Evidently, today was National Teacher Appreciation Day, and this week (May 1-7) is National Teacher Appreciation Week. This means we get to wade through an ocean of “teachers are overworked and underappreciated” articles and posts on social media. This post is not one of those.
Students and their parents depend on teachers to take care of them and prepare them to be productive and contributing members of society. When students can see this happening, they spontaneously appreciate it and spontaneously appreciate their teachers for it, whether or not it happens to be the first week in May.
- Students need agency. They need input on some level into what they learn. Left to their own devices, almost all students will choose learning over not learning, and will choose to learn facts, ideas and skills that they can relate to their own lives. It is important to leave time in class discussions for tangents. This doesn’t mean getting caught by the “let’s see if we can get the teacher off track” game. However, allowing a 2-minute discussion of something related to a class discussion because a student took the time and trouble to ask is important, both because it keeps the entire class engaged (“Hey, this actually relates to something I care about!”) and because it reminds students that what they actually want to know matters.
- Students need a clear path to success that they can see, and believe that they can follow. Most students who get frustrated and give up on a class (or on school) believe that there’s no way they can succeed, so why bother? In a class of diverse learners, there need to be multiple paths to success. Teachers need to be creative in helping students find these paths, and equally creative in helping students stay on those paths, or get back on one if they fall off. For some students, this means scaffolding and helping them break down large tasks. For others, this means giving second chances and additional opportunities to demonstrate mastery after the fact, and to be able to receive a significant portion of the credit for doing so. A student who can get 100% of the credit for demonstrating mastery on May 2 but 0% on May 3 has no way to get back on the path and no incentive to try. A student who can get 100% of the credit on May 2 and 80% on May 3 has plenty of incentive to keep trying after May 2, even though there was still a significant benefit to students who made the deadline. The more students can track their progress as they climb out of an academic hole (even if it’s a hole of their own creation), the more they will keep climbing, and the more likely they are to make it out.
- Students need flexibility. Life often gets in the way, and many students have no control over the demands their lives and families make on them. This doesn’t mean accepting every “my dog ate my homework” excuse. However, being willing to give a student an extension on a test or paper if requested in advance (or because of legitimate, unforeseen circumstances) allows the student to retain some control, and teaches the student important life lessons about how to responsibly manage deadlines and responsibilities in the face of a crisis (whether major or minor).
- Students need to be heard and to see themselves being taken seriously. Even if some of their tribulations seem trivial to a teacher with a generation of additional life experience, to students their problems (as well as their joys and celebrations) are real and immediate. Perspective comes from life experience, and an important part of that life experience involves being able to articulate what they are feeling in a serious manner, regardless of whether or not what they might later decide (when they have more perspective) that the problem turned out to be trivial.
- Students need to feel valued. The people who matter most to us are the people we know that we matter to. The teacher/student relationship is unique. For many students, teachers are their mentors, and may be the only adults over the course of their day who listen to them and offer a caring response. When students can tell that they matter to someone, the implicit message is that it’s OK for them to matter, that it’s OK for them to be who they are. When they are still figuring out their own identities, who they are is often fragile and malleable. In order for them to be able to figure out who they are and have that be OK, they have to feel confident that the selves that they pass through along the way are also OK.
The more our students can feel that all of these things are happening to them, the more often it will be Teacher Appreciation Day, Teacher Appreciation Week, Teacher Appreciation Month, Teacher Appreciation Year, or Teacher Appreciation Career. And more importantly, successful students (most of whom will show appreciation of their own volition) will enable their teachers to feel these same qualities about themselves, thus perpetuating the cycle. After all, isn’t empowerment what education is really all about?