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Honor Thy Teacher

November 1, 2011

Several weeks ago, in my hometown of Arcadia, California, the City Council honored high school teacher Tal Jones who had been selected as the local school district’s 2011 Teacher of the Year.  During the presentation, which included a proclamation establishing “Tal Jones Day,” the Mayor (who happens to be my dad) commented that, while the City Council was honoring Tal that day, “We should honor our teachers every day.”  What a concept.

I’m not against Teacher of the Year awards.  The many accolades I received, and the many contacts I made, since being selected as the 2010 California Teacher of the Year have been extraordinary.  I also support periodic events such as “The Day of the Teacher.”  I even wrote a blog about the event, encouraging my colleagues to touch bases once again with teachers who made a positive impact on their lives.

Individual honors and special days have their place.  But how should we really honor our teachers for their daily commitment to educating our nation’s sons and daughters?  Here are some ideas:

1.     Say “thank you” once in a while.  I know educators get paid, but just compensation for their efforts should be comprised of more than just salary and benefits.  I don’t need an apple on my desk each day, but I love receiving an occasional “thanks for hanging in there” from an appreciative student, former student, parent, administrator, or community member.

2.     But, speaking of salary and benefits . . .To use the baseball analogy that has appeared on this website from time to time, why are teachers often viewed as the utility players of the education team by those who write the checks?  I can think of few, if any, professions that work harder or have a greater impact on our nation’s future.  Try benching the teachers for a team of politicians, pundits, and consultants.  Not only will they tire before the end of the day, little will be accomplished.  In order to attract the best and the brightest to our profession, and retain them, we need to pay our teachers competitive salaries and benefits.  Cutting costs in the classroom is not a sustainable strategy.  As Billy Beane and Brad Pitt discovered, the “Money Ball” approach (i.e., finding hidden talent on the cheap among those going up or coming down the ladder) may be an interesting concept, but it hasn’t produced consistent excellence on the baseball diamond.  And it won’t produce consistent excellence in the classroom either.

3.     Get Involved.  The future of a strong and vibrant democracy relies on a well-educated populace.  The Founders knew that, and we know that.  A rich educational experience begins with the teacher in the classroom.  But, with dwindling resources, the community must play an even more important role in the process.  We need to see more community members step up to the plate (alas, another baseball analogy).   Their expertise garnered over a lifetime and their ability to act as meaningful role models and mentors cannot be over-emphasized.  Instead of sitting in the dugout, they need to get involved by mentoring a student after school, providing an internship opportunity, coaching an academic or athletic team, visiting a campus to speak with students, and participating in any number of other activities that will help students deepen their understanding of diverse topics and fields.  The negative influences confronting our students already have their advocates in society. We need to hear from members of our communities who are willing to be advocates for the positive influences.  Don’t know how to get started?  Call your local school and volunteer to help.

4.     Adjust Your Value System.  We need an honest commitment from our local, state, and national government that education is worth financing.  Our job as educators is hard enough.  It becomes that much harder when you add constant budget cuts, pink slips, and criticism.  Our society must be willing to invest financially in our education system and our students.  We cannot thrive as a decent society if we continue to spend more money on prisons than we do on education.

5.  Finally, I Need a Grader.  Can someone help me review over 120 essays that my students submit on a weekly or bi-weekly basis?  OK, maybe this isn’t the panacea for all our ills, but it would sure be a nice way to honor at least this teacher.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 1, 2011 6:15 am

    I’ve always thought (as a former “famous teacher”) that whatever perks and recognition teachers get, they deserve. It’s the flattest profession, sometimes even seeming fearful of distinctions, one teacher to the next.

    At a teacher recognition banquet, my husband noted that every teacher who crossed the stage to receive a plaque or crystal apple, kept their head modestly down, nodding and smiling, then scurried off stage. Imagine if this were a recognition banquet for real estate, he said. “Winners” would be pumping those apples in the air, looking triumphant. We don’t think it’s seemly for teachers to celebrate their own excellence.

    Great piece, Kelly.

    • Jane permalink
      November 5, 2011 1:24 am

      So true Nancy! When I was named a Milken Educator almost 10 years ago, I attended the Educator’s Conference with the other educators who won that year, and guess what? The first thing that we all seem to think was “why me?” and they must have gotten it wrong. Teachers are not use to recognition so when we are recognized it seems “undeserving.” I think it’s more that we are not use to be honored for our profession and that really needs to change. If we don’t toot our own horns, who will?

      Thanks Kelly for your thoughts and ideas!

  2. Jim Davis permalink
    November 1, 2011 7:41 am

    Kelly, I was with you until #5. I see that one as misguided – our students’ writing needs audience, not grading out of context. If it is worth asking them to do, it is worth responding to, and response, not critique and assessment, has some chance of supporting improvement. Beyond the classroom, a sense of how more distant audiences respond to their work can also be helpful, if applied in a supportive classroom environment – meaning contextualized by constructive teacher & peer response. Our students don’t need more “grading” than they already get – they need less, if anything, and more authentic interaction. So do our teachers and schools. JSD

    • Kelly A. Kovacic permalink
      November 1, 2011 1:03 pm

      Jim: I couldn’t agree with you more about the importance of a contextualized, constructive, and individualized response to all student work. Hopefully you would appreciate the comprehensive notes, prompts, and other comments that accompany all of my reviews of student work. There is always an “audience” in my class and I very much favor the expository essay or project to a fill-in-the-bubble test. But, I wouldn’t characterize my comments as “misguided” and “out of context.” I prefer the phrase “confirming the unfortunate reality of the new classroom.” With increasing class size, increasing bureaucratic paper work, fewer counselors, furloughs, and all the other challenges to an educator’s time in the classroom, it is very difficult to replicate what should be the norm. Assistance from competent aides (who may, in fact, be student teachers worthy of honoring in the future) should be encouraged, not discouraged. In the end, perhaps I should have simply said “I need some help once in a while” instead of “I need a grader.”

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      November 1, 2011 2:19 pm

      There are lots of ways to understand the role(s) of graders. They may provide another set of eyes on a paper and handle the bulk of the grammar and writing techniques feedback (introductions, transitions, etc.), allowing the teacher to read the paper more quickly and focus on the content (how well the student understands the concepts, the overall quality of the arguments, etc.). Likewise, if students are writing very frequently, it is not absolutely essential for the teacher to see every piece of writing. If the grader has some standing commitment to the class or students, that person could also provide a good audience. And 120 students is a low total – many CA high school teachers are facing 160-180 every day.

  3. Jane permalink
    November 5, 2011 1:34 am

    Thanks for your ideas Kelly!
    I would say that #1 goes a long way. It doesn’t cost much, yet means more than people realize. I am so lucky to have parents that do that all the time this year and show their appreciation not only in words, but action. They are right there when I need anything from collating papers to stapling journals to offering to sweep the classroom because we don’t have custodian service. These gestures are genuine and greatly appreciated by me! I think our leaders could learn a thing or two from my parents. School leaders need to remember that a simple thank you, how are you today, sincere smile, or word of recognition would go a long way in building moral and school culture. Sadly, I think some forget that aspect of leadership today.

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