What’s Wrong With Our National Teacher Appreciations?

Celebrate teachingBy Bill Henk – National Teacher Appreciation Day rolled around again this past Tuesday, just as it does every other year.

It came and went with little public attention.  No hoopla.  No fanfare.  No fuss.  No pomp.  No circumstance.

A little blip on the radar screen.  If that.

In fact, all of National Teacher Appreciation Week so far hasn’t fared any better.

Such is the life of teachers in America.  It’s not like that everywhere. In the countries that enjoy international acclaim for their educational systems, teaching is a revered profession. That’s not a coincidence in my view.  Instead, back in the good old U. S. of A, teachers might rightfully lament, like the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield, “I don’t get no respect.  No respect at all.”

And that’s at the heart of my question about what’s wrong with national teacher appreciation.  My answer is short and sweet — it’s not nearly enough.  Not a day or a week or a month or a year or a decade of appreciation suffices.  We should honor teachers every day, every week, every month, every year — in perpetuity.

By contrast, nationally and within our own state, teachers have had to endure public vilification the past few years.  The media and others with reform agendas of questionable motivation and merit have portrayed teachers as inept, uncaring, lazy, and greedy.  One major result has been that significantly fewer young people of extraordinary promise choose teaching as a profession.  Why would they?  After all, they have options with far more earning potential, where they can enjoy some measure of — you guessed it — respect.

Advocating For Teachers

Recognizing that harsh reality, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Area Deans of Education (MMADE), a group I currently co-chair, decided to do its part in affirming teachers.  In our experience, the overwhelming majority of them aren’t anything at all like the way they’ve been depicted.  The teachers we know are smart, talented, dedicated, capable, passionate, caring, and hard-working educators.  Consequently, we felt that it was high time for someone else, especially a group like ours, to stand up for them.  They clearly deserve our respect and advocacy.

As a result, next year we will be hosting a special event on October 17th at the  University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee called Celebrating Teachers and Teaching.”  We plan to make this gala an annual event.  This year’s theme is urban education.  Next year the event will be held at Alverno College with the theme of servant leadership, and then it will come to Marquette as a celebration of literacy.

In subsequent years all of our member institutions, a group that includes Cardinal Stritch University, Carroll University, Concordia University, MATC, Mount Mary College, and Wisconsin Lutheran College, will proudly take their turn hosting.  Among other things, attendees can expect an engaging keynote speaker and remarks from other local celebrities and dignitaries.

At the heart of the program will be teaching awards that honor graduates of our licensure programs at our institutions.   We will be giving one award to an early career teacher and five awards to those who are more experienced.  Each year we will seek nominations for candidates who graduated from our teacher preparation programs or completed licensure programs through those programs, and who teach in the metropolitan Milwaukee area.  We completed this first year’s solicitation recently by casting a wide net, which produced several nominations.  Now we look forward to the review process unfolding.

A Personal Wake-Up Call for Advoacy

Shifting gears to a personal and related note on teacher appreciation, I was squarely reminded last week of just how hard it is to be a teacher.  I volunteered to spend all of last Friday helping out at my daughter’s Catholic school (St. Mary’s in Hales Corners), and most of my service occurred in her first grade classroom.  I volunteered last year, too, and came home exhausted.  But I thought that was because I did a fair amount of atypical physical labor — mostly lugging library books from the first to the second floor, spending a lot of time on my feet doing bus and recess duty in the playground area, cleaning tables in the cafeteria, going up and down steps making deliveries– that kind of thing.

This year was different.  Audrey’s teacher, Ms. Cimpl, knew about my educational background and decided to put me to work doing — of all things — teaching.  The expectations were modest, and I welcomed them.  I read books to the kids, gave the spelling test, circulated to check their work, and did an honest-to-goodness lesson on nouns and adjectives.  Although I loved feeling my old teaching juices flowing and my once well-heeled instructional instincts kicking in, I felt the stress of everything I had to do to keep 27 precious first graders, with an endless supply of energy, engaged in their learning.

And guess what?  I went home twice as exhausted as last year!

So what should your takeaway about teacher appreciation be from this post?   Although it’s definintely been too little, it’s NOT TOO LATE.  Celebrate teachers!

2 Responses to “What’s Wrong With Our National Teacher Appreciations?”

  1. 1 Edric Cane May 17, 2013 at 11:14 am

    I fully agree with Bill Henk in his comments on National Teacher Appreciation Day: “The teachers we know are smart, talented, dedicated, capable, passionate, caring, and hard-working educators.” But then, have we, teachers, told any one of them? Have we sent a two line e-mail in the past 10 years to a presenter at a conference or the author of an article in one of our professional magazines, or a colleague whose ideas we liked and borrowed for our classes? Why should we expect from others what we don’t do for ourselves? Shouldn’t we too, do that, “every day, every week, every month, every year – in perpetuity?”

    I’m as guilty as everyone else. It’s just not part of our culture. But the very few times I did respond to an article or presentation that had struck me as particularly helpful, I’ve been struck by the response I got in return. In a few cases, it led to collaboration. I was also struck by how unusual a few simple words of acknowledgment and thanks seemed to be. At a recent seminar, one of the organizers was introduced. The name was more than familiar: it identified one of the more faithful and consistent contributors of thoughtful articles to our state’s math teachers’ publication. At the break, I introduced myself and said what a pleasure it was to at last put a face on a name that was so familiar. I thought I might be adding myself to a long list of teachers who had thanked the author for his contributions. Not at all. It became clear that all this good material had essentially been sent out like a bottle in the ocean; the author had received little or no feedback over the years on his contributions. All the readers had acted as I had, as passive recipients and beneficiaries.

    I also know how much it meant to me when I received an e-mail from someone I thought was a complete stranger. It seems that we had sat by each other at a math conference a year earlier and had exchanged a few words and our cards at the end of the talk. The sender was asking me if he could use a few suggestions I had made at the time in a talk he was preparing. That was a first for me, and the kind of encouragement that we don’t receive very often as we go about our teaching and our quest for better ways to teach.

    Look at a basket ball game, on your campus but also on the professional level. How often do players recognize each others’ efforts with a high five or a pat on the back? They encourage each other even after a missed free-throw! I don’t have to agree with every nuance of a suggestion to be grateful for a colleague contributing one to the discussion. I am not necessarily providing my full endorsement if I express my thanks for a suggested activity that I have no intention of borrowing but that sparked in me the idea of a very different approach.

    As part of Teacher Appreciation Week, or day, or year, could I suggest a determined effort to change our own culture as teachers? A Roman poet’s advice to would-be writers was the Latin equivalent of: “No day without a line.” What about no day without some casual recognition of a fellow teacher, some brief e-mail to a colleague, to the contributor to a professional magazine, to a local official, politician, or journalist who formulates something we can appreciate as educators? Perhaps I can kick this version of teacher appreciation by expressing my thanks to Jerry Becker for the regular flow of information and sayings I have silently received from him over the years, and which now brings me Bill Henk’s article. I have little doubt of an outburst of creativity and innovation that would occur if this kind of recognition and encouragement was part of our culture as teachers.


    • 2 billhenk May 22, 2013 at 11:11 pm

      Hello Edric. Thanks for writing such a thoughtful response to my post about appreciating teachers. You’ve taken the conversation to another level with your ideas.

      I actually read your response as soon as we received it, and was immediately impressed. But I have been so busy with gearing up for the end of the semester, including commencement ceremonies, that I haven’t had time until now to respond.

      As someone who’s done a great deal of presenting and a fair amount of publishing in my career, I can tell you that I never tire of hearing that my work had value for someone — as information, as food for thought, and even for entertainment. It’s really not about ego gratification for me (my ego is plenty big as it is!), but rather just knowing that I’ve made some difference for others and that they appreciate it enough to make an acknowledgement. We humans need and deserve affirmation now and then, and it takes so little effort to provide it. I think you’re right that we take it for granted that others are doing it, that we’re too shy or fearful to make the comments, or that we’re just too self-absorbed to make the gesture.

      This topic is a timely one for me in another respect. After our College of Education graduation event a few days ago, I was walking out of the venue with my cap and gown thrown over my shoulder in my carrying bag. I was exhausted because the dean has a very large speaking role in the ceremony, and frankly, it’s nerve-wracking because our audience now exceeds 1100 people. Anyway, a little girl, seemingly all by herself and maybe all of 10 years old or so, recognzed me and tapped me on the shoulder to stop me. I was caught somewhat offguard, but swung around to give her my full attention. She then said, in a way that belied her years, “Excuse me. I just wanted to tell you that I thought you did a really great job today.” Wow, I didn’t see that coming.

      Even so, I said to her “Thank you so much. You have no idea how much that means to me coming from you. You just made my day, and I hope that our paths cross again sometime soon.”

      Well, she lit up like a Christmas tree and walked back to her group. Her courage in capturing my attention had been rewarded so to speak. Most importantly, she felt good about validating someone else, a true gesture of humanity. And I can tell you that the exchange certainly felt rewarding to me, too.

      Thanks also for the shout out to my former colleague, Jerry Becker. Jerry has been a truly extraordinary filter, conduit, and disseminator of valuable information to an enormous number of educators in the decade or so I’ve known him, and we all owe him a debt of gratitude.



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