On Testing and #TeacherAppreciationWeek

This week I’m out of the classroom. Instead of teaching my students how to identify social issues in their books and persuade readers with strong words and descriptive language, I’m grading New York State’s 5th grade math exams in a public school gym about a mile away.

It’s not how I’d choose to spend my week. Grading the same four questions for hours on end can get a bit monotonous. Seeing the work of students who are clearly trying their best, but are confused or overwhelming can feel demoralizing.

Still, in spite the drudgery and grimness of this work, it hasn’t been completely negative. This is because of the five other teachers I sat with each day.

Teachers — and New York City teachers in particular — are some of the hardest working professionals I know. And when you get two or more of us together, we love to share our experiences. This can turn into a gripe session (which serves its own cathartic purpose), but more often we share strategies and success stories. 

This week I got ideas for field trips, literacy and math centers, and a way to teach graphing and data throughout the year, just to name a few. I cannot express enough how much I appreciate these teachers and the millions of others teachers in our country doing this work. 

To express my gratitude, I thought I’d ask these wise teachers on their thoughts on Teacher Appreciation Week. Here are their thoughts and a few of my own on how to truly show appreciation for teachers.

1. Lighten our workload.

Teaching students is the biggest (and best) part of our job. But there’s a lot more to our work than instruction, and some of it can get pretty overwhelming. U.S. teachers spend more hours teaching than all OECD countries except Chile and Argentina which means we have less (official) time for grading, collaborating with peers, communicating with families and lesson planning.

2. Pay us more.

Another report from the OECD shows that U.S. teachers are paid competitively globally, but compared to other college grads in the U.S. that picture looks grimmer. Then again, compared to early childhood educators, K-12 educators start to look like “1 Percenters”. Pre-k teachers on average earn approximately $18/hour, one of many signs their work is severely undervalued.

3. Help us keep learning.

Many teachers are subjected to plenty of mandatory “professional development”, but the quality doesn’t seem to match the quantity. In spite of this, we are eager to learn new practices and new research behind it. Two quick fixes to improve on the current model? Ask us what we want to learn as teachers. Then promise to give us support and coaching as we try it out.

4. Stop changing the rules of the game.

I’m only six years into teaching and I’ve been through two sets of standards and numerous models of literacy, math and classroom management. For teachers who have real longevity (10, 20 years…) under their belt it’s getting harder and harder to keep up. As much as we want to learn and grow (see #3), it would be nice if we could get one approach to instruction or discipline right before a new model comes along.

5. Give our students guidance counselors. And social workers. And…

As of this year a majority of U.S. students are living in poverty. For those of us teaching in urban and rural schools this has been the reality for some time. In addition to poverty, our students experience a myriad of other traumas such as domestic violence, community violence, incarceration of family members, and divorce. Teachers serve as caring adults for our students, no matter their age, but this is not a substitute for mental health and social-emotional support. In many schools, mine included, students do not have access to adults with the training to help them weather the social forces battering them outside of their school. It would be great if we changed that.

6. Understand what our work is really about.

We know you know our work is hard. Even though some people make asinine comments about our “easy work hours” or the perks of summer vacation, more often we hear, “I could never do what you do.” We appreciate these kind words. We really do.

But at the same time we constantly run into assumptions about the work we do that are predicated on people’s own school experiences and/or Hollywood hero myths. We don’t want your sympathy. We are not martyrs. Nor are we superhuman. Please don’t expect us to “save the children” singlehandedly.

There are almost four million of us and our work varies a great deal from school to school and city to city. Some of us work as reading specialists, speech therapists or special education or English as a Second Language (ESL) service providers with a few kids at a time. Some of us spend all day with 20-something five-year-olds in their first year of school. Some of us see four classes of 40 teenagers in an overcrowded room with no air conditioning. Some of us stay after school to coach sports or sit in on meetings. Some of us stay late lesson planning and some of us hurry home to be with our families.

Whatever the differences, day in and day out our work is focused on creating positive relationships with young people, and using these relationships to guide them to the future of their choosing. That work is indescribably hard and even more rewarding. Until you do it, you’ll never really appreciate it.


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