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Don’t Wait Until You Win an Oscar to Thank a Teacher

One of the most surprising moments at Sunday’s Oscars was remarkable not for shock value but because it was a commonsense move that doesn’t happen more often: In his acceptance speech, Everything Everywhere All at Once director Daniel Scheinert thanked his teachers.

“These are teachers that changed my life, mostly public school teachers,” he said, and listed them by name.

The hundreds of teachers I interviewed for my book The Teachers: A Year Inside America’s Most Vulnerable, Important Profession across-the-board mentioned two aspects of teaching that brought them the most joy: seeing students’ a-ha moments when they grasped a concept, and hearing from former students who thanked them. The gratitude means more to educators than the public might assume. Many teachers keep students’ and parents’ thank-you notes in their workbags and reread them when they’re having a tough day.

Tough days have been adding up lately; teachers said the profession has never been more difficult than it is now. In addition to personally thanking them, as Scheinert did, the best way we can show our gratitude to educators is to give them the working conditions they deserve.

Teachers deserve smaller class sizes and larger paychecks. Penny, a Southern middle school math teacher whom I followed for a year, was a veteran teacher with 18 years’ ex­perience and a salary of $47,000. Higher pay for teachers benefits students, too. Students’ math and English test scores are “significantly higher in districts that offer a higher base salary to teachers,” according to a 2022 study.

Teachers deserve a safe working environment in which violence is not tolerated from students, parents or staff, and educators can report it and other transgressions without fear of retaliation. Many teachers told me they don’t advocate for themselves because they’re afraid that speaking up will endanger their job (which is why I’ve omitted or changed their names). They deserve fair, effective protections and mitigations contractually in place for school shootings and contagions. They deserve functioning HVAC systems and water fountains.

Teachers deserve more staffing: paraeducators, counselors, aides and a nurse in every school. When teachers are told to “do more with less,” a frequent phrase, the imbalance doesn’t just overwork teachers, it endangers students.

“Our counselors are overwhelmed by the number of crisis situations they face on a daily basis. At the same time, we cut a counselor and reduced support services like social work due to budget cuts,” said a Michigan high-school English teacher. “Students often come to me for support, but I have limited training in social-emotional support techniques, and the school simply does not have the support services in place to help these students. This is not an isolated problem. It is a national crisis.”

Teachers deserve to helm every committee determining school operations rather than policymakers who proclaim what should happen in the classroom despite never having taught in one. “So often, the government or administration tells teachers what we need to be doing. But we’re the ones in the classroom, spending hours a day with our students, hearing firsthand what they’re struggling with, seeing with our own eyes what changes really need to happen,” said a Colorado high-school science teacher.

Teachers deserve student loan forgiveness, tax credits for every penny they spend on school supplies, paid parental leave, time to observe other classes, less standardized testing and to be treated as skilled professionals. “Society gives respect to doctors, lawyers, firefighters, and military personnel. We, too, are professionals with training, advanced degrees, and state licenses. But teaching doesn’t get the same degree of respect as those other professions,” said a New Jersey high-school foreign-language teacher.

Teachers deserve a well-defined, realistic job description and enough protected school-day planning time to fulfill that job within their paid contracted hours. They deserve staff who assist with behavioral challenges, communicate with parents, and enforce consequences. Districts are wasting money on curriculum initiatives that add to teachers’ workloads without helping students, said a Maryland kindergarten teacher. “I’ve had two real moments of despair and demoralization this month alone, both of which are related to money spent on resources being pushed down teachers’ throats, without asking what we really need—which is always, always people, because you can’t buy time.”

Every teacher can tell you which child has a parent at home that mocks teachers.

And teachers deserve our trust. “They’re some of the most educated people in our workforce,” said Denisha Jones, who directs the graduate teacher education program at Sarah Lawrence College. “We expect them to know so much about so many different areas—child development, social-emotional development, curriculum development and assessment—and they do learn all that. We know what children need to make sense of the world. It’s really hard to get them there when so many people are questioning whether we know what we’re doing.”

At home, parents can model this trust for their children. “Parents who are against their teachers, those kids know,” Jones said. “Every teacher can tell you which child has a parent at home that mocks teachers. Those parents are a vocal minority, but they are vocal. The majority do not stand up to say something. That’s the hardest part. We don’t have enough of those voices. We need allies to push back in all sorts of spaces when they hear people saying something derogatory about teachers. Being open and explicit about support for teachers and schools is really important.”

To do so, consider forming community support groups to amplify educators’ voices, writing op-eds, taking out ads in media outlets or publicly testifying in support of teachers to school boards and district officials. Parents and community members can ask teachers their opinions on school board proposals, and write open letters, petitions, or sign-on statements that back the teachers’ stance. The more visible the support for teachers, the better.

As Scheinert said, teacher change lives. They are the most influential professionals during the formative years of future generations, and they are the key to fixing a floundering, needlessly politicized education system. It’s time we all thank them by treating them right.


March 2023