“Praise is one thing. Value, however, is quite different.”
It’s that time of the year again. This week is #TeacherAppreciationWeek. Every year around this time, we see an outpouring of declarations from schools, political leaders, education agencies, ed tech corporations, education departments, and the general public praising teachers for “all that we do.” Even stores and restaurants run #TeacherAppreciationWeek sales and promotions. While I do appreciate the food discounts and social praise that come with Teacher Appreciation Week, I often wonder what it would mean for teachers to be truly valued in our profession outside of this single week — beyond just words and product promotionals.
It is no surprise that teaching is commonly seen as thankless work. Teachers do not come to the profession to pursue praise; most tend to cite the personal desire to “make an impact.” But what’s implicit in this stated desire to make an impact is an unstated aspiration to add value — to their students, to their schools, to their communities, to themselves, to the world. Regardless of what conventional wisdom or prevailing social narratives lead us to believe, teaching is, and has always been, a profession anchored in the work of creating collective possibility — of forging more livable futures through the education and empowerment of our young folks. Teaching is not only one of the oldest professions but also is the one profession that generates every other profession. Teaching is both an art from and craft practice rooted in having values and adding value.
This pandemic school year has exacerbated and illuminated many of the rots that lie at the core of the American education system, including but not limited to: the limitations of one-sized traditional models of teaching, the failures of punitive teacher/school accountability measures, and the violences of standardized testing. Alongside these rots exists a phenomenon I’d like to call the teacher appreciation industrial complex. The teacher appreciation industrial complex, I contend, rests on the idea that teacher appreciation comes through the form of teacher praise, and that praise constitutes a form of profit for teachers. This profit, however, is almost always conferred to teachers socially (the aim being validation) rather than financially, professionally, social-emotionally, psychologically, or ethically (the aim being valuation). By the same token, praising teachers has become, quite literally, a profitable enterprise that many corporate and business industries utilize to their own advantage — hence why #TeacherAppreciationWeek has become so driven and overtaken by corporate marketing culture.
The notion of profit takes on a new valence when we consider how underpaid, overworked, and deprofessionalized the work of teachers has been historically. Even during this pandemic year, we constantly “praise” teachers for their herculean efforts, while teacher attrition rates accelerate and teacher retention rates decelerate (phenomena not unique to this pandemic, however). Teachers routinely (and increasingly) cite feeling burned out and demoralized by the conditions under which they work, compelled to produce extraordinary outcomes under extreme precarity.
All of this points to the glaring reality of how the American education industry treats the work of teachers as high praise, low value: that is, we constantly give teachers verbal praise without offering any of the deep systemic supports that that praise requires or demands. We value “all the work that teachers do” until teachers request better teaching conditions, more adequate resources to sustain their practice, personalized professional development, and labor/contract negotiations. In this way, teachers ironically become devalued the moment they begin to assert their own value. One must then beg the question, who actually profits from teacher praise? At what cost? At whose cost? It is profitable to praise teachers; it is more expensive, however, to value them.
I make a distinction between praise and value because the two terms, though used interchangeably, are not synonymous. Praise typically comes in the form of verbal approval, recognition, or admiration. Value, however, goes much deeper. While “praise” tends to focus on external, quantitative outcomes (scores, professional benchmarks, the number of labor hours teachers expend weekly, etc.), “value” emphasizes more intrinsic, qualitative elements — not simply what teachers do but who they are. Teachers are not reducible to the educational labor they perform — they are, what Harvard Professor Dr. Jarvis Givens refers to as, “scholars of practice.” For sure, it is critical that we carve out time and space to laud the work of teachers. We most certainly should appreciate them deeply. But when we fail to value teachers deeply, we ultimately cheapen their craft, depreciate them as professionals, and undermine the potential of the students and communities they work so tirelessly on a daily basis to serve.
The challenge and the charge of schools, school leaders, and our educational systems, is to wrestle with the question of what it means to truly value teachers, in ways that move beyond basic platitudes of “great job,” “thank you,” or “we appreciate you.” There are tangible ways we can value teachers beyond verbal affirmations, free chicken sandwiches, and happy hour discounts. Verbal affirmation is the bare minimum. We can start to value our teachers by honoring them, empowering them, and investing in them, professionally and personally. We can start to value our teachers by paying them well. We can start to value our teachers by valuing their aspirations to grow — by offering them personalized, professional development that helps teachers perfect their crafts rather than remain stagnant. We can start to value our teachers by bolstering their efforts at building and sustaining community and educator kinship networks. We can start to value our teachers by taking inventory of their needs — by truly understanding what sustains them, what exhausts them, and what it takes to replenish them when they feel depleted.
To use abolitionist scholar Dr. Bettina Love’s formulation — teachers want to do more than survive — we want to thrive. Every day, pandemic or not, teachers show up and show out in extraordinary and brilliant ways for their students, their schools, and their communities. If we are truly dedicated to radically transforming society through education, we must come to see valuing teachers as a form of both collective care and collective empowerment — the futures of our young ones and the world depend on it.