It's 1993, at the Michigan Teacher of the Year celebration in Lansing, and I have just been awarded a lovely parting gift: a Digital 286 computer. It sits on a table in the front of the ballroom, beige and boxy, the 12-inch monitor scrolling "Nancy Flanagan, Michigan Teacher of the Year" in bright pink letters. I am thrilled. My first computer!
The program lists the Lansing business that donated the computer to the TOY program, and their representative stood up for a round of grateful applause at the banquet. As I am unplugging the CPU to take the computer home, I notice that it's scratched and dented a bit. There doesn't seem to be a printer, either. The woman whose company contributed the computer appears at my elbow and tells me that their entire office was just outfitted with brand-new 386 models, so they didn't need the old ones--and then asks for the electrical cord. "We can still use that!" she says brightly.
I have just been given a hand-me-down business computer with no printer or cord. Congratulations!
But--I am still thrilled, although it's harder to get the right cord than you might think, and it takes several more paychecks before I can scrape together the cash to buy a dot-matrix printer. Only a couple of teachers in my building have their own computers, and I am geeked about the cool materials I can now produce--although in 1993 teachers were not yet allowed to use the Xerox machine to reproduce documents. That was reserved for the important business of the school office. Teacher-student materials and school newsletters were duplicated on the risograph and ditto machines, which were "good enough."
One of the first things state Teachers of the Year do when they get together is compare goodies. How do individual states honor their best and brightest? Some teachers are out of the classroom for a year, sent around the state to promote specific programs and initiatives. Others never leave the classroom, settle for a chicken dinner and a plaque, paying their own travel costs to make the occasional Rotary Club speech. One TOY I know was offered the use of one of those monster-sized SUVs for the year-- with the logo of the insurance company that provided it painted on both sides. Of course, she would have to insure it and pay for the gas.
That's appreciation, education-style.
A Miami teacher-blogger who calls herself KafkaTeacher recently pointed out that NBC (host of Education Nation) was holding a contest to see which teacher could best integrate NBC's Learn Resources into their classroom practice. First prize was a mouse pad, a thumb drive and a pack of genuine NBC pens--and the Grand Prize was all of the above, plus getting a mention on the program's home page. KafkaTeacher described these prizes as "sucky." On Twitter, a San Francisco math teacher--@cheesemonkeysf--said: This is more like "Hey, what kind of crap do we have lying around the supply room gathering dust?"
Maybe an old, unused computer? Actually, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) suggests, via spiffy infographic, that what teachers would like for Teacher Appreciation Week is a nice (free) digital reward. A tweet, perhaps, or a post on Pinterest. Don't forget to mention DFER in your pin! Or you could nominate a teacher for an online award, and then they'd get a badge.
Well, we don't need no stinking badges. Here's what teachers do need and deeply desire:
Influence. Respect. To have their expertise taken seriously and valued in the creation of education policies and programs. Competitive salaries and benefits. Stability--a moratorium on program churn, a chance to dig in and build learning communities. Articles in mainstream magazines and newspapers that acknowledge the intellectual complexity and difficulty of teaching. TV programs that stress the critical value of public education in building a democratic society. Professional-quality tools, facilities and collaborative opportunities. Did I mention respect?
Teachers want control over their own work. The ultimate appreciation.
I don't want to end this rant without acknowledging two things:
• Even though it was the hardest year of my 31-year career in the classroom, being the Michigan Teacher of the Year was an incredible opportunity that opened many doors for me. Most teachers aren't as lucky as I was--and trust me, many teacher awards are more about luck, timing and who you know than highly developed skill in teaching. Every teacher should have the experience that I had, a chance to speak out about education and have people actually listen. And I used that computer for five more years.
• If your teacher says sweetly that she doesn't want material rewards, but would prefer a nice thank-you note or card, don't believe her. But write the note or letter anyway. If you were my student at Hartland Consolidated Schools, 1974-2005, and wrote me a thank-you note, I still have it, in a special trunk. When we moved, two years ago, I off-loaded boxes of teaching materials, file cabinets of lesson plans and dozens of plaques. But I kept that trunk and those hand-scrawled notes. I appreciate them and the feelings that produced them more than you will ever know.