It’s May, and once again it’s Teacher Appreciation Month. Appreciation and recognition of our teachers is so important. Now, as a former site leader, I’m reflecting on what really matters to teachers. And trust me, I worked hard to take the standard appreciation and recognition as far is it could go. In addition to things like lunches, breakfasts and other goodies, I have worked with students and community members to wash teachers’ cars, write them letters, get massages from a professional masseuse and much more. And I don’t think these things are bad nor that we should stop doing them. But what if we created systems and environments that made teachers feel like they were important every day?

This is also currently being inspired by what I see as some real travesties in schools in regards to not only recognizing teachers but also working to keep them (especially the really good ones). It’s ironic. In an era of large teacher shortages, we often only seem to discuss recruitment and not retainment. For example, a colleague and friend of mine recently left the classroom and school system to work for an ed-tech corporation. This is something that he had never envisioned. He was a teacher and teacher coach and loved both roles. But after a series of missteps and bad leadership from site and district officials, they left him feeling less than professional. And this is not an average teacher. Indeed, he is not only respected by his campus community, but by professionals across the state and nation. I could share more personal profiles of teachers, very recently, who are either leaving the profession or moving into different positions – not because they don’t enjoy teaching, but because the environment being created and fostered around them is not one that supports really good teachers. They don’t feel that they work in a place that truly challenges and support them to take risks, innovate, collaborate and embrace lifelong learning. So, here are five areas to help educators think about making appreciation more authentic:

Creating A Culture of Teacher Support & Appreciation

If you ask teachers, most will indicate that they do want appreciation and recognition for their hard work. However, they will also often say that they would rather have that appreciation and recognition be an ongoing, sincere and cultural acknowledgment versus an official event or days on a calendar. As a site leader, I always tried to focus on not only good teachers but outstanding teaching. Of course, this was about appreciation and recognition, but it was also intended to inspire others. Learning, especially deeper learning, is based on inspiration as well as close working relationships and high levels of collegial collaboration. It’s well known that site leaders need to be in classrooms on a regular basis in order to increase student achievement.

But this is not the only byproduct. Indeed, if administrators truly embrace being an instructional leader, and make it a priority to be in classrooms on a highly regular basis, they will also learn who their teachers are, what they need, what motivates them, what challenges them and ultimately how the organization can support them (appreciation and recognition). If you want to truly help people, as well as appreciate the hard work that they do, you need to live with them. Those who don’t live in their offices are much more equipped to do that. Students, parents, district officials and community members are well aware of what an administrator’s priorities are. If one makes the culture of learning, as well as appreciating those who facilitate the learning, one of their main objectives, others will notice and learn from that modeling and leadership.

Autonomy

This might seem like a scary idea, but it’s paramount. Autonomy is about freedom, trust and ultimately professionalism. Teachers will never feel appreciated unless they have control over their own destiny. Indeed, a recent quality of life survey of educators, conducted by the AFT and Badass Teachers indicated that one of the top reasons that teachers leave the profession is related to not getting enough support and respect. This doesn’t mean that they don’t want expectations, standards or feedback. But they do want those that work with them to trust them as co-professionals. No one likes to be micromanaged, especially teachers. It’s counterintuitive to owning one’s craft as well as improving it. If we believe in creativity, we have to focus on autonomy. If we want growth, not only in students but in teachers, we have to foster autonomy. Model and practice this by offering choice – choice on how to accomplish a goal, whom to collaborate with, how to professionally grow, what technologies to incorporate and so much more. Student voice and choice is a large and vital part of project-based and deeper learning. If we want to truly embrace this pedagogy, we need to have Teacher Voice & Choice too. Too often, our communication and collaboration with teachers is prescriptive (do this, do that) instead of being inquiry and challenge-based (how could we do this or what would be a great way to make this happen?).

Flexibility

If we want personalized learning for students, then we need to also welcome personalized teaching and professional learning for educators. This can be anything from covering teachers classrooms while they take care of personal business (doctor’s appointments, their own kids and school needs, etc.), as well as various professional goals and activities educators may have. The former seems more obvious, and good folks have always probably naturally provided this type of flexibility. But the latter may be more of a challenge. When I was site leader of a high tech, project-based high school, this philosophy was put to the test. I worked hard to find, recruit and hire rockstar teachers.

I think all of us want the best teachers at our school sites for our students. But if you want the best, then you need to embrace the best. And the best comes with some new challenges, especially for traditional folks. When teachers, especially our really amazing ones, want to attend a conference or meeting off campus, collaborate with others or visit other school programs, take on new roles or positions within or beyond our organization – just to name a few – we need to find a way to not only say yes but facilitate. I had many teachers who were invited to speak, present and lead various professional development. When you have rockstar teachers, others will want to learn from them, host them, collaborate with them and maybe even steal them. This last one – stealing them – leads to our next point. Many teachers are going to find themselves either wanting to pursue new opportunities and/or be offered new ones. The days of teachers primarily staying in one classroom, at one school site and in one district are starting to fade. The world of learning is moving too fast for that model. It’s not that good teachers won’t be staying, but many will be leaving. At one time, that would have been frowned upon (and in some cases still might be). But I tried to model that I wanted my teachers, just like my students, to go wherever their talents, skills and dreams will take them. I’d rather have a great teacher for a short time, than a less than great teacher for a long time.

Digital Appreciation

Technology can also add some diverse and special ways to make teachers feel more appreciated and recognized.

It allows us to extend beyond that annual teacher appreciation week. It can start with personal emails or texts recognizing outstanding work in and out of the classroom. But it can expand to using social media tools, school websites, blogs and other tech outlets to feature our teachers. This allows others, not just their peers, but also the students, parents and community to see the fine work that our teachers are doing. It demonstrates to the teachers, as well as the other audiences, that we are paying attention and prioritizing not only appreciation but also outstanding teaching. It contributes to that modeling, fostering and creating that culture of recognition. If we only do this during teacher appreciation week, it may not seems as sincere as it being a regular practice. What if we had a blog dedicated to recognizing our teachers and staff members weekly? These could include photos, videos, quotes and more. What about a school YouTube Channel dedicated to regular teacher and staff appreciation?

I bet that our stakeholders would watch for sure. Verbal appreciation is important and can be very personal, sincere and appropriate. But the power of the written word, including via technology, can have a long-lasting impact. How many of us in our lifetime have pulled out that note, letter or card that someone gave us once in order to feel better, get inspired or re-discover much-needed perspective? Imagine that teachers can do the same thing with our powerful and published written comments. And maybe they will turn to these just when they need it the most.

Let The Students Do It

Finally, maybe one of the best things we can do for teacher appreciation is to get the students involved. Again, this often happens during Teacher Appreciation Days, Week or Month. But again, what if we worked to make it part of the student culture too? Many students like to recognize and appreciate their teachers and are looking for processes and systems to do just that. We can invite them to be part of our appreciation plans or systems. Or we can challenge them to make it part of their culture as well. We can recognize the students and then invite them to pay it forward. If I had a teacher out sick or out of the classroom, I would often visit that classroom with a pre-printed template with the teacher’s name on the page and just invite students to write them personal notes of appreciation. Not all did, but many would. And they would write sincere, personalized and unique words of appreciation that teachers would cherish…sometimes for eternity. It was simple, fun and worthwhile. It could be challenging students to recognize their teachers, as well as teaching, on social media or using a common hashtag. We might be killing two birds, thereby facilitating teacher appreciation and practicing positive digital footprint development.

With these 5 ideas held close, it’s possible to create a school culture in which teachers feel more appreciate year-round–to the benefit of students, schools, and teachers themselves.

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