Teaching Ambassador Fellows answer teachers’ burning questions about education policy. In this issue, middle school science teacher Kareen Borders takes up Teacher Appreciation Week and discusses how to use the contacts made with parents during this time to build relationships between families and teachers.
Teacher Question (TQ): Why do we celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week?
Mrs. Borders (Mrs. B): In 2009, Arne Duncan gave a speech to the NEA in which he recounted some of the qualities of America’s teachers. “All of us remember an educator or coach who changed our life. It stays with us forever. It sustains us, guides us, and inspires us. They’re the ones who commit those everyday acts of kindness and love and never ask for anything in return. They counsel troubled teens, take phone calls at night, and reach into their pockets for lunch money for children who are too ashamed to ask…These are the qualities of a great educator and we have millions of them all across America. ”
During teacher appreciation week, students, families, and our whole nation honor the committed and talented teachers who nurture and build our nation’s youth.
TQ: How does celebrating great teachers support their work in the classroom?
Mrs. B: During Teacher Appreciation Week, families and administrators make a special effort to show their appreciation for teachers. Although a great teacher has many talents, the teacher operates within a greater, interdependent system that includes students, families, the school itself, and the district. When families and schools support one another to provide a rigorous and engaging experience for the whole child, teachers’ efforts are multiplied.
TQ: What can teachers do during Teacher Appreciation week to build relationships that make the most of their contact with families?
Teacher Appreciation Week is a perfect time to invite families to get involved at the school and in their children’s classrooms. When a parent sends a note or stops by to thank a teacher, teachers can take the opportunity to foster a deeper and collaborative relationship. This partnership can also build upon the parent’s strengths. Perhaps the parent partner has a skill set that would be ideal for a particular unit or for a particular group of students.
TQ: Why is it important for teachers to reach out to parents beyond Open House and fundraisers?
Mrs. B: A great teacher recognizes the individuality of each student and makes an effort to understand each’s unique strengths and challenges. Parents can contribute much by sharing insights they have about their children. They can also help to reinforce good learning habits and practice skills at home. It is important for communication between home and school to be regular and two-way, so that parents and teachers can reinforce a student’s growth and alert one another when problems arise in either arena.
Teachers we have talked to also recommend a shift from the school talking TO families to one where they work WITH parents and guardians, so that conversations about meeting the needs of the whole child can be richer and deeper. The most helpful attitude for a teacher to have with a parent is: “I know my subject and how to teach, but you are the expert on your child. Let’s put our heads together to think about the best ways to reach him/her.” When a teacher knows another perspective about a student, instructional planning can capitalize on this knowledge.
TQ: What can principals do to support teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week (and all year)?
Mrs. B: Just as I would encourage a parent to engage in ongoing, two-way communication with a teacher, principals should also engage in two-way conversations with the teachers at their school. Teachers tell us that the best principals really know them and take time to step beyond the twice- a-year-evaluation, often engaging in real-time conversations with them. They are true instructional leaders who support teachers and build their leadership capacity.
Principals could spend more time in classrooms and offer helpful and positive feedback. Teachers tell us that they love a short, hand-written note from a principal who has observed something positive in a classroom and that every teacher has an envelope, file, or drawer full of these notes that they save to boost their confidence when times are tough. Principals might also offer to co-teach a lesson or to brainstorm with a teacher about a challenge he or she is facing with a class. Finally, because teachers are inundated with non-teaching tasks that take away from their work in the classroom, they value a principal’s efforts to lighten their load for the week by arranging for the week’s copying to be done, setting up a lab, making the bus arrangements for a field trip, or finding someone to take on hall or lunch duty.