For about five minutes at the beginning of the pandemic, teachers were superheroes. As a veteran teacher of 30 years, who taught K-3 students in the Bay area, as well as the next generation of teachers at UC Berkeley, it was disheartening to watch the appreciation for teachers turn to condemnation. All too quickly, people took to social media, clamoring for teachers to do more. At school board meetings across the country, community members complained that teachers were responsible for everything from prolonged school closures to critical race theory to learning loss.
Meanwhile, teachers never worked harder nor experienced more collective stress as when they reinvented teaching in an online or hybrid learning environment. According to AdoptAClassroom.org’s 2022 State of Teaching Survey of 4,665 teachers, 81% of PreK-12 teachers surveyed reported that their overall workload has increased during the 2021-2022 school year.
The first week of May is traditionally “Teacher Appreciation Week.” This year let’s use it to reconfigure the national conversation about the critical role teachers play in our society. Stressed families often wonder what role they can play beyond the sometimes herculean task of making sure their child is prepared for school each day. Like any good teacher, I’ve made a list.
1. Pay Teachers Commensurately
Teachers are leaving the profession in droves. A widely reported National Education Association (NEA) poll in January looked at the sky-high rate of teacher stress and found that “55% of teachers surveyed say they will leave teaching sooner than they had originally planned.”
Besides stress, a common and dire reason is low pay, relative to teachers’ education, experience, and the complex responsibilities of their jobs. According to the NEA, nearly one in five teachers have to work second jobs to make ends meet.
As in many professions, the severe shortage of staff puts increased pressure on already stressed teachers. Teachers often cannot afford to rent in the districts where they teach, let alone buy a house.
2. Lend Support
Simply ask teachers, “How can I help?” Offering support as they work to mitigate pandemic learning loss has the potential to radically shift the conversation. Support can be a monetary investment – to a classroom fund or through a nonprofit crowdfunding site that gives money directly to teachers for school supplies. According to a 2021 AdoptAClassroom.org survey of 5,400 PreK-12 teachers, the average U.S. teacher spends $750 of their own money purchasing school supplies for their students each year.
3. Use Your Voice to Change the Narrative
Many families have great respect for their child’s teachers. Help create the vocal majority. Actively counter the narrative of the unworthy, dogmatic, burned-out teacher who gets summers off. Talk to friends and neighbors about the trust you place in teachers’ expertise. Stand up at a school board meeting and sing your teachers’ praises and defend their autonomy. Demand that your school board acts on teacher opinion at a level equal to that of parent opinion. Both are valuable. Fight against legislation that curtails the constructive influence of teachers by banning books, denying the history of racism, and prohibiting discussion of gender.
4. Value Teachers as Community Experts
Teachers are dedicated, educated, and knowledgeable professionals. Seek their advice and ask them questions as you do other professionals. Be respectful of their expertise, their time and their limits. Recognize the complexity of their job and the stress they are under. Build a positive relationship to partner with your child’s teacher. Trust that they have your child’s best interest in mind. See them as part of your community, in the same way they see your children as a part of theirs.
Support can be relying on the expertise of teachers. Support can be letting the administration know how much you value and appreciate your school’s teachers.
Recently there has been a flurry of articles about something teachers have always known – teaching is a complex, stressful job. This was true before the pandemic hit and it is even more true now. We are all familiar with the very real problems facing schools – chronic underfunding, underpaid and under-supported teachers, dire staff shortages, neglected physical facilities, pressure to teach to unreliable, narrow standardized tests, and students who face a myriad of hardships including Covid, hunger, and violence. Students of color and students in less-affluent communities are disproportionately and gravely affected by each of these problems. We are all too familiar with the dismissive refrain, “The system is broken.”
But is it? The school system, despite its myriad woes, already has the critical ingredient necessary to provide transformative solutions: teachers. Teachers are the experts on instruction, learning, and children. When they have a stake in decision-making and their voices are featured, teachers can affect substantive change. But relying on teacher experience and input happens a lot less often than many people think. Many other voices are heard first – a loud minority of angry parents, legislators pushing to make curriculum “uncontroversial” (ask: for whom?), and administrators who operate at a distance from actual children in actual classrooms.
The truth is that teachers are neither superheroes nor responsible for society’s ills. But given more true power and influence, teachers can solve many problems. These solutions will require societal investment. That more money is needed for schools has long been the case but even more, we require a seismic shift in the national discourse about teachers and what they do. Teachers are the experts in knowing what their students need, individually and collectively. Teachers strive to help children become lifelong learners who can reason critically, construct their own understanding of new concepts, solve problems creatively, be independent learners, and work together with the true respect which comes from a deep understanding of humanity.
To do their jobs effectively, to begin to solve the myriad problems the system faces, and to stay in the profession, teachers must have agency. They need the power to make choices and to control the resources within their classrooms. Children are always the changemakers of their generation. Guiding students to become citizens who create positive, innovative change is what teachers with agency do best. Just like parents and guardians, teachers cannot and will not get everything right all the time. But given true agency, teachers can have tremendous influence. Agency begins but does not end with respect and trust. Respect the experience teachers bring to their jobs. Trust their professional expertise and their devotion to their students and families.
This Teacher Appreciation Week, give teachers what they need – true agency.
(Chocolate and gift cards are nice, too. But please, no mugs. Seriously, we have enough.)
Annie Alcott was a Bay Area teacher for 30 years. She taught at the K-3 level and as a teacher educator at UC Berkeley. She left teaching in June 2021. Currently, she serves on the Board of Directors of AdoptAClassroom.org, a nonprofit organization that directly supports PreK-12 teachers across the U.S. by providing them with classroom funding so they can purchase school supplies. Annie is also working on a book about her experiences teaching Kindergarten during the pandemic.