A Week of Free Donuts and Over-The-Top Accolades Doesn't Make Up for the Disrespect Many Teachers Face

May 6, 2022 1:00:00 PM


Teacher Appreciation Week has always been one of those annual celebrations where I’ve questioned how much love people really have for teachers. I know there are some folx who truly appreciate the work that we do and are genuine in their expression of that appreciation, but that’s not the case for most folx. A jam-packed week of free donuts, new “favorite teacher” coffee mugs, and over-the-top verbal affirmations simply cannot erase the many years of disrespect that too many of our teachers have experienced on the job. These performative actions only serve to infuriate teachers, like myself, who can see through the bullshit.

Although the Great Resignation may leave some with the impression that the disrespect only started during the COVID-19 pandemic, the reality is that the disrespect has been festering for some time now. Honestly, how can we, as teachers truly feel appreciated when there are large numbers of politicians and parents pushing for laws, policies, and other forms of legislation that suggest a lack of trust in our ability to serve children? However, the pervasive nature of COVID and racism within our education system has caused many of us to reevaluate how we want to move forward in this space. This school year, in particular, has pushed so many students, teachers, and school leaders to the edge. 

The anti-CRT and anti-trans bills are still piling up across state legislatures. We still have teachers perpetuating anti-Blackness in the classroom, school leaders driving quality teachers out the door and treating students like incarcerated felons, and students doing everything in their power to stay afloat in the midst of this chaos. Wherever you turn, there are people faced with tough decisions to make about their futures in the education field. Questions such as, “How will I pay my mortgage?”, “How will I feed my kids?”, “Who will teach my students if I leave?” occupy real estate within the minds of so many educators who are strongly contemplating leaving the classroom.

Understandably, the thought of potentially pivoting from and/or rethinking this work we love is a difficult reality to face. That was certainly my case. When I started my education career in 2007, I aspired to be a lifer in the classroom like all of the teachers I had during my K-12 schooling. I wanted to be that teacher who teaches in the same school for 25 years and be that staple within the school’s surrounding neighborhood. I wanted to stay in the classroom long enough to teach the sons and daughters of former students I had in the early part of my career. 

I wanted to be like Mr. Feeny from “Boy Meets World” and have a front seat for my students’ journey from childhood to adulthood. Yes, call me corny and naive, but that was the romanticized vision I had for myself as a teacher.

I truly believed that I would be in the classroom forever. That was always my intention, but my educator world turned upside down in 2019. 

During that school year, my principal labeled me as “insubordinate, “disrespectful,” and a troublemaker because I was frequently vocal about issues of inequity and racial injustices that were impacting my students and fellow colleagues. The more I openly advocated for them, the more trouble I found myself in with my principal. 

Sadly, I truly felt that I was failing my students and it ultimately reached a point where there was nothing I could say or do to convince my principal that our school culture was crumbling apart. My opinions were muted, my ideas weren’t valued, and I came to the realization that I could no longer grow as a professional in this space. As a result of all this, June 29th, 2019 would be my last day teaching in any K-12 classroom. 

The unconditional love I had for my students was what made the decision so difficult, but I felt that it was necessary for me to step away because, mentally and spiritually, I was in a very bad place. I needed the time away from the classroom to prioritize my self-care and fully process all the racist activity I had witnessed throughout my career. 

After I resigned, I started Identity Talk Consulting as a response to the cumulative nature of the harsh realities and injustices that took away my joy for teaching. Identity Talk was never part of my original mission but, over time, it has evolved into THE mission. The journey to Identity Talk was really nine years in the making because the foundation of the platform is shaped and motivated by the ups and downs I’ve experienced throughout my time in the classroom.

Like so many of my teaching colleagues, I didn’t have a Plan B if being an educator didn’t work out.

I didn’t have aspirations of being an edupreneur because that wasn’t advertised or encouraged in my teacher preparation program. It was all or nothing! 

This is where the anxiety lies for so many teachers. Some will call it imposter syndrome. Others will call it internalized trauma. Ultimately, it is the uncertainty of the future of education coupled with the fear of failure that is preventing teachers from realizing the leveraging power they have in this Great Resignation period. 

If you have never taken the time to fully assess what skills, talents, and knowledge you bring to the table, there is no better time to do it than right now! Our education system is changing before our very eyes and it will only transform for the better when each and every educator goes from SEEKING the change to identifying themselves as THE CHANGE. The absence of self-actualization as teachers may be our greatest barrier to achieving the change we desire within our system.

For those who are on the fence about leaving the classroom, it’s only appropriate that you strongly reflect on the following questions:

  • How do you feel about teaching in this moment?
  • What is your current perception of your future in the education field?
  • How has the pandemic shifted your paradigm about what it means to be an educator?
  • How has the current political environment shifted your paradigm about what it means to be an educator

Remember that liberatory education work goes beyond the four walls of the classroom. Whether you realize it or not, you already have the skills and expertise to create your own lane in education. There’s a lane for EVERYONE … bloggers, tutors, podcasters, academics, content creators, boutique owners, consultants, etc. The knowledge or expertise you bring to the table will only add to the movement, regardless of the role you play—and your work and passion will be appreciated!

Kwame Sarfo-Mensah

Kwame Sarfo-Mensah is the founder of Identity Talk Consulting, LLC., an independent educational consulting firm that provides professional development and consulting services globally to educators who desire to enhance their instructional practices and reach their utmost potential in the classroom. He is the author of two books, "Shaping the Teacher Identity: 8 Lessons That Will Help Define the Teacher in You" and his latest, "From Inaction to 'In Action': Creating a New Normal for Urban Educators". Throughout his 14-year career as a middle school math educator, author, and entrepreneur, Kwame has been on a personal mission to uplift and empower educators who are committed to reversing the ills of the public education system in America and around the world. As a staunch ambassador and advocate for teacher empowerment, Kwame has spoken at numerous national education conferences and worked diligently to support the recruitment and retention of teachers of color in the education system. In January 2019, he was one of 35 Massachusetts teachers of color chosen by Commissioner Jeff Riley to be in the inaugural cohort of the InSPIRED (In-Service Professionals Increasing Racial and Ethnic Diversity) Fellowship, an initiative organized by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for veteran teachers of color to recruit students of color at the high school, undergraduate and graduate levels to teach in targeted districts within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. As an InSPIRED Teaching Fellow, Kwame facilitated professional development workshops for aspiring teachers at universities such as Boston College, UMass Boston, and Worcester State University and has served as a guest speaker for non-profit teacher pipeline programs such as Generation Teach and Worcester Public Schools’ Future Teachers Academy. A proud graduate of Temple University, Kwame holds a bachelor's degree in mathematics and a master's degree in education. He was honored as the 2019 National Member of the Year by Black Educators Rock, Inc. for his unwavering commitment to the advancement of the teacher profession.

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