It’s like when I asked my mom on one Mother’s Day why there wasn’t a “Kid’s Day,” and she said, “Every day is Kid’s Day.”)

Not that it’s a bad thing to pause and appreciate the work teachers do, but given what teachers are facing in states across the country in terms of attacks on their professional discretion and autonomy, the burnout exacerbated by the pandemic, and the continuing decline of their wages measured against others with similar training and education, it’s hard not to think that teaching is not particularly appreciated.

There is a weird split consciousness about teachers and teaching, recently captured in a national poll conducted by NPR, which found that when asked about their “top concern,” parents ranked education third, behind only inflation and gun violence.

On the other hand, an overwhelming 88% of respondents agreed that “my child’s teacher(s) have done the best they could given the circumstances around the pandemic.”

It never fails to surprise me how willing people are to believe the worst of some abstract teacher given the fact — as the NPR survey indicates — most have overwhelmingly positive perceptions of individual teachers. 

I know that my appreciation for my teachers has increased as I’ve gotten older. I dedicated my book Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities to my teachers at Greenbriar School because working on the book reinforced how much I owed them when it came to learning to write.

How we appreciate teachers and what we appreciate them for is sometimes skewed by these weeks of appreciation or the “teacher of the year” awards that bring recognition to individuals. Often it seems as though we seek out the stories of teachers that seem superhuman in their dedication to the work or their willingness to sacrifice themselves for their students. 

That level of dedication is obviously admirable, but we should also wonder what it means that teachers must achieve superhuman things to be judged exemplary. For humans, superhuman effort is not sustainable. The notion that teachers must sacrifice themselves for the good of their students is, long term, not good for either teachers or students.

If we are going to appreciate teachers, it should be to recognize the kind of day-to-day and even moment-to-moment work that makes teaching and learning a human endeavor.

I was reminded of this recently when talking to my Educational Endeavors colleague Erin Garcia, who related an incident she had in a recent class. Two students were distracted and disruptive, and Erin found herself getting irritated and tempted to lash out — because who wouldn’t in the same circumstances?

I thought of the innumerable times in a class where I grew short with students who were goofing off or looking at their phones or talking or otherwise not engaging with the pearls of wisdom I was casting before them. Usually it was because some other problem was gnawing away at me in the background, and my general distress would bleed over into my response to students. 

I’d regret every time I’d snap at students, even though, at some level, they kind of deserved it. In truth, however, that snapping was a failure to recognize the humanity of students, that they are flawed, and make mistakes, and almost certainly mean me no harm with their disruption, even though it may feel that way.

As a seasoned professional and experienced teacher, Erin recognized this pattern in her class, that she was starting to escalate run-of-the-mill mild student misbehavior to a personal affront. In response, she took a breath, refocused, and, as she put it to me, “reminded myself, it’s not about me.”

This isn’t the kind of thing that wins a Golden Apple award, and it isn’t superhuman, but it’s the kind of act that happens across thousands of classrooms each day that keeps the focus on what’s important, when a different choice could make things go quickly haywire.

In reflecting on this Teacher Appreciation Week, this is the kind of work that I’m going to choose to appreciate because it’s what keeps students learning every week of the year.