Real Teacher Appreciation Is More Than Tokens, Hugs and Free Coffee

I’ve always found “appreciation weeks” for nurses, salesmen and teachers to be a strange concept. Isn’t appreciation something that should be a natural condition of the job year-round? After all, teachers get paid. While conducting research for a political article I wrote during college, I questioned why teachers would want higher pay; if I were a teacher in an inner-city school, I would want that money to go to my underfunded school and my students instead of to me. Then I became a teacher. I worked 70-hour weeks without getting paid overtime. I spent four hours planning lessons that only five out of 22 students showed up for. I worked with 12th-graders who were reading on a second-grade level because they had been passed along for years. I stopped drinking water during the day because I knew I wouldn’t have a break to use the restroom from 8:48 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. I was told to buy my own classroom decorations, literature books, and copy paper. I wrote five full curricula for free. Leaving work at work has become an absolutely unimaginable concept; doing schoolwork at the Christmas dinner table seems more likely. Suddenly, an appreciation week didn’t seem like such a strange idea anymore, because teacher pay simply does not match the teacher workload. So yes, I’ll take the free coffee and the buy-one-get-one-free Chipotle, thank you very much. But a burrito certainly won’t keep me in the profession, and it won’t attract new teachers to enter the classroom.

The true meaning of teacher appreciation

I don’t need to be paid more in order to live; I can afford groceries and student loan payments without trouble. But it’s terribly hard to do such a difficult job when I know I could make much more doing much less. Despite the very large piece of my heart that my students occupy, leaving this profession would not be out of the question. But I am motivated by national movements like TeachStrong, a coalition of 60 diverse education organizations dedicated to modernizing and elevating the teaching profession. One of the group’s nine principles, which span a teacher’s career, centers on pay: “Increase compensation in order to attract and reward teachers as professionals.” If the United States wants to recruit and retain highly effective teachers, it needs to pay them more. Legislators should listen to coalitions like TeachStrong because they reflect a unified vision for the teaching profession among groups that don’t always agree. As a naive college student, I thought teachers should stay in the field because they love the job and want to help make change. But as a teacher, I know that after just eight months in the classroom, I am burned out and wonder how long I can continue working like this when I could switch to a profession that might allow me some free time to spend with my family, boyfriend and cat.

'You know you're a good teacher?'

I was finishing up this blog post one day after school while a student caught up on some work in my classroom. Little did he know that I was typing away about how under-appreciated I felt when he turned to me and said, “Miss, you know you’re a good teacher?” I had not heard these words from a student’s mouth in several months, and it gave me pause about my future and whether or not high school students would be involved in it. I want to stay for moments like this, but they are few and far between. At the heart of teaching is putting the needs of others before yourself. This is something I have always been skilled at, but come May, I can feel my willingness to do so waning. This month, I really need a hug and that free coffee. Those, along with the emotional rewards of teaching will push me through to the summer. Beyond that, I need the teaching profession to be elevated to the level that teachers deserve.
An original version of this post appeared on the Educators4Excellence blog as Teachers Need More Than Tokens of Appreciation.
Jillian Harkins is an English teacher at Bassick High School in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and a member of Teach For America and Educators 4 Excellence.

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