In America today, more than half of teachers say they’re dissatisfied with their pay. Faced with decades of stagnant wages, one in five works a second job to make ends meet, while many preschool teachers make so little that they qualify for public assistance. Teacher strikes have dominated education-news headlines in the past two years, and a recent poll found more than half of Americans say they don’t want their children to grow to be teachers.
Yet that same poll found two-thirds of Americans agree that teachers are underpaid and nearly three-quarters would support their local teachers in a walkout. And, of course, this is the time of year when parents take to Pinterest and Google seeking creative, meaningful ways to show their appreciation to their children’s teachers.
But do today’s teachers really feel appreciated?
“I'm reminded constantly by friends, family, and people who I casually meet that teachers have had enormous influence on their lives,” says Jeremy Robinson (Chicago ’04), a 13-year classroom veteran who teaches high school English. “I think when I feel that I'm not as appreciated, it's typically from the noise of what I'm hearing on TV or reading in newspapers or coming across on social media.”
It’s a dual reality many teachers know well.
“When I'm inside my classroom, I don't really worry about all those things because I'm with my kids, that's all I need to think about,” Shannon Montague (Baltimore ’16), a third-year high school special education English teacher, says. “But then if I have a break in the day and we're going to meetings and we're talking about the fact that we need to reallocate resources so that kids can get what they need, there is this whole stress.”
The implications of that stress are far reaching, impacting the morale and wellbeing of the thousands of teachers working tirelessly for their students--and ultimately affecting the students themselves. In addition to second jobs and side hustles, teachers speak of pulling back on self-care, reducing monthly student loan payments, and other accommodations to the realities of life as a teacher.
“Students, especially students from disadvantaged backgrounds, need someone who's ready prepared, full of energy, and is able to take them through a learning journey like no other,” says Miguel Cervantes del Toro (Baltimore ’09), an elementary school principal. “It's hard to get there being stretched out thin and not having the resources to be able to give 110 percent each and every day.”
Feeling Students’ Appreciation
Teachers, of course, are quick to point out they did not enter the profession for the money. There’s at least one big reason they remain in the classroom, no matter the challenges: their students.
“I have so much love in my heart for them and I know they have so much love in my heart for me,” Shannon says. “We have so much fun every single day. They're just great.”
And despite everything, for teachers deeply committed to their students, there’s no question where they want to be.
“The kids keep me going,” says Koneisha Robinson (Baltimore ’17), a second-year corps member who teaches seventh-grade math and literacy. “My purpose is to try to help my kids and be there for them and be their champion. I just couldn't see myself doing anything other.”
Students know intuitively when a teacher is on their side, and often show their appreciation for their teachers in surprising ways. For Shannon, it comes out when she returns from being absent for a day or two.
“They are like, ‘Where were you? Why didn't you show up? Why didn't you tell us you were going to be gone?’” she says. “These are high schoolers, so I'm like, ‘Who knew they'd care if their teacher missed a day?’ But it's just sweet to know when I'm gone they miss me.”
Janneth Pareles (Connecticut ’17), a middle school history teacher in Bridgeport, Connecticut, loves the occasional Starbucks card her students will bring her and laughs as she relates one example of her students showing how much they appreciate her. Whenever her Teach For America coach would come to observe her in the classroom, her students took note.
“They would actually behave better. They would actually step up their game,” Janneth says. “They would tell me, ‘We did this for you, Miss.’”
And sometimes that sense of appreciation is more explicit and life-changing. Jeremy tells the story of a girl who recently came to his classroom to thank him for a letter of recommendation that helped her get accepted to Georgetown University.
“To me, that was tremendously validating because this is a girl who will be one of the first in her family to have a shot at graduating from college. And not just any college, one of the most elite institutions in the world,” Jeremy says. “To me, that tangible impact on her life flooded me with appreciation and the feeling that the work that I do actually can make a difference in the world.”
A Culture of Teacher Appreciation
At Callaway Elementary School in Baltimore, where Miguel is principal, he works to make sure teachers feel appreciated in ways big and small. He’s brought in a cook to make omelets for teachers and encouraged students to bring teachers their favorite fruits. He’s created a “wall of shoutouts” where students post sticky notes thanking their teachers and expressing their appreciation. And he’s recognized teachers publicly at assemblies and through a Teacher of the Month award for their hard work and contributions to the school community.
“Those are small ways in which we, the community and myself, go out of our way to make sure teachers know that they're appreciated for what they do, and for the impact that they're making,” Miguel says.
But Miguel also works to ensure that teachers are valued in ways that go beyond expressions of gratitude, meaningful as those are. More than anything, that means seeking out teachers’ opinions and giving them a seat at the table when it comes to decision making and budgeting.
“Being able to have the teachers at the table allows them to voice their concerns, allows them to be able to have a say in what goes on at the school,” Miguel says. “Giving them that voice and participation, allows for all the decisions to be grounded in teacher needs and student needs.”
“I think the best way to improve the quality of our very polarizing conversation about education is to encourage people to go into schools and start observing.”
The Teacher Appreciation Deficit
One result of this collaboration is that Miguel’s school provides basic supplies, and teachers don’t need to spend their own money on classroom essentials. That is not the case at all schools, and in many places, feeds teachers’ feelings of being underappreciated. Shannon, for instance, says she spends her own money on “pretty much everything in my classroom that's not a desk or a chair,” adding “I love my kids so much, but that can only take me so far.”
Jeremy remembers the days, early in his career, when he, too, spent thousands of dollars out of pocket, and even bought his own laser printer in order to sidestep a 500-copy monthly limit on teacher use of his school’s copy machine. Now, he says, he’s figured out how to design lessons with less out-of-pocket cost, but also knows he is fortunate to work at a school that provides the supplies he needs.
To him, the amount we as a society spend on education is a statement of values, and of what we value, and he says, “we don't value educators in a way that aligns with the values our country has.” He envisions a day when a teachers are paid--and respected--to the extent that the profession can truly compete with other high-profile and highly paid career choices.
“I don't think we're at a place yet as a country where students in college aspire to be teachers at the same level of intensity that they aspire to be doctors, businessmen, lawyers,” Jeremy says. “We could really benefit from trying to craft a narrative that would convince young people to look at teaching as not just a noble craft but one that captures their hearts and imagination and that fires them up in the same way that those other professions do.”
It’s not only money that would help teachers feel more valued. Teachers describe any number of things that would help them improve their craft, be happier at work, and ultimately, benefit their students: Strong and supportive school leadership, a school community dedicated to excellence, a sense of autonomy in the classroom, and greater professional development and career-growth opportunities.
“Just acknowledging that it's a lot, and maybe thinking about that in the strategic processes that they work through would be helpful,” Shannon says.
That sentiment is pervasive: Teachers want to be seen. They long for the day when the public and our political leaders to understand, acknowledge, and appreciate the effort, commitment, hard work, long hours, tenacity, creativity, and sacrifice it takes to succeed in the classroom.
“‘If you can't do, teach, right?” Shannon says in summing up common sentiment on teaching. “The number of times that I've heard people say, ‘Oh teaching is so easy. I could do it if I want to.’ But they don't teach, and they don't necessarily know a lot of teachers that are on the ground every single day.”
Koneisha, is, like many teachers, at school before 6 a.m. and still there beyond 5 p.m. She’s written grant applications for the drama club, and took students on trips to shows, even arranging a discussion with the directors. And she spends countless hours sweating the details of every lesson plan.
“I think about all the differentiation that goes into my lesson, like how I'm trying to attend to all of the learners in the room,” Koneisha says. “That requires more than just an hour, more than just two hours. It requires time, and I don't think people think that it happens like that. I think that we are a little bit underappreciated in that sense.”
It’s never easy or quick to change public perception, and there is likely no single solution. Jeremy urges those who comment on and feel invested in our school system to at least get into to the classroom and experience the place “where the magic happens.”
“I think the best way to improve the quality of our very polarizing conversation about education is to encourage people to go into schools and start observing,” Jeremy says. “You'll quickly fall in love with teachers and students all over again. You’ll more fully appreciate what they’re trying to accomplish and what obstacles they must overcome. You'll begin to think more deeply about how you can support our nation’s educators rather than attack them without solutions.”