07/15/2011 12:54 pm ET | Updated Sep 14, 2011

Teacher Appreciation for More Than a Day

For decades, my grandmother boycotted Mother's Day. "Mothers should be appreciated every day!" she'd argue. By the time she was in her sixties, she surrendered, figuring she might as well be doted on once a year.

I'm all for teachers being appreciated, don't get me wrong, but Teacher Appreciation Day (May 3) ruffles my feathers. Teachers deserve such massive amounts of appreciation that to cram it into one day, or even a week, just feels dismissive.

As a teacher, I never felt particularly appreciated by my principal, colleagues, students, or parents. When acknowledgment of my work came, I relished it. It's just that it was so infrequent. The thing was, I knew that my school community appreciated me, but I don't think we knew how or when to express it; there were few structures to support this kind of recognition of our work.

Of course, those administrators, colleagues, students, and parents are not an exception in our society, and they themselves rarely feel appreciated. In general, we're a very unappreciative bunch of humans. Our attention is not drawn to strengths and successes; we're compelled to focus on weaknesses, to demand more, to be unsatisfied. We're equally hard on ourselves, often our own worst critic.

In the Classroom
When I taught, I worked diligently to build a classroom community where kids appreciated each other. A favorite activity for my elementary students was to draw the name of a classmate in morning circle, secretly observe that classmate during the day -- looking for behaviors to appreciate, and then in our closing circle each student would reveal the name of their buddy and appreciate him/her. For example, a student might say, "During math today I noticed that Gustavo helped Karina on a problem that was hard. He was very patient with her and even when she got frustrated he kept on helping her."

Imagine, please, what this was like for our class -- the way kids anticipated receiving positive feedback at the end of the day, how this motivated them to be kind members of our community, how they started focusing their attention on what their classmates were doing well, and what it felt like for all of us to hear 24 declarations of appreciation to close the day. My students came to insist that we do "Secret Appreciations" several times a week. Of all the community building activities I did, I think this one had the greatest impact.

Colleagues Appreciating Each Other
Many years later, while instructional coaching at a school, I suggested this same activity -- but with and for teachers. The first time we tried was at the start of a three-day back-to-school retreat. On day one, teachers drew the name of a colleague whom they secretly observed throughout the day. And at the end, they shared appreciations -- recognizing a behavior or action that had a positive impact on the group.

It was equally powerful and felt equally as good as it had felt with my students. The teachers requested that this practice continue on day two and three of the retreat, and then they carried it into the school year. Now, they draw the name of a colleague at their staff meeting each week, observe the colleague throughout the week, and share the appreciation at the start of the following week's meeting. I might actually argue that this simple practice has profoundly changed the staff culture.

Truth Be Told
Teacher Appreciation has to go beyond the single day. It needs to be expressed in a myriad of ways (including monetarily) and by just about everyone in our society. It is also something that teachers and principals can cultivate. We need to build cultures of appreciation in our classrooms and schools in order to do this.

We need to develop structures through which students can appreciate each other, and those who support them at school -- including those who clean the bathrooms, fix their lunches, and monitor recess. Principals need to appreciate their teachers -- and in more ways than the occasional bagel-breakfast; and teachers need to appreciate their principals (I don't think there's even a bagel-equivalent for them).

But really, I'd argue that it can be very simple: a short verbal appreciation goes a long way. What if every day we all appreciated five (or even ten!) colleagues, students, and parents? If nothing else, I know that I'd feel good doing it. If this was the case, I think I'd actually enjoy Teacher Appreciation Day a lot more.