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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 05/14/2012

How to really appreciate teachers: Stop the stupid jokes — and more

This was written by David B. Cohen, who has been a teacher since 1993 and is in his 13th year of teaching in California public high schools. He is National Board Certified, and is associate director of the Accomplished California Teachers group. A version of this posts appeared on the groups InterACT blog.

By David Cohen

Let’s talk about the word “appreciation.” By the time this blog post is done, you’re going to appreciate that word in a whole new way.

I love words — the sounds, the nuances, the etymology! (Did you know that the word “school” with reference to a group of fish has no linguistic relationship to the education term with the same spelling? The former is German and Dutch in origin, meaning “group” — while the latter is from Greek and related to learning). If a love of words can be genetic, I picked it up from both sides of my genealogy, and especially from my maternal grandfather, Jack. If it’s nurture rather than nature, then it must be a result of growing up in a home where I saw my mother read two, three, even four books in a week. My father was an English major at UCLA, before entering the medical profession. He isn’t quite the voracious reader my mother is (who could be?), but he has a fondness for poetry and songs, and often used to clip word games and puzzles to share with me.

Last week was Teacher Appreciation Week. First of all, if they need to make a special day, week, or month for you, you know you’re already a step or two behind. I haven’t noticed any need to appreciate other professions on special days. I’m sure those people are appreciated, but more importantly, they’re treated professionally, and compensated accordingly.

If you are a teacher, or if you know teachers well, you know that we generally find value in the sincere words of former students, parents, or colleagues. In this regard I suppose we’re no different from most people. Spare us the apple knick-knacks, the mugs and T-shirts, and really, we can locate and purchase coffee pretty well on our own.

But the kind wishes and warm recollections that make us feel truly appreciated — I call them “teacher fuel” — only operate on one level, one definition of the word “appreciate.” That’s when you express gratitude and acknowledge the value, worth, and other positive attributes of something or someone. I don’t mean to diminish the importance of that appreciation, but at the risk of sounding like an ingrate, it’s not enough.

Appreciate also means understand, as in “I appreciate the seriousness of the situation.” What would it mean for the public and the policy makers to “appreciate” teachers in the sense of understanding them? Just off the top of my head…

*No more jokes about finishing our work at 3:00 and having summers off. We work more hours per year than most people, and for less pay than similarly educated and trained professionals. Over the years, my second shift of teaching-related work typically has started at 9:00 p.m., and it’s not unusual to send work-related emails close to midnight and get a response from a colleague that night, or before 8:00 a.m. (Note – I actually think that’s a weakness rather than a virtue, but I’m looking for appreciation in the sense of understanding, not gratitude).

*No more missionary or martyr complexes. Yes, we care about the future and the children. But if accountability is a term that means anything in education, it must be reciprocated. If teachers are accountable, so is the public. Give us the resources to do the job you expect (or maybe you already do – which would be a rather inconvenient truth). Appreciate that we cannot build and sustain the profession, or the education system, if we demand excessive sacrifices of our dedicated and energetic teachers, young or old or in between. It makes a great narrative for a while, until the teacher burns out, moves on, or ends up divorced.

* No more generalizations about our failing schools. Appreciate the complexity of the situation: while there’s much work to be done in modernizing and improving schools, simplifications make our work harder. Failing schools are not so easy to recognize, especially from the outside. To the extent that we attach labels and then begin ranking schools, we fail to appreciate the differences among schools, the strengths of “failing” schools and the weaknesses of our “best” schools. The label “failing” is becoming increasingly empty of meaning as No Child Left Behind limps onwards despite its flaws. Teachers who work in “failing” schools are unfairly stigmatized for problems mostly beyond their control, and teacher turnover becomes a cycle that harms students and is hard to break.

But wait – there’s more! Yet another meaning of “appreciate” is the gradual increase in value, as in, “If the value of your house does not appreciate, you will have to sell it at a loss.” So, teacher appreciation would be most welcome in this sense. We need to make teaching more valued. I mean that in strictly economic terms applied directly to teachers — more pay, especially for younger teachers — and also more economic investment in the quality of teaching. Truly excellent teaching requires sufficient time to identify and meet the needs of each student, and to engage in ongoing, high quality professional development. If teachers are going to experience some appreciation, we need a commensurate investment in their work.

So, now, if you’ve made it this far, I appreciate you for reading, and I’m ready to join in not only some of the easy kind of appreciation, but also to carry on the fight for the more important but less understood appreciation that will make the greatest difference for schools, students, and teachers.

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