California Forum

Forget Teacher ‘Appreciation’ Week. Here’s what teachers really need to feel valued

Scenes from the teachers’ strike in Los Angeles

Thousands of teachers involved with United Teachers Los Angeles have been striking since Jan. 14, 2019. These teachers are fighting for smaller class sizes, more staff and higher pay.
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Thousands of teachers involved with United Teachers Los Angeles have been striking since Jan. 14, 2019. These teachers are fighting for smaller class sizes, more staff and higher pay.

Please excuse me if I don’t seem appreciative. I should be, I know. After all, it was Teacher Appreciation Week last month. And I am a former public school teacher and someone who now teaches new teachers.

But that week, more than any other, reminds me of how unappreciated I am. How all teachers are.

Here’s the problem: People confuse appreciation with its illegitimate cousin, gratitude. To be appreciative, according to Webster’s Dictionary, is to be “fully aware” of a person or thing’s worth or significance. To be grateful is to be thankful for something pleasant or helpful.

It is easy to mistake appreciation for gratitude. I’m even guilty of doing so.

When I was a beginning teacher, Teacher Appreciation Week was more exciting than my birthday. Cake is great (dark chocolate, please.) But during Teacher Appreciation Week I got a free, three-course meal, with two-for-one Chipotle burritos as an appetizer and homemade empanadas, courtesy of my students’ families, for dessert.

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Let me be clear: I am humbled by the generosity my students, their families and local businesses have shown me over the years.

But I realize now that their heartfelt gestures were expressions of gratitude. Not of appreciation.

Gastronomic gifts cannot make up for the fact that American society grossly underpays — and underappreciates — teachers.

Teachers across the nation barely make a living wage. The base salary for teachers in Oakland, who went on strike last February, is less than $46,000. That salary is pittance in an area where the median rent is $3,000 per month.

The forecast is even gloomier across the Bay. In San Francisco, new teachers make approximately $55,000 per year. That’s nearly $10,000 more than their colleagues in Oakland, but those extra bucks don’t go far in a city where rent is $4,500 per month.

The situation is particularly dire in California, but teachers all over the country are struggling to put food on the table. The demand for living wages has been a theme of the strikes and walkouts in Los Angeles, Denver, West Virginia and, most recently, Nashville.

But money is not the only issue. Depending on the city or state, teachers have petitioned for smaller classes, more nurses and guidance counselors, equitable school funding and accountability for charter schools.

Such problems disproportionately impact teachers in poor urban and rural districts, where the pay is often scandalously low.

For those educators, Teacher Appreciation Week is undeniably cruel. All-you-can-eat-buffet on Friday, and, quite possibly, food stamps on Monday.

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That’s not appreciation. It’s mockery.

But the joke’s on us. Because so many talented young people dismiss the profession and thousands of teaching positions across the country are left unfilled or are filled by those who are not certified. In California, our special education students and our students living in poverty — the kids who really need certified teachers — are the least likely to have them.

Why? Because those would-be teachers have ferried their skills across the Bay to Silicon Valley, where they not only get free food, but— imagine that — a competitive salary. Indeed, an entry-level software engineer at Facebook with a bachelor’s degree makes up to three times as much as a first-year, college-educated teacher in Oakland, and twice as much as a teacher with 10 years of experience.

You won’t find employees at tech companies petitioning to add “Software Engineers Week” to the calendar. Appreciation is reflected in their bank statements.

The teacher shortage is not just bad for kids. It’s bad for all of us, young and old. If we do not appreciate our teachers today, who knows what our country is going to look like tomorrow.

So, let’s call Teacher Appreciation Week what it really is: Teacher Gratitude Week.

While we’re at it, let’s show teachers what they are really worth. In dollars, not burritos.

Jennifer Altavilla is a PhD student at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Previously, she was an elementary and middle school teacher in Boston.

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