We’ve all had that friend who says they love us but never seem to be able to show up to pack for our big move, provide comfort after a major loss, or otherwise help us out when we need them most. When these things happen they underscore the fact that love is a verb, or as us teachers like to say, an action word. As I wake up to another day in Teacher Appreciation Week, the question I’m asking myself is: beyond a gift card to our children’s teachers, or nostalgic social media messages about teachers who influenced our lives, are we showing love in actionable ways that will last for the people in the profession we claim to revere so much? Probably not, and that needs to change. Here are a couple of concrete ways to do that now.
Advocate for schools that work. The truth is it’s time to stop championing individual great teachers if that means downplaying the fact that teachers need and deserve good schools in which to thrive. Hero worship of teachers is just a platitude that sets a teacher up to be a martyr who must bear the burden of doing their job well when every other person and system around them is dropping the ball. That’s far from loving – it’s actually disrespectful – and that’s why it’s just as important to elevate a great school as it is to shout out a great teacher. Talking to your community groups, your school board, or your local legislator about good schools in your area will be a huge boon to teachers because it sends a signal to stakeholders and decision makers about what we should be doing more of for teachers. When educators are working in socially chaotic settings with no clear, proven academic framework to guide instruction, the students aren’t the only ones who suffer; the teachers do too.
No one wants to come to work when they know that what they do personally will be overshadowed by a dysfunctional system, so a good school setting is fundamental to an educator’s long term success. Whether they leave the profession or remain in the classroom, teachers whose individual classrooms are the only functional spaces in their school will become disillusioned, often at a personal cost to their health and wellbeing. If we truly love teachers, we can’t say the words out loud while allowing their ongoing suffering to persist unchecked.
Also, it might require a bit of detective work to locate a former teacher and tell them how much they have meant to your life, but you should do just that – remember, love is an action word! Moments like this are truly electric because they touch the deepest part of an educator’s soul. Superstar singer Adele did that onstage and the whole audience witnessed her teacher’s heart swell right before our eyes.
You too can create a similar moment for an educator. Years ago, I had my most profound teacher appreciation moment when a student did this for me. Out of the blue, I received a hand-written 3-page letter from Prayer, whom I taught half a decade earlier. I had moved to another state and I still have no idea how he found me, but he reached out to tell me how wonderful it was to be in my class and how much it impacted his life. Prayer’s act of penning that letter to me, then tracking me down and mailing it, was a gallon of water during a season of drought in my life. I was a school leader by then, and facing tough challenges both at work and at home. I was drowning in self-doubt. Prayer (that’s my former student’s actual first name) re-energized and affirmed me personally and professionally in a way I didn’t think was possible. I’ll be forever grateful. Expend some real effort and give a teacher a surprise moment of gratitude. It might literally change their life.
I once heard Al Sharpton say something to the effect that there isn’t much point for Black folks to have gained the right to sit at any lunch counter if once they get there, they can’t even read the menu. As an educator and literacy champion, his words were a gut punch. They reminded me of the need to be balanced in focusing on things that matter. For Teacher Appreciation Week, that means celebrating teachers in sweet and soft ways, but not without the real balance of doing something hard beyond that well-worn norm. When it comes to loving teachers, we have to put our money where our mouth is or our words will show themselves to be vacuous and mean little, or nothing at all.