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Trust, Autonomy, and Growth: A Recipe for Teacher Appreciation

My colleague Brandon Wiley sounds off on three things we can do to show true appreciation for our nation's teachers.

By Brandon Wiley

While shopping this week, a sign hanging near the check-out register caught my attention: "Don't Forget: Teacher Appreciation Week May 6 - 10! Get A Gift to Thank Your Favorite Teacher Here!"

I'm not sure what I was taken aback by more: the fact that Americans need a sign to remind us to appreciate our teachers or that we have relegated thanking teachers to one week out of the year. Either way, it got me thinking about the value we place on the teaching profession as a society. It made me start to wonder if teacher appreciation week was a global practice or just another "Hallmark holiday" to give a passing kudos to teachers and make a few extra dollars along the way.

This compelled me to reflect on my recent visit to Finland as part of a University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education research team. We spent time learning about the teacher preparation program at the University of Helsinki and then visited schools around Helsinki to get a better sense of what makes their education system so successful. We kept track of our learning using social media, most notably Twitter and through a daily blog. Among the lessons learned, we left with a strong sense that the teaching profession in Finland is highly respected and valued as an important function of society. Teachers are held in the same regard as other top professions, including medicine and law. The trust placed in teachers, as expressed by students, parents and the community, made me feel as if teacher appreciation happens all the time, not just during one week in the year.

Our #PennFinn13 team recently participated in a Parent-Teacher Chat hosted on Twitter weekly by my colleague, Joe Mazza. The team discussed our takeaways during a Google Hangout sponsored by Edutopia, where we analyzed the idea of teacher appreciation and how it plays out differently in the United States compared to Finland.

As a former teacher, I recall carrying home a box of mugs, candies, and trinkets during Teacher Appreciation week every year. While these small tokens of appreciation were nice, it did not really change the way I did my job or buoy me at a time of year that is relentless in most schools!

The truth is, I really only needed three things to feel valued and appreciated: trust, autonomy, and opportunities for growth.

As a teacher, please trust that


  • I have the best interest of all of my students in mind every single day.

  • I have prepared myself and my classroom for optimal learning.

  • I myself am not done learning and will continue to get better with the proper support and encouragement.

  • I am willing to collaborate with my colleagues, parents, and administration to meet the needs of all our students.

  • I am not afraid of being held accountable as long as the standards by which I'm measured are clear and I've had a voice in developing them.

And provide me the autonomy to


  • Make decisions about what is in the best interest of my students by adjusting my curriculum, instruction, and assessment to address those needs.

  • Take chances in my classroom to inspire students and engage them in deeper learning, not simply rote memorization or test-taking skills.

  • Design learning experiences that are authentic and allow students to learn at their own pace.

  • Work with my colleagues on improving the learning experience for students, not to spend time completing endless paperwork based on accountability.

  • Engage in professional learning that meets my needs and allows me to assume the stance of "teacher as researcher."


Finally, provide me opportunities for growth to

  • Learn more about the distinct learning styles and needs of my students.

  • Better understand the increasing diversity in my classroom--socially, culturally, economically, and academically.

  • Identify ways in which I can improve my professional practice, while sharing my gifts so that others might benefit.

  • Learn from my colleagues about what works and what doesn't; the expertise is often already in our schools.

  • Explore topics that spark my passion and interests, but also address my needs as a teacher.

The value placed on teachers appears to be in stark contrast around the globe. Different countries have invested heavily in teacher preparation and on-going professional learning because they understand that education is the engine that drives their economy and future innovation. Since teachers play a major role in this process, they are afforded greater respect and appreciation as a cultural norm.

In the United States, it appears that the over-emphasis on teacher accountability and testing as a form of compliance instead of formative development erodes the confidence and appreciation we show for teachers. I find the "celebration" of teacher appreciation week to be a confusing practice, when many of our policies and practices send mixed messages about how much we really do trust and appreciate teachers. As millions of teachers around the United States conduct themselves as professionals every day, I would hope that we might celebrate them by shifting our thinking from a deficit model that focuses on what teachers can't or don't do to one that highlights and builds upon the overwhelming assets they do bring to our schools and communities.

As a teacher, I know I would have appreciated that more than a mug.

Follow Brandon Wiley and Asia Society on Twitter.

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