A few months ago, I discovered that National Teacher Appreciation Day and National Teacher Appreciation Week take place in early May. How wonderful, I thought, that the conversation about schools and teaching could, however briefly, shift away from the pandemic-influenced topics of the past 15 months. It would be a sign of progress, of healing, I hoped, if educators, students, and politicians could take a break from debates over in-person versus distance learning, the need to redesign HVAC and airflow systems in classrooms, and whether vaccinations would make classrooms safer.
How striking, I mused, that there is a formal mechanism for thanking great teachers and perhaps encouraging the creation of new ones.
And yet, as I watched teacher appreciation efforts play out, I was underwhelmed. Politicians offered congratulations on Twitter, and stores and restaurants offered discounts. While I’m sure teachers appreciated the cost savings, the effort seemed more like a marketing ploy than anything else. How motivating can a free taco be if we want to inspire more great teachers?
Whenever it’s controversial to discuss politics or religion in social settings with friends or relatives, I have discovered that education can be a safe and life-affirming topic. Just about everyone has attended school, and almost everyone has had a favorite teacher, a great teacher. So I often ask about people’s most memorable teachers, using an exercise I participated in when I served on the board of directors of the KIPP Charter Schools in New York. Try it: Close your eyes and think about the great teachers with whom you have studied. What characteristics made them great? Now, imagine how our education system would benefit if every teacher was a great teacher!
Recalling great teachers
From the responses I’ve collected over the years, a common theme has emerged: Great teachers have a passion for their subject matter, and communicating that passion stays with students for decades. Two recent responses make the point:
- For my friend Marco, a successful author and public relations executive, his Beverly Hills High School forensics (public speaking and debate) teacher was his favorite. In an email, he wrote: “Bonnie Miller pushed us out of our comfort zones, inspired us to think creatively, write fast and fearlessly, and speak extemporaneously in events ranging from SPAR [spontaneous argumentation] to impromptu speaking — five minutes to prepare a five-minute talk on a random topic that we picked from a hat.” Marco also noted that he has hung on to several of his high school debate trophies for almost 40 years. Ms. Miller was a great teacher!
- My friend Kathyrn’s favorite teacher was Mother Mary Noel. “I’m sure her strictness and rigid standards were terrible for some students,” Kathryn said when we chatted and emailed. “But if you loved learning, she loved teaching. I can see Mother Mary Noel with her black sleeves rolled up, her veil, and the Rosary beads tied at her waist, flapping, as we collected plants in the nearby park for the terrariums she had us assembling in class. She taught us how to memorize a poem each week, working on it until we were word perfect on Fridays. To this day, I can recite whole anthologies. I have no fear of having nothing to read [if I’m] cast away on a desert island.”
That same strictness mixed with love marked my favorite teacher, who taught ninth grade world history and 10th grade English. Whenever the class was stumped by a question, Miss Glebow would point to me and happily, mysteriously, I always had the answer! She affirmed my belief in my intellectual prowess. When we read “Cyrano de Bergerac,” I hated the heroine, Roxane, and said so in a paper. I found her shallow and immature to be so easily swayed by someone’s looks. I recall writing how unimpressed I was that Roxane couldn’t appreciate Cyrano’s intellectual gifts.
My passion must have amused Miss Glebow. She said that my views were interesting, but wrong. And she winked at me when she nonetheless gave me a good grade, reinforcing my instinct to think for myself rather than hew to a prevailing view. Miss Glebow was a great teacher.
Supporting and appreciating great teachers
What is the payoff from great teachers? The benefits can be hard to quantify precisely, but everyone who has experienced a great or a favorite teacher can explain why that teacher’s great. My young friend Zaza reminisced about his college economics classes in which he learned about a number of research projects aimed at quantifying the real-world impact of teachers. He recalled that some examined the role of parents versus teachers. Others examined the role of cash bonuses for teachers. Raj Chetty, an economics professor at Harvard University, was the lead author on a 2014 study published in the American Economic Review that quantified teachers’ impact according to their “value added,” measured by improved test scores. Dr. Chetty and his co-authors found that “students assigned to high-VA teachers are more likely to attend college, earn higher salaries, and are less likely to have children as teenagers.”
Wow! The impact of great teachers can indeed be profound.
Yet, when I asked former early childhood educator Roslyn Adams (no relation) what would motivate high performance from her, the answers were uncomplicated and free of academic jargon. Mrs. Adams spent decades ensuring that her students from every socioeconomic background could read before entering first grade at the Madrona Elementary School in Seattle. Her three suggestions for motivating great teachers were appreciation, better compensation, and more paraprofessionals and education assistants. She added: “I always felt I got my greatest appreciation from my students — just knowing that they were learning and getting a lot of great experiences in school that they could use in life.”
Perhaps the lesson is to stay in touch with our great teachers, to let them know in distinctly personal terms how important they have been and are. Perhaps something as simple as a thank-you note or call to our favorite teachers has an important role to play in celebrating next year’s National Teacher Appreciation Day and Week — and in creating more great teachers.
This column first appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.