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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

For decades, my grandmother boycotted Mother's Day. "Mothers should be appreciated every day!" she'd argue. By the time she was in her sixties, she surrendered, figuring she might as well be doted on once a year.

I'm all for teachers being appreciated, don't get me wrong, but Teacher Appreciation Day (May 5) ruffles my feathers. Teachers deserve such massive amounts of appreciation that to cram it into one day, or even a week, just feels dismissive.

As a teacher, I never felt particularly appreciated by my principal, colleagues, students, or parents. When acknowledgment of my work came, I relished it. It's just that it was so infrequent. The thing was, I knew that my school community appreciated me, but I don't think we knew how or when to express it. There were few structures to support recognition of our work.

Of course, those administrators, colleagues, students, and parents are not an exception in our society, and they themselves rarely feel appreciated. In general, we're a very unappreciative bunch of humans. Our attention is not drawn to strengths and successes -- we're compelled to focus on weaknesses, to demand more, to be unsatisfied. We're equally hard on ourselves and often our own worst critics.

In the Classroom

When I taught, I worked diligently to build a classroom community where kids appreciated each other. A favorite activity for my elementary students was to draw the name of a classmate in morning circle, secretly observe that classmate during the day -- looking for behaviors to appreciate, and then in our closing circle each student would reveal the name of their buddy and appreciate him/her. For example, a student might say, "During math today I noticed that Gustavo helped Karina on a problem that was hard. He was very patient with her and even when she got frustrated he kept on helping her."

Imagine, please, what this was like for our class -- the way kids anticipated receiving positive feedback at the end of the day, how this motivated them to be kind members of our community, how they started focusing their attention on what their classmates were doing well, and what it felt like for all of us to hear 24 declarations of appreciation to close the day. My students came to insist that we do "Secret Appreciations" several times a week. Of all the community building activities I did, I think this one had the greatest impact.

Colleagues Appreciating Each Other

Many years later, while instructional coaching at a school, I suggested this same activity -- but with and for teachers. The first time we tried was at the start of a three-day, back-to-school retreat. On day one, teachers drew the name of a colleague whom they secretly observed throughout the day. And at the end, they shared appreciations -- recognizing a behavior or action that had a positive impact on the group.

It was equally powerful and felt equally as good as it had felt with my students. The teachers requested that this practice continue on day two and three of the retreat, and then they carried it into the school year. Now they draw the name of a colleague at their staff meeting each week, observe the colleague throughout the week, and share the appreciation at the start of the following week's meeting. I might argue that this simple practice has profoundly changed the staff culture.

Truth Be Told

Teacher Appreciation has to go beyond the single day. It needs to be expressed in a myriad of ways (including monetarily) and by just about everyone in our society. It is also something that teachers and principals can cultivate. We need to build cultures of appreciation in our classrooms and schools in order to do this.

We need to develop structures through which students can appreciate each other, and those who support them at school -- including those who clean the bathrooms, fix their lunches, and monitor recess. Principals need to appreciate their teachers -- and in more ways than the occasional bagel-breakfast. And teachers need to appreciate their principals (I don't think there's even a bagel-equivalent for them).

But really, I'd argue that it can be very simple: A short verbal appreciation goes a long way. What if every day we all appreciated five (or even ten!) colleagues, students, and parents? If nothing else, I know that I'd feel good doing it. If this was the case, I think I'd actually enjoy Teacher Appreciation Day a lot more.

Edutopia Community: How is appreciation expressed at your school? What practices do teachers, students, and/or principals use to appreciate members of the community? What would you like to see happening in the way of appreciation? Please share in the comments section below.

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Elizabeth's picture

Great article! A refreshing perspective on this day. I'm tired of it too. Thanks for saying what I don't have the time or skill to articulate. I appreciate that your articles always guide us to think of what we can do within our power - and I can start by creating an appreciative atmosphere in our room. I love your writing an always look forward to your new pieces.

Shane Henry's picture

my colleague down the hall just saw me coming back from dropping my kids at lunch and said "read this blog! you'll like it!" you got a new fan today, elena. you made me laugh. you make such good points. what a way to start this week. i guess i'm so cynical, but our principal brought bagels this morning and i refused to eat one - taking a political stance in oppositiion to token appreciation, even though i hadn't had breakfast.

i think i'll go back and see if there are any leftovers now. and maybe i'll thank her for bringing them anyway. our principal now is very token in appreciation; we had one before who did a better job. she left notes in our boxes several times a week (how did she do that? my school has 23 teachers?) that commented on things we did well. that meant so much to me. a few words.

i'm hungry. wish i'd eaten a bagel now.

TeacherSabrina's picture

So true! If we showed proper gratitude on a regular basis, the holiday probably wouldn't be necessary.

I'm a big fan of this kind of community-building gratitude practice, as well. In my classroom we had a compliments box, where we could leave notes of appreciation for someone who helped us out or did other things that brightened our community, and where I'd leave notes praising students when I noticed them going above and beyond. I'd leave their notes on their desks each Friday before I left, and the ear-to-ear smiles on their faces when they read their notes Monday morning were just priceless :) The simplest things can make such a big difference!

M. Martinez's picture

I printed out your article and gave it to my teachers today along with a pledge to institute more regular appreciations for their work. I know there is so much more I can do. Many of my teachers spoke to me after school and were very touched by your thoughts and my response. Thank you for giving me some new perspective and ideas.

Brenda Stevens's picture

Reading this the morning after Mother's Day really hits home about how these two professions (mothering and teaching) are so similar - dominated by women, underpaid and under-appreciated, the expectation being that we'll sacrifice and martyr ourselves "for the kids."

This was a really good article. I will send it to my colleagues.

retzerk's picture

I am lucky that the teachers I work with every day and our principals make sure we know how appreciated we are. I know I am making a difference with the kids I am working with. I have used the in the classroom activity before and my kids all enjoy it. They will remind me too if it has been a while since we have done the activity.

LaurenV.'s picture

Too often the focus is on how teachers are failing. Rarely teachers get the appreciation that they deserve. Like the article mentioned, positive feedback is very motivating. Overall, the teachers who are working hard every day and night (are overworked and underpaid) often get overlooked. It would be nice to feel appreciated - even something as simple as a 'Thank you' would be nice. Teachers don't want a special day . . . we want people to better understand that teaching early childhood isn't a babysitting job - what we do is important and makes a huge impact on our future. Teachers have the power to advocate for themselves and their profession as well as take care of one another. I agree that every individual has the power to impact the social culture - positively or negatively. Be good to the teachers - spread the encouragement and support.

AlisaD's picture

I really appreciate this article. I have taught in schools where I felt so unappreciated - it was just the general climate. Now I teach in a really special school. It's hard to explain what it is that my principal does but I just know that my work is appreciated, that I'm repsected. It's the little comments and what she notices and talks about, it's the way I'm allowed to make decisions. If I wasn't here, I'd have probably quit teaching. I just couldn't stand the general atmosphere of disrespect and unprofessionalism. Thank you for this article. I just read a lot of your other ones on here and they're really good.

Miss Courtney's picture
Miss Courtney
Lead Preschool Teacher from Albany, New York

What an enlightening article and it's so true! I experienced my first "Teacher Appreciation Week" this year. It was filled with pot-luck- lunches, flowers, candy and small tokens of appreciation. I enjoyed being spoiled, until I pondered the true purpose of celebrating "Teacher Appreciation Week". It wasn't until the end of the week, I realized I hadn't received one genuine "thank you" or an authentic form of appreciation. Thank you for the ideas and a clear perspective on the true meaning of "teacher appreciation". In my professional learning community, I hope to build gratitude and positive attitudes, on a regular basis. I love the idea of the compliment box. This is similar to the Secret Santa gift exchange, hosted by my school at Christmas time. However, the compliment box revolves around acknowledgments, instead of presents, and occurs more than once a year!

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