Member Voices: The Best Way to Honor Teachers

This op-ed was published May 14 in the Virginian-Pilot. The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of AACTE.

At a recent alumni award ceremony for Old Dominion University’s Darden College of Education, one of the honorees, author Rodney Sidney II, introduced the guests he had invited. Among them was his fourth-grade special education teacher. The moment was tremendously poignant, as he spoke of the support and encouragement he had received from her. Even more touching was how Sidney described her belief in him and her never-ending guidance.

Each May, National Teacher Appreciation Month provides an opportunity for us to offer our own tributes to former teachers, affirming their impact and hard work. Like Sidney, most of us have had at least one teacher who made a difference in our lives and, sometimes, changed the direction of our futures. Public figures such as Maya Angelou, U.S. Senator John McCain, Oprah Winfrey, actress Hilary Swank, and Bill Gates have acknowledged the teachers who most influenced them.

At a time when recruitment and retention rates are reaching dangerously low levels in the teaching profession, recognizing the work of our teachers everywhere might be a small but meaningful gesture.

Retailers have seized the opportunity to cash in on recognizing teachers with a multitude of products – from crystal apples to cards, flags, mugs, flowers, and pennants. This should not be surprising, considering that the United States has 3.6 million teachers, according to a 2015 estimate from the National Center for Education Statistics. While teachers are always grateful for the gifts, there are better ways to affirm the importance of their work and how very much they are needed in our communities.

Christa McAuliffe was a New Hampshire teacher who was internationally recognized when she was chosen as one of the crew members on the Challenger space shuttle.

The disaster of that mission remains, for many people, a defining moment in their lives. Putting that into historical perspective, teachers who are in their 10th year of service were born about the year McAuliffe died.

Even more striking is the fact that young students today might not be aware of this pioneer educator. Parents and teachers would make a difference if they spoke to their children about McAuliffe and the work that one teacher can accomplish.

Leaders in our schools play a significant role in affirming and celebrating our teachers. According to a survey by the Learning Policy Institute, less than half of all teachers – 48% – strongly agree that their school administration’s behavior toward staff members is supportive and encouraging. Administrators could demonstrate their support for teachers and increase their level of support during this time.

In his remarks at the ODU event, Sidney provided the most effective type of support for teachers. It is not the crystal apple or mug that matters but recollections from past students affirming the hard work of a teacher. Parents might consider contacting teachers directly and telling them what a difference they made for their children and speaking to their children about a teacher who has made a difference in their lives. They also could contact the principal to praise a teacher. It would take only a little time and would mean a lot to educators.

Teachers across the nation should be proud of their work and profession, as well as the importance they play in advancing our communities. As Sidney celebrated his award, he graciously celebrated every teacher in the room that day.

Jane S. Bray, dean of the Darden College of Education at Old Dominion University (VA), is a member of AACTE’s Executive Committee as past chair of the Board of Directors.

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Jane S. Bray

Dean of the Darden College of Education at Old Dominion University (VA) and 2016-2017 chair of AACTE’s Board of Directors.