ARTICLE

Reading Between the Lines

Teachers don’t want to be called saints or soldiers. Let’s mark Teacher Appreciation Week with a commitment to go beyond the rhetoric and speak accurately about teaching as a profession.

Teacher appreciation is something we think about a lot around here. We all know that teaching is a difficult job made more difficult by a preponderance of testing, meetings and paperwork, not to mention school culture and safety issues. Unfortunately, so much of the “appreciation” rhetoric we hear focuses on praising teachers as “such good people” for putting up with these highly visible challenges, completely overlooking the tremendous degree of skill, creativity and wisdom teaching requires.

The teachers we hear from don’t want to be called “saints” for suffering the bureaucracy or “heroes” because they reach the most difficult kids or “soldiers” who fight their way through tough school days. We’d like to take a moment to move beyond that rhetoric.

In talking recently with colleagues and friends about the teachers they’ve appreciated most, I heard several versions of the following sentiments:

She took the time to get to know my situation.

He helped me see that I can do it.

She saw something in my writing.

He listened when nobody else did.

Think about these statements and the skills behind them. Talking to a student in dire straights in a way that allows her to feel cared about. Breaking through frustration barriers with a kid who has given up on himself. Reading between the lines of a student essay that may not be grammatically correct but contains currents of promise. Empowering a student by hearing her truth.

Certainly, these teachers were probably “good” people, but that’s not why they were able to make a difference for their students. They made those connections because they were good at their jobs. They had strong instincts, they modeled themselves after successful practitioners, they studied best practices, they tried new approaches and techniques, they immersed themselves in professional learning communities, they thought about the results they wanted and creatively strategized how to get there. They were educated, motivated and growth-oriented.

In other words, teachers like this not only impart content and connect with students successfully, they are the types of professionals we hope our students will grow up to become. Is there a higher level of appreciation than that?

We can show our appreciation for teachers by taking the time to describe the education profession in the terms it deserves—without hyperbole or dramatic characterization—but respectfully and accurately, acknowledging the time, care, skill, precision, flexibility and creativity it requires.

We can learn to do this by listening to the way kids describe the teachers who have reached them. When a child says, “He believed in me,” it might translate as, “He builds authentic relationships with students and empowers them to succeed.” When a child says, “She gets me,” maybe it means, “She took the time to learn about my background and was culturally responsive in her classroom practice.” Of course, kids don’t use terms like “authentic relationships” and “culturally responsive,” but what they do say speaks volumes about the skills and qualities these professionals brought to those relationships.

Kids can teach us a lot about how to really appreciate teachers. We just need to read between the lines and listen to the words behind their words—as good teachers do.

van der Valk is an associate editor for Teaching Tolerance.