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Unpacking the Meaning of Appreciation

May 9, 2012

Appreciation.  Let’s talk about the word, “appreciation.”  By the time this blog post is done, you’re going to appreciate that word in a whole new way.

I love words – the sounds, the nuances, the etymology!  (Did you know that the word “school” with reference to a group of fish has no linguistic relationship to the education term with the same spelling?  The former is German and Dutch in origin, meaning “group” – while the latter is from Greek and related to learning). If a love of words can be genetic, I picked it up from both sides of my genealogy, and especially from my maternal grandfather, Jack.  If it’s nurture rather than nature, then it must be a result of growing up in a home where I saw my mother read two, three, even four books in a week.  My father was an English major at UCLA, before entering the medical profession.  He isn’t quite the voracious reader my mother is (who could be?), but he has a fondness for poetry and songs, and often used to clip word games and puzzles to share with me.

Holmes, Cohen

Phil Holmes, with me at our 20-year class reunion (2007)

My tenth-grade English teacher, Phil Holmes, made the love of words into more of a virtue by teaching me to pay closer attention to every word in my reading and writing.  I entered his class in 1984, and among our first assignments was to look up a word from Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” in the Oxford English Dictionary.  I discovered that “stout” could mean much more than I thought, and I gained some insights into the evolution of language.  (For more details, I refer you to a more detailed post I wrote on this topic last year).  More than twenty years later, Holmes was the subject of a lengthy profile in the Los Angeles Times, with an apt headline (at least in the online edition): Teacher instills a love of words, but the lesson is about life.

And now, we find ourselves once again in Teacher Appreciation week.  What about that word, the idea of “appreciation”?  Well, first off, if they need to make a special day, week, or month for you, you know you’re already a step or two behind, already on the margins somehow.  I haven’t noticed any need to appreciate other professions on special days.  I’m sure those people are appreciated, but more importantly, they’re treated professionally, and compensated accordingly.

If you’ve been reading other education blogs or following Twitter (#iknowateacher or #thankateacher), or if you are a teacher, or if you know teachers well, you know that we generally find value in the sincere words of former students, parents, or colleagues.  In this regard I suppose we’re no different from most people.  Spare us the apple knick-knacks, the mugs and t-shirts, and really, we can locate and purchase coffee pretty well on our own.

But the kind wishes and warm recollections that make us feel truly appreciated – I call them “teacher fuel” – only operate on one level, one definition of the word “appreciate.”  That’s when you express gratitude and acknowledge the value, worth, and other positive attributes of something or someone.  I don’t mean to diminish the importance of that appreciation, but at the risk of sounding like an ingrate, it’s not enough.

Appreciate also means understand, as in “I appreciate the seriousness of the situation.”  What would it mean for the public and the policy makers to “appreciate” teachers in the sense of understanding them?  Just off the top of my head…

  • No more jokes about finishing our work at 3:00 and having summers off.  We work more hours per year than most people, and for less pay than similarly educated and trained professionals.  Over the years, my second shift of teaching-related work typically has started at 9:00 p.m., and it’s not unusual to send work-related emails close to midnight and get a response from a colleague that night, or before 8:00 a.m.  (Note – I actually think that’s a weakness rather than a virtue, but I’m looking for appreciation in the sense of understanding, not gratitude).
  • No more missionary or martyr complexes.  Yes, we care about the future and the children.  But if accountability is a term that means anything in education, it must be reciprocated.  If teachers are accountable, so is the public.  Give us the resources to do the job you expect (or maybe you already do – which would be a rather inconvenient truth).  Appreciate that we cannot build and sustain the profession, or the education system, if we demand excessive sacrifices of our dedicated and energetic teachers, young or old or in between.  It makes a great narrative for a while, until the teacher burns out, moves on, or ends up divorced.
  • No more generalizations about our failing schools.  Appreciate the complexity of the situation: while there’s much work to be done in modernizing and improving schools, simplifications make our work harder.  Failing schools are not so easy to recognize, especially from the outside.  To the extent that we attach labels and then begin ranking schools, we fail to appreciate the differences among schools, the strengths of “failing” schools and the weaknesses of our “best” schools.  The label “failing” is becoming increasingly empty of meaning as No Child Left Behind limps onwards despite its flaws.  Teachers who work in “failing” schools are unfairly stigmatized for problems mostly beyond their control, and teacher turnover becomes a cycle that harms students and is hard to break.

But wait – there’s more!  Yet another meaning of “appreciate” is the gradual increase in value, as in “If the value of your house does not appreciate, you will have to sell it at a loss.”   So, teacher appreciation would be most welcome in this sense. We need to make teaching more valued.  I mean that in strictly economic terms applied directly to teachers – more pay, especially for younger teachers – and also more economic investment in the quality of teaching.  Truly excellent teaching requires sufficient time to identify and meet the needs of each student, and to engage in ongoing, high quality professional development.  If teachers are going to experience some appreciation, we need a commensurate investment in their work.

So, now, if you’ve made it this far, I appreciate you for reading, and I’m ready to join in not only some of the easy kind of appreciation, but also to carry on the fight for the more important but less understood appreciation that will make the greatest difference for schools, students, and teachers.

[EDIT: May 11, 2012 – minor corrections, added links]

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Cate K. Schroeder NBCT permalink
    May 9, 2012 12:21 pm

    Wow! A Teacher Appreciation article I can appreciate! I was just listening to Michael Krasny’s Forum yesterday about Schools under Stress. You should have been on that panel! How many professionals continue to work under reductions in budget of over 15% in the past four years and still manage to make gains????? Teachers, that’s who! It is time for corporations and the community to live up to their end of the bargain. Teachers have delivered. Where are our resources,
    compensation and respect?

  2. Tom permalink
    May 9, 2012 1:09 pm

    Great post, David. I appreciate it! My favorite TAW gift came last year when I received one ticket to a Mariners game. I did a great job pretending to be thrilled. Then, at lunch, I found that my buddy Al, who had the student during the previous year, also got one ticket – next to me!

    We had fun, even though the Mariners lost to the White Sox.

  3. May 9, 2012 4:54 pm

    I like your last definition of “appreciate” the best. To increase in value… ah, if only. I’m not even talking monetary value, either. I do like to think that after they leave my classroom and my students start to (hopefully) recognize the lessons they’ve learned, they’ll look back an value just a little bit more what I tried to do for them.

    I won’t balk at the free coffee, though.

  4. May 10, 2012 12:04 pm

    David, nice job unpacking the multiple meanings of the word appreciate. The only problem I see here is that this may be preaching to the choir. Is this audience for InterAct mostly teachers? Could we get this cross posted by Rick Hess? Big🙂

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      May 10, 2012 12:07 pm

      Steve, that’s always a challenge – to reach a broader audience. I’m not sure Rick Hess is the most likely cross-post option – just due to lack of mutual familiarity. But thanks for the suggestion. I might try another avenue or two.

  5. Sarah K-G permalink
    May 10, 2012 9:20 pm

    This week I was interviewed by someone working on her dissertation who wanted to talk with NBCTs about their views of education. We talked about how often teacher’s voices seem ignored in public policy, arbitrary changes that are imposed, the internal debate regarding preparing for the standardized test scores and teaching meaningful curriculum, lack of person power, and low morale. Overall it was a depressing conversation, though I was happy to mention some of the positive things ACT has done.

    I will admit that I enjoyed the massages PTA gave us on our lunch break, and coffee that was delivered to my room this week, however, I would much rather be appreciated on the level you discuss here. I will gladly give up my lifetime supply of teachery-coffee mugs to have an informed public. I want to have more positive things to say about my profession the next time I’m questioned.

  6. May 11, 2012 6:28 am

    I firmly believe that there is no greater calling in life than that of a teacher. Whether it’s as a father, a friend or even in the traditional educational sense, teaching is the most vital responsibility when considering the well being of the upcoming generation.

  7. Linda permalink
    May 23, 2012 5:27 am

    Loved the article and words as well as diction really is complex even though it seems so simple. I really think it should be sent to Sec. Arne Duncan and Pres. Obama, and to all the major newspapers as what you had written in the star bullets NEEDS to be known to everyone in this nation.

    And as a side note after almost 34 years in the classroom, I was so burned-out and discouraged that I really could not take it anymore, so I retired in March.

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