I Used to be a Reporter. Now I’m a Teacher. I’ve Become What I Used to Observe

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A long time ago, in a newsroom far, far away; your humble narrator was a respected journalist.

Today I am a beloved school teacher in a suburban middle school.

Okay. That may be laying it on a bit thick.

Like any human being whose job it is to get children to do their best and learn something, I’m beloved by some and beloathed by others. And if I’m honest, when I was a reporter, I was never all that respected. But I did win several state journalism awards.

The point I’m trying to make is that like a caterpillar into a butterfly or a tadpole into a frog, I made a startling transformation in career paths that flies somewhat in the face of popular wisdom.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “There are no second acts in American Lives.” Well, I’m on my third or fourth act and nowhere near ready for the curtain to come down yet.

It’s shocking how far I’ve come, though there’s a surprising amount of overlap between my two professions. In fact, the biggest difference is one of orientation.

I used to get up at 4 a.m., weave into the newsroom and type away for a few hours about the previous night’s school board or city council meeting before my deadline came down, the presses rolled and the morning edition went on sale.

Now I get up at 5 a.m., hobble into the classroom and go to meetings, grade papers or otherwise get ready for a 7-hour invasion by 12- and 13-year-olds, followed by more meetings and papers and planning.

I used to go into the classroom to interview teachers and students about special lessons, state and federal programs or standardized tests.

Now I’m in the classroom questioning myself about my students and what works best to help them learn, trying to navigate the state and federal programs so they get the best return and bang my head against the wall about the constant standardized tests.

I used to independently bebop all over my coverage area, asking questions, doing research, discovering things that many people would rather remain secret.

Now I independently plan my lessons, ask my students questions, do research on best practices and discover things about my children and their lives that many people would rather remain secret.

You’ve heard the old chestnut about education being a career for those unable to act. I’m living proof that it’s a lie.

As a journalist, I reported on. As a teacher, I do.

In my former job, I told. In my current one I show.

Perhaps that’s why I now find it so strange that many of my former colleagues have gone into public relations, communications or have become policy analysts.

I’m not surprised. I can’t say I didn’t know that that door was always open. But it’s peculiar.

In the newsroom, we all heard the stories about grizzled newspapermen and women with shelves stuffed full of awards and prized Rolodexes bursting with hard-earned sources who gave it all up for a 9-5 desk job writing the very press releases we disdained.

We all had friends who were making bank managing people like us and trying to get us to write what the company wanted or spin the story in the direction the advertisers liked.

There is no scorn, no disgust, no derision to match that of a journalist for a corporate sellout, and that’s because in our hearts we all secretly wondered if it wasn’t the better deal.

Every good reporter – like every good teacher – is a radical at heart.

You don’t get into either field to support the status quo. You want to rock the boat. You want to shake things up. You want to change the world for the better – all from the comfort of your swivel chair behind your computer screen or from the well worn tread of your classroom carpet.

Journalists live for the scoop, the big story, the article that shouts off the front page above the fold and which has everyone talking. Teachers live for the student epiphany, the moment the light comes on behind a child’s eyes, the transformation from ignorance to knowledge and – dare I say – wisdom.

But being a press agent or policy hack has none of that splendor.

You have to give it up – all for the right to have a chance at a life.

I loved being a reporter. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I got to do things, see things, talk to people, be there for things that I never would have been able to access otherwise. But I could barely pay my bills.

I was dirt poor in the newsroom. We all were.

We worked 50-60 hours a week, had no time for a second job, no time for a social life, no time for a family or kids, and we wanted more.

So I understand the allure of the steady paycheck and becoming a housebroken professional communicator of someone else’s message.

But being a teacher is different.

You still don’t get paid much. You still work long hours – though maybe not quite as long. But you can get that second job – often in the school, itself, tutoring students or in a summer or after school program.

And you get union protections that I only dreamed about as a reporter. A safe workspace, clean and tidy, no outrageous demands (or at least an upper limit on them), and a schedule you can predict and plan a life around.

Best of all, you still get to keep your idealism intact. Or you can try to keep it as you dodge this directive and that unfunded mandate and that deeply racist policy passed down from above.

Don’t get me wrong. Becoming a teacher was hard work. I didn’t go about it the easy way – no Teach for America, one-foot-in/one-foot-out, cheating for me. I dove in head first.

I went back to college and took an intensive, accelerated masters program designed exactly for people changing careers. To get there, I had to swallow a few prerequisites I’d missed in college the first time. Then they placed me in a high school where I watched and then took over multiple classes – all while enrolled in education courses at night and in the summers.

By the time it was all over, I still had the most important things left to learn – (1) whether I could actually teach a full schedule, and (2) whether I liked doing so.

For me, the answers were unequivocally positive. I took to it like I’d taken to journalism. I needed lots of fine tuning, but the basics came naturally. And I loved every exhausting minute of it.

I regret nothing about becoming a teacher. It’s the best job I’ve ever had and am ever likely to have.

As a journalist, I got to rock whole communities with exposes about corruption. As an educator, I get to impact individuals.

I no longer get to be the talk of the town, but I get to change lives all the same – one person at a time.

And there’s something deeply satisfying about it – to look in another person’s eyes and see the need right there in front of you, and to be able to heal it even a fraction of the way well.

This world is hard. It takes people, chews them up and spits them out. There is so rarely a helping hand, a smile, understanding. But to be able to offer your hand, to be able to share a smile, to attempt to understand – that’s pure magic.

When the day is done, I know it was well spent.

I’ve come a long way from the newsroom. And in doing so, I’ve broken journalism’s number one rule – don’t become the story.

I no longer report on the action.

I participate in it.

What a way to make a living!


 

Still can’t get enough Gadfly? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Teacher Autonomy – An Often Ignored Victim of High Stakes Testing

 

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When I think of the modern day public school teacher, I think of Gulliver’s Travels.

 

Not because I’ve ever taught the Jonathan Swift classic to my students, but because of its most indelible image.

 

Gulliver is shipwrecked on the island of the Lilliputans – tiny people who have tied the full sized sailor to the ground with thousands of itty bitty strings.

 

If that is not the picture of a public school teacher, I don’t know what is!

 

We are constantly restrained – even hogtied – from doing what we know is right.

 

And the people putting us in bondage – test obsessed lawmakers, number crunching administrators and small-minded government flunkies.

 

You see, teachers are in the classroom with students day in, day out. We are in the best position to make informed decisions about student learning. The more autonomy you give us, the better we’ll be able to help our students succeed.

 

But in an age of high stakes testing, Common Core and school privatization run amuck, teacher autonomy has been trampled into the dirt.

 

Instead, we have a militia of armchair policy hacks who know nothing about pedagogy, psychology or education but who want to tell us how to do our jobs.

 

It’s almost like we’ve forgotten that educator self-determination ever was a value people thought worth preserving in the first place.

 

Whereas in generations past it was considered anywhere from merely advisable to absolutely essential that instructors could make up their own minds about how best to practice their craft, today we’d rather they just follow the script written by our allegedly more competent corporate masters.

 

 

The way I see it, the reason for this is fivefold:

 

 

  1. Testing

    School used to be about curriculum and pedagogy. It was focused on student learning – not how we assess that learning. Now that standardized tests have been mandated in all 50 states as a means of judging whether our schools are doing a good job (and assorted punishments and rewards put in place), it’s changed the entire academic landscape. In short, when you make school all about standardized tests, you force educators to teach with that as their main concern.

  2. Common Core

    Deciding what students should learn used to be the job of educators, students and the community. Teachers used their extensive training and experience, students appeal to their own curiosity, and the community tailored its expectations based on its needs. However, we’ve given up on our own judgment and delegated the job to publishing companies, technology firms and corporations. We’ve let them decide what students should learn based on which pre-packed products they can most profitably sell us. The problem is when you force all academic programs to follow canned academic standards written by functionaries, not educators, you put teachers in a straight jacket constraining them from meeting their students’ individual needs.

 

3. Grade Promotion Formulas

It used to be that teachers decided which students passed or failed their classes. And when it came to which academic course students took next, educators at least had a voice in the process. However, we’ve standardized grade promotion and/or graduation policies around high stakes test scores and limited or excluded classroom grades. When you’re forced to rely on a formula which cannot take into account the infinite variables present while excluding the judgment of experienced experts in the classroom, you are essentially forbidding educators from one of the most vital parts of the academic process – having a say in what their own courses mean in the scheme of students educational journeys.

 

4. Scripted Curriculum

Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of this whole process has been the attempted erasure of the teacher – as a thinking human being – from the classroom, itself. Instead of letting us be people who observe and adapt to the realities in front of us, many of us have been forced to read from a script. It should go without saying that when you constrain educators to abide by scripted curriculum – what we used to call “teacher proof curriculum” – or pacing guides, you remove their ability to be teachers, at all.

 

5. Value Added Evaluations

 

We used to trust local principals and administrators to decide which of their employees where doing a good job. Now even that decision has been taken away and replaced by junk science formulas that claim to evaluate a teacher’s entire impact on a student’s life with no regard to validity, fairness or efficiency. However, local principals and administrators are there in the school building every day. They know what’s happening, what challenges staff face and even the personalities, skills and deficiencies of the students, themselves. As such, they are in a better position to evaluate teachers’ performance than these blanket policies applied to all teachers in a district or state – things like valued-added measures or other faith based formulas used to estimate or quantify an educator’s positive or negative impact.

 

It’s no wonder then that teachers are leaving the profession in droves.

 

You can’t freeze someone’s salary, stifle their rights to fair treatment while choking back their autonomy and still expect them to show up to work everyday eager and willing to do the job.

 

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) conducted a representative sample of more than 37,000 American public school elementary and secondary teachers showing widespread dissatisfaction with the job in general and a lack of autonomy in particular.

In fact, they cited this lack of self-determination as a leading contributor to the nationwide teacher shortage. Having control over how you do your job is essential to being fully satisfied with your work.

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If you’re just following orders, your accomplishments aren’t really yours. It’s the difference between composing a melody and simply recreating the sounds of an amateur musician with perfect fidelity.

Today’s teachers rarely get to pick the textbooks they use, which content or skills to focus on, which techniques will be most effective in their classrooms, how to discipline students, how much homework to give – and they have next to zero say about how they will be evaluated.

And to make matters worse, sometimes it isn’t that educators are forbidden from exercising autonomy, but that they are given such a huge laundry list of things they’re responsible for that they don’t have the time to actually be creative or original. Once teachers meet the demands of all the things they have to cram into a single day, there is little room for reflection, revision or renewal.

School policy is created at several removes from the classroom. We rarely even ask workaday teachers for input less than allowing them to participate in the decision making process.

We imagine that policy is above their pay grade. They are menial labor. It’s up to us, important people, to make the big decisions – even though most of us have little to no knowledge of how to teach!

Finnish educator and scholar Pasi Sahlberg says that this is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing if we really cared about improving both the teaching profession and the quality of education we provide students.

In the United States, autonomy usually stops at the district or administrative level and results in decision-making that ignores the voices of educators and the community, he says.

Sahlberg continues:

“School autonomy has often led to lessening teacher professionalism and autonomy for the benefit of greater profits for those who manage or own private schools, charter schools or other independent schools. This is perhaps the most powerful lesson the US can learn from better-performing education systems: teachers need greater collective professional autonomy and more support to work with one another. In other words, more freedom from bureaucracy, but less from one another.”

Perhaps the biggest roadblock to increased autonomy is political.

Lawmakers and pundits conflate teacher professionalism and increased decision making with union membership.

And they do have a point. Having a seat at the bargaining table is vital to educators’ self-determination.

In some states, local teachers unions negotiate annual contracts with their districts. However, most states have statewide teacher contracts that are negotiated only by state teachers unions.

These contracts can directly affect exactly how much independence teachers can exercise in the classroom since they can determine things like the specific number of hours that teachers can work each week or limit the roles that teachers can play in a school or district.

There are even some tantalizing schools that are entirely led and managed by teachers. The school does not have formal administrators – teachers assume administrative roles, usually on a revolving basis. But such experiments are rare.

In most places, teacher autonomy is like the last dinosaur.

It represents a bygone age when we envisioned education completely differently.

We could try to regain that vision and go in a different direction.

But if things remain as they are, the dinosaur will go extinct.

Autonomy is a hint at what we COULD be and what we COULD provide students…

…if we only had the courage to stop standardizing and privatizing our country to death.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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“He Was Kind” – My Students Describe What I’m Like as a Teacher

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What’s the most important attribute of a good teacher?

 

 

Some might say intelligence.

 

 

You want a teacher who knows the subject matter and can convey it clearly to students.

 

 

Others might say classroom management.

 

 

You want a teacher who keeps things organized and gets kids to behave.

 

 

But for me the most important thing a teacher can be is kind.

 

 

I’m not saying intelligence, classroom management and a host of other qualities are unimportant, but if you approach your students with good will in your heart, the rest seems to fall into place.

 

 

This isn’t a long-held pedagogical belief I could have articulated for you at the beginning of the school year.

 

 

It came to me – as did so much else – from my students.

 

 

At the end of the year as my 7th graders are finishing up their final projects and we’re tidying up the room, I always give them a little survey about their experience in the class.

 

 

“I’ve been grading you all year,” I say. “Now’s your turn to grade me.”

 

The surveys can be anonymous – kids needn’t put down their names, and whatever they write has no impact on their grades.

 

 

Yet the results are always enlightening.

 

 

I wrote in detail two years ago about the survey and the kinds of responses I often get.

 

 

But this year it was one of the simplest comments that really got me thinking.

 

 

“He was kind.”

 

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That’s what one of my students told me that I had done especially well during the year.

 

 

“He was kind.” That’s all.

 

 

It was a response that was echoed by many of my students.

 

 

Another child wrote:

 

 

“He was kind (and awesome). One of the best teachers.”

 

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And another:

 

 

“He can’t [improve]. He is the best he can be and is the teacher I wish I had every year.”

 

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This is all very flattering, but what exactly did all this niceness mean?

 

 

How did being a kind teacher help me do my job? What did I do that helped students learn?

 

 

They had an answer for that, too:

 

 

“He came and sat with me and helped me through everything I needed help with.”

 

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***

 

 

“If we needed help on anything he helped and explained everything well so work was easier.”

 

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***

 

 

“What my teacher did to help me succeed was that he made me feel motivated to do the work in class and not giving us so much work at once.”

 

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***

 

 

“[He] taught me how to write essays, indent on papers and showed me a lot of useful things.”

 

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Another particularly enlightening comment was this one:

 

 

“I don’t know [how he could improve], but in this class you grew with us. So uh yeah.”

 

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And I do try to change and grow with my students. When your mandate is to individualize instruction to fit each particular child, I don’t know how you can do otherwise.

 

 

This means opening yourself up and letting students know who you are and what you stand for.

 

 

I try not to inflict my political, religious or philosophical beliefs on my classes. However, I think some core values come through.

 

 

For instance, my students knew I was going to Connecticut to give a TED Talk on the current state of public schools.

 

 

They knew my thoughts on standardized testing and school privatization – perhaps not in detail but the general shape of them, certainly. They knew my firm conviction against racism, sexism and prejudice of any kind.

 

 

Perhaps that’s why one of them wrote this:

 

 

“You’re not only a good teacher. You’re a good friend, and man.”

 

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***

 

 

“P.S. – Nice jokes and commentary.”

 

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Of course there were dissenting opinions. One child thought I was too nice:

 

 

“He is way too nice for me and you give way too much essays for people to handle. But overall grade 94%. He doesn’t like Tom Brady so yeah. And he likes the Steelers.”

 

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I guess no one’s perfect. But how interesting she thought either she deserved a stronger hand or would have been more motivated by fear and consequences. Yet I have to take her with a few grains of salt because this student identified herself on her response and had a friendly rivalry with me about football. She said I was too nice but then referenced our interpersonal rapport.

 

Another student highlighted how I wasn’t excessively permissive:

 

[He was good at] “Helping me with instructions and keeping me on task.”

 

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Most comments were unbridled approbation:

 

 

What did your teacher do especially well this year to help you succeed? – “Uh, everything.”

 

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***

 

 

In what areas can your teacher improve his/her instruction? – “I’m not sure. That’s how good a teacher he was.”

 

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***

 

“I think you did awesome, Mr. Singer. Thanks for being my reading teacher!”

 

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***

 

 

“I don’t think my teacher needs to improve. He’s already a great teacher.”

 

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And so another school year comes to an end.

 

 

I’ll miss this class. It was the first year I taught exclusively 7th grade. I’d taught one or two sections of that grade before, but never only that grade.

 

 

I’m more used to 8th grade. You wouldn’t think there’d be a world of difference between the two. And who knows? Perhaps if I teach the same grade level next year things will be even more unexpected because the kids will be different.

 

 

But when that final bell chimed, I was surprised that so many kids came up to me with hugs and tears.

 

 

They really didn’t want to see me go, and, frankly, I don’t want to see them go, either.

 

 

If I could follow them next year, I would.

 

 

I gave them everything I had to give.

 

 

I gave them my heart. I shared with them my life.

 

 

And I got back so much more.

 

 

That’s what non-teachers don’t understand.

 

 

Education is created through often reciprocal relationships.

 

 

Learner and teacher are tied together in a positive feedback loop. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which and sometimes there is no difference at all.

 

 

Thank you so much, last year’s students.

 

 

Thank you for letting me be your teacher.

 

 

Thank you for bringing out the best in me as I tried to do the same for you.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

WANT A SIGNED COPY?

Click here to order one directly from me to your door!

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Teacher Appreciation Week is a Pathetic Joke!

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It’s Teacher Appreciation Week, America!

All over the country, millions of educators can look forward to a free burrito. Or maybe an Arby’s sandwich. Or a complimentary donut.

Because we REALLY appreciate teachers here.

What a pathetic joke!

I don’t mean to seem ungrateful.

I’ll redeem my coupon at Chipotle. I’ll take that Roast Beef Classic. I’ll grab that Dunkin’ Cruller.

But let’s be honest. These cheesy buy-one-get-one coupons don’t demonstrate appreciation. They’re guilt.

They’re a manifestation of the feeling that we SHOULD appreciate teachers, but don’t. Not really.

Not for one week, not for one day!

Why else would we begrudge them a middle class income? Why else would we provide them with so few resources and so much responsibility? Why else would we bar them from making any meaningful decisions about how their students should be taught yet hold them accountable for everything their students do?

Appreciate teachers? We don’t LISTEN to them. We don’t RESPECT them. Many of us don’t even LIKE them.

The only time we value teachers is when a maniac enters a school with a gun. Then – when they protect our children with their very lives – then we praise them as heroes!

On that day and that day only. But every other day – not so much.

We won’t do anything to keep guns out of the hands of school shooters. At most we want to arm teachersGreat! Something else to be responsible for on top of education, counseling and children’s all around well-being. But otherwise, we won’t do anything to help teachers do their jobs. And we certainly won’t listen to their professional opinions on anything!

That would be living in a culture of life. But we live in a culture of death.

We do the barest minimum for children – especially poor and minority kids. Instead we invest in parasitic business interests that provide zero value for students and parents.

We’ve got nothing for teachers or proven educational practices but we throw public money at charter, private and parochial schools that only accept the cream of the crop and turn down everyone else – yet still rarely do better than inclusive public schools. We defund public schools until they can no longer operate – and then we close them as failures. We promote lightly trained Teach for America temps to the same status as authentic educators with a 4-5 year degree and decades of experience. And we do everything we can to bust their unions and take away collective bargaining rights.

Yet everywhere I look I see people congratulating themselves for donating to some teacher’s GoFundMe project. This may come as a shock to you, but we shouldn’t be resorting to charity to fund our public schools! That should be a given!

In almost every classroom in America, teachers reach into their own pockets to make up the difference when our federal, state and local governments come up short. When kids don’t have pencils, we provide them. When kids don’t have books, we buy them. When kids come to school hungry, we even feed them.

Yet you’re getting excited that anonymous folks on the Internet put a few virtual coins in the cup!

I’ve been a public school teacher for almost 15 years. Next year I can look forward to another increase in class size. And I’ll probably have to teach an additional grade level or two. No extra resources to help me do it. No extra salary. Just more of a drain on my time to get the job done. And if I somehow stumble and fall, it will be my fault.

It won’t be the federal government’s fault even though they keep providing less financial help and more standardized testing, Common Core, and so-called school choice policies that rob my district of necessary funding.

It won’t be the state’s fault as they refuse to heal years worth of budget cuts in order to lower taxes on the wealthy, a scheme that, by the way, did nothing to boost the economy – in fact, it actually stalled business development. Nor will it be the state’s fault as they continue to blame me for the high cost of pensions they forgot to pay years ago while both my district and I paid on time. Nor will it be the state’s fault as they try to strip me of sick days, preserve loopholes that benefit charter schools at my district’s expense and experiment with a new funding scheme that further drains my district’s coffers.

It won’t be my local school board or administration’s fault, either, as they make cuts to core educational resources so they can preserve the state champion football team and less vital faculty office and administrative staff who are only working there because of nepotism and/or politics.

It’ll be MY fault. Mine and mine alone. That’s how much we appreciate teachers.

And none of it is even close to changing. No one is even considering altering the tiniest fraction of it. Democrats, Republicans, Independents, men, women, black people, white people, gay people, straight people, the young, the old – no one is doing anything about it!

And why should we? We’ve already got a scapegoat. We’ve already got someone to blame.

Well, look in the mirror, America. Because you’re the one to blame – each and every star-spangled banner and amber wave of grain.

We’ve made it like this. All of us.

I don’t mean to be so negative, but all these Pollyanna platitudes about that one special teacher obscure a basic truth. As individuals, we sometimes appreciate teachers – often when we’re years beyond graduation, or sometimes only when we’re parents, ourselves, and see what they do for our children. But that’s personal. That’s individuals.

When we think about the nations teachers, when we think about the profession in general, we don’t appreciate them one bit.
Because if we did, we’d act much differently.

If we really appreciated teachers, we’d hire more of them. We wouldn’t demand they do more with less. When we were deciding school policy at any level – federal, state or local – we’d include them in the process – in fact, they’d be the deciding factor!

If we really appreciated teachers, we wouldn’t wait – as many folks do – until they call us to find out how our children are doing in school. We’d be proactive. And if our kids aren’t doing well, we wouldn’t blame the teacher. We’d hold our own kids responsible and look for solutions.

If we really appreciated teachers, we wouldn’t blame them for their summer breaks. We’d understand that they aren’t paid for this time yet they often take professional development courses on their own dime or work retail just to make ends meet.

If we really appreciated teachers, we’d respect them as professionals, and we’d pay them accordingly. We’d respect their rights to a positive working environment both for themselves and for our own children.

So seriously – you can stuff your ridiculous Teacher Appreciation Week.

A free cookie just isn’t going to do it.