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Teacher Appreciation Week is fast approaching — the first full week in May — but New York City educator Emily James is already starting to cringe.

Every year, the week is sponsored by the National Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) in an effort, the group’s website says, “to show our thanks and gratitude” to “stellar educators.” How? Here are headlines on some Internet stories about how to mark the week:

  • “All the Perks and Freebies You Can Get for Teacher Appreciation Week”
  • “7 Meaningful Ways to Celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week,” with the first suggestion being “gifts” and the sixth being “classroom supplies” (because, unfortunately, too many classrooms aren’t properly equipped).
  • “Teachers Can Get Free Flights to the Caribbean in Honor of Teacher Appreciation Week”

To James, this week represents nothing more than lip service to teachers and is “a Band-Aid for a much larger problem, which is a systemic lack of respect for our educators.” In the post below, she notes that there are no appreciation weeks for doctors and other professionals.

To James, teachers need more than an annual appreciation week, which she finds cringeworthy. James, a writer as well as an educator, created a petition on change.org demanding paid parental leave for city public school teachers last year. It garnered 85,000 signatures, leading to negotiations that ended with city public school teachers getting paid parental leave starting last June.

Her work has been published in the New York Daily News, HuffPost and various literary magazines. She was the recipient of the 2019 Bechtel Prize from Teachers and Writers Magazine. You can follow her on Twitter @missg3rd.

By Emily James

As Teacher Appreciation Week comes near, I feel my annual cringe coming on. While the occasional “THANK YOU” pencil is nice (and I do love a buy-one-get-one-free Chipotle burrito), this week often feels like a faulty Band-Aid for a serious issue that educators in our country face day in and day out.

As a society, we don’t flaunt lawyer appreciation weeks, doctor appreciation weeks, engineer appreciation weeks. Why? Because the image and perceptions of these careers hold a certain respect from our communities, along with a certain respect within the field.

As educators, it often feels like no matter how many years we prove ourselves as competent, to make the impossible happen within our classroom doors, to teach and inspire children from all different situations and backgrounds, no matter how many “highly effective” ratings we are given, we are still asked to prove ourselves each day.

We are still told that rats and roaches are just a part of our environment and that we must sit through endless meetings in which non-educators tell us how to do our jobs. We keep getting handed curriculums written by people who don’t know our students and haven’t learned one of their names.

In New York City, most teachers attain master’s degrees before they ever begin work or finish them within the first few years. After years and years of perfecting our craft, we are rarely (if ever) called to share the knowledge and skills we have cultivated with our colleagues. We are told from outside sources where our kids need to be assessed and differentiated; we are not asked. We are not seen as the “experts” in the very area that we have not only studied fastidiously, but also proved ourselves to be successful.

Each year, more responsibilities are piled on, more stapling and copying and data tracking and parental outreach and conferencing. The mentality seems to be: Education still failing? Ask the teachers to take on more.

But let’s stop for a second. Imagine that doctors were asked to file their own charts, clean their own exam benches, call to confirm their own appointments. Doctors are respected, so there are others to help them focus on what it is they are experts in. So are lawyers and engineers and firefighters and police officers, and most other revered male-dominated fields; the list goes on.

And dare I ask: Is it a coincidence that the teaching profession is made up of 70 percent women? The idealist in me would like to believe so, but the realist knows it isn’t.

In all the years that the country has tried to make changes to fix public education, why has the solution never involved lightening the unrealistic, damaging load that’s placed on the backs of our educators? This may in itself be an inherently feminist issue. Studies in recent years have proved that women in general experience more work demands and are held to a higher standard in the home and at the workplace.

And until recently, we weren’t even given six weeks of paid maternity leave after we had children of our own. It took 85,000 signatures and a long union fight to achieve this basic human right.

No wonder teachers are leaving the profession in droves. How can we expect to attract and maintain quality educators when we refuse to treat them well? When are people going to realize that our teachers are the infrastructure of education? In other countries, such as Finland, where teachers are actually revered, paid appropriately and treated well, the education systems are the most successful in the world. When will we see that without respect and care for our teachers, all attempts to fund and fix and heal education will fall through the cracks?

So, to all my fellow teachers, here is what I’m telling you as we approach that week when a mass-generated card from a politician is supposed to make up for all we face:

We don’t need appreciation. We have always done it for the children, and we have never been in this line of work for a “Thank you.”

What we need — and what our society needs — is a little respect for our line of work, the miracles we make happen every day. We are the roots, and if we aren’t cared for, the growth of all we touch will suffer.

I’ll trade appreciation for respect any day.