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The Gift That Stops Giving

Years ago, I was presented with a key to the City of Lansing, Michigan. It's about a foot long, very heavy and enameled in dark blue, with the Mayor's name embossed on the stem. It was a token of thanks for a speech I made to the Lansing Educational Advancement Foundation (LEAF). For several years, it was on my bulletin board at school, held up by two push-pins. When my students or teacher colleagues asked about it, I'd assure them that any concerns they had about state legislation could be directed to me. After all, I had a key to the capitol city. Ha.

Because I have had the good fortune to be recognized for teaching excellence--and believe me, there are legions of world-class teachers laboring in total obscurity--I am aware that it seems unappreciative and low-class to belittle tangible representations of honor. Recognition for exemplary teaching seems to come with a stock set of rewards, however: framed certificates, coffee mugs, tote bags and the ubiquitous apple, in gold, crystal, faux marble and even chocolate.

As a state Teacher of the Year, I was awarded enough plaques to construct two or three birdhouses. Plaques are nice, although they seldom enhance living room decor, and few teachers have a workplace office to display their personal trophies. I was also given a used computer--minus the cord. The business that donated the computer to the TOY program was upgrading to new machines, but the cord could be re-used. I was grateful--I didn't own a computer before then--but the gift symbolizes societal assumptions about school: second-hand is good enough.

My favorite "honored teacher gift" story comes from Sharon Green, Michigan TOY in 1995, who was given a clock shaped like Michigan--minus the Upper Peninsula. Naturally, Sharon lives in Marquette. She also has a great sense of humor, fortunately.

Teachers are fond of saying that the best gifts are personal expressions of gratitude from students--and watching those students go off to successful life accomplishments and worthy careers. All true. Still--it's illuminating to watch banks distribute seven-figure executive bonuses and real estate superstars win cruise packages. Stars in the Mary Kay cosmetic sales galaxy get pink Cadillacs--and Armando Galarraga got a red Corvette. Leadership blogs are full of advice about retaining top talent through the right recognition and perks.

I doubt whether most teachers would be motivated to work harder by iPods, gift cards or even large cash awards. There is also little clarity around what would constitute "working harder." A widely accepted definition of teacher effectiveness has yet to be written.

Here's what I think outstanding teachers would say if you asked what they wanted most, in recognition of exemplary work:

• Pay teachers a competitive professional wage.

• Ask teachers for guidance when making decisions about their work. Better yet, put decision-making in their hands, whenever possible.

• Reward teacher expertise by hiring them to write curriculum, lead professional development, model innovative instruction, create new programs, mentor novice colleagues or other tasks requiring an advanced practitioner.

• Share critical information about the core work of teaching and learning; teachers are often the last to know when district leaders are planning wide-scale change or wrestling with a systemic problem.

• Bring accomplished teachers--not just union leaders--to the table to create policy.

• Don't underestimate teachers' ability to understand or articulate complex issues, just because they spend most days with children.

• Honor what they know, listen to what they say, respect the complexity of their work.

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