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Teacher Appreciation with Less Lip Service

Written by Rebekah Schipper,

Executive Director of Opportunity Thrive

Happy Teacher’s Appreciation Week!

On social media, one doesn’t have to scroll long to realize that this week is Teacher’s Appreciation Week. Everyone from School Boards to Superintendents to news channels to parent groups are expressing their gratitude for the roles educators play in our students’ lives. Many of these posts ask the public to “thank a teacher,” and so I thought that I would do two things: describe what thanking a teacher could look like and thank the many educators who are truly the lifeblood of our schools.

What does it truly mean to thank a teacher?

Thanking a teacher right now might look like advocating for teachers by addressing the hypocrisy of the moment. What do I mean by this? Currently, we have misinformation spreading all over social media about educators ‘grooming students’ and ‘indoctrinating our children.’ We have politicians standing in the hallowed halls of state buildings speaking ill of a whole profession of people who dedicate their lives to developing the minds and hearts of the next generation.

Educators firmly believe that it is our job to educate the “whole child,” which simply means that we do not look at our children as empty vessels to fill with knowledge. We look at our students as little beings with stories, cultures, and emotional needs. We believe that to educate them means we have to help them learn how to tell their own stories, listen to the stories of their peers, and build the emotional tools necessary to be productive, kind, and compassionate citizens. We believe that math, reading, writing, science, and the arts are not static but ever-developing subjects, so we want to teach our students how to think, not what to think. We believe that our students have many barriers to learning in their lives, and we want to help each of them to remove their unique barriers so that they can fully develop into their fullest potential.

We need to address the fact that a week of appreciation cannot be followed by another 51 weeks of slander, defamation, and lies. We need to kindly (and firmly) shut down those who would speak untruths. We need to vote out those who devalue the role of an educator by writing laws that, rather than make education better, make education worse–that divide and sow seeds of distrust. We need to write letters to our teachers telling them that we trust them. We know that they are human and will make mistakes, but we trust them to educate our children.

Thanking a teacher also might look like demanding we do better in our schools to create cultures where our educators want to work. Recent research conducted by Donald Sull, Charles Sull, and Ben Zweig found that the leading reason many employees left their positions during what many are calling the Great Resignation of 2021 is toxic culture. Our research, as an organization, is suggesting that roughly 29% of educators are actively considering leaving their jobs in education. Toxic culture is a significant reason educators do not want to continue in their jobs.

Toxic culture can look like a lack of administrator support, a lack of parental support, or a lack of collegial support. Toxic culture can be a meta-narrative (larger conversations around education) or a micro-narrative (classrooms that lack resources or training). Toxic culture can be adversarial or complacent. Toxic culture leaves educators feeling like they lack purpose and passion. Without those two “P’s,” educators leave the profession or hurt the profession.

Lastly, thanking a teacher is demanding that we do better than the current 20% pay gap experienced across the profession. I heard a story recently of a young educator who is leaving her school to move back to live near her family. On the surface, this story makes sense. However, this young teacher is one of the most dynamic, relational teachers I have met. She builds strong relationships with kids and families. She also happens to live with a roommate who had discounted rent in our growingly expensive rental market. This discounted rent is about to end, and so this young teacher is doing what many single, young teachers do. She is moving back home to live with her parents.

While the goodness of this decision is clear, the fact that affordability of housing has to play a role at all is maddening. Young teachers are beginning their careers with loads of college debt and starting salaries that do not allow them access to safe and comfortable housing. Educators currently earn 20% less than their peers with similar education and years of experience. Based on data collected by Michigan Radio, educators with 3-5 years of experience earned an average salary of $38,070, which means if we want to close the pay gap, we would need to pay these educators roughly $7,614 more annually. That kind of increase in salary would improve the quality of life and access to resources that so many of our educators desperately need.

Obviously, this kind of a thank you requires fundamental shifts in the ways we fund education, and it will require sacrifice on our part as citizens of Michigan. Showing appreciation often requires a bit of humility and sacrifice, though, and we need to invest in the wellbeing of our educators if we want to keep them in the classroom moving forward.

Let me end by thanking a few incredible teachers.

Sarah, Katie, Josh, Keren, Karyl, Christa, Kip, Kara, John, Nicoly and so, so many more…thank you for the ways you love the whole child; thank you for showing up. I trust you. You are human, and I know you have and will continue to make mistakes. I trust you, though, to make the best possible decision and do what is in the best interest of kids and to continue to transform the futures of so many children who get to cross your paths. Thank you for choosing to be a teacher.


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