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If America's Serious About Appreciating Teachers, Here's What it Takes

The current tenor of our national conversation about education is a reminder of the dire straits the teaching profession is in.

This week America celebrates Teacher Appreciation Week, five days chock-full of poems, gift cards, and discounts for K-12 educators all across the country, and today is also National Teacher Appreciation Day. I appreciate getting a free burrito at Chipotle and homages to Taylor Mali, writer of "What Teachers Make," as much as the next educator, but the current tenor of our national conversation about education also reminds me of the dire straits our profession is in.

For instance, President Barack Obama tainted last year's Teacher Appreciation Week by proclaiming that same week National Charter School Week, opting to highlight only what charter schools do to the exclusion of teachers from all school systems nationwide.

Don't all teachers deserve to be appreciated?

Whether they want to admit it or not, America's leaders have fallen in line with the dismissal of—if not outright contempt for—teachers. Talking heads with messages about changing the status quo often use coded language that means, "Let’s get rid of teachers." For instance, former New York City Department of Education chancellor Joel Klein based his entire tenure on making teachers work longer hours, even when teachers there already have the most time with students in the world. Every "pay raise" Klein negotiated with the United Federation of Teachers came with givebacks that made him trustworthy enough to go on to work as Rupert Murdoch's consigliere at NewsCorp.

Klein's not alone in his disdain for educators. Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, Michael Bloomberg, and a slew of other prominent policy makers and politicians work under the premise that, as long as their friends in the media can gloss over the more deleterious parts of their initiatives, they can continue to depreciate the value of teachers. The American public generally sees right through this, as evidenced by the high approval rating for teachers on Gallup polls year after year.

Perhaps, teacher appreciation starts with changing the public perception of what a teacher actually does. The Newtown massacre highlighted the essential role of teachers as guardians and nurturers of our collective tomorrow. Yet, after the dust settled and the droves of media trucks left Connecticut, the newfound wave of appreciation for teachers gave their strongest detractors even more ammunition. They changed their tune about the importance of teachers, all while quietly supporting the dissolution of public schools in minor and major cities across the country, lobbying for purely capitalist ideas to infiltrate our public institutions, and cutting funding to our school’s most necessary resources.

How do we actually appreciate teachers?

For one, America can start by giving teachers more voice in policy and practice. Our voices in the decision-making process have been nullified or patronized, an attitude reserved for a woman-dominated profession. Teachers shouldn't just have a seat at the tables currently reserved for wealthy businessmen, technology experts, policy wonks, fresh out-of-the-Ivy-League newbies, and politicians. They should get the opportunity to create the table, creating the consortia, and developing the protocols for how we discuss our profession. Respect for expertise goes a long way towards making teachers feel appreciated.

We can also pay teachers well. We can pay beginning teachers a liveable wage—$45,000—and get third-year teacher salaries up to $65,000 and up, maxing out at $140,000. Of course, we can have other discussions on remuneration, but, as National Board Certified teacher Renee Moore would say, "We shouldn't be afraid to get paid."

More to the point, we need to assure that teachers have a wage that keeps them satisfied with their jobs and unafraid to try best practices, akin to doctors and lawyers as they move up in their professions. Having a union assures that teachers get equitable salaries regardless of sex, race, or religion, and we can use a healthy mix of old and new solutions to ensure equitable payment for educators.

Lastly, we can improve working conditions for all schools. Instead of investing monies towards bigger central office staff and SmartBoards, we can work on improving our school buildings. We need to make them look friendlier and less like prisons. We can make school lunches healthier, and provide students with recess and the arts more often. We can reduce the constant need for standardized diagnostic testing that requires special programs and seating arrangements that take away from, not promote, classroom learning. Also, as education advocate Patrick J. Sullivan would say, our strategy for improving schools can't be "open-close-open-close." Sustaining these ecosystems takes much more thoughtfulness than we currently invest.

Detractors of teacher appreciation always say, "We can't just throw money at the problem," a non-argument of immense proportions. The type of investment that our country needs from one of its greatest institutions isn't just monetary. Our collective consciousness about the way we approach schools matters. Teachers, the conduits for any school vision, ought to feel appreciated not just by token apples and continental breakfast celebrations (we'll take them, still).

As the school year draws to a close, my current students will soon graduate from eighth grade. Over my eight years teaching, on the last day of school I've had hundreds of kids say "Thank you" for the job I did in the classroom, each time heartfelt, each time humbling. When teachers give their all in the classroom, children don’t know how to reciprocate that except with their emotions. Thus, we get enough attention from our children to sustain our passion.

However, once we separate the passion from the profession, the actual profession lacks the sort of gratitude that would make it sustainable. America, let's acknowledge teachers, both as caretakers and as professionals.

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Image courtesy of Groana Melendez

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