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Lori Ungemah Headshot

Thoughts on Teacher Appreciation Week

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There are many, many instances when my teaching life and my parenting life either overlap or stand in stark contrast to one another in painful or beautiful ways. These instances have only increased since my daughter entered pre-kindergarten this past fall in our neighborhood public school in Brooklyn. We live in an area that has very solid public schools -- people literally lie, beg and move their entire families to gain access to these elementary schools. Having worked in a high school where my students would warn me, "Miss, don't ever send your own kids here," I realize what incredible privilege I have in that I am able to provide my children with a safe, high-performing, well-funded (albeit by the PTA) school. But, having taught in Title I, quasi-safe, low-performing, poorly-funded (supplies mostly furnished by the teachers) school for a dozen years, I can't help but see the discrepancies constantly.

I have a constant stream of lamentations about the inequities, but every so often something concrete illustrates the huge division between the have and have nots in the public schools gets to me and I can't shake it off. This past holiday season was my first experience with this nagging discomfort.

Let me preface this with the disclaimer that my daughter is very lucky in that the kids and the parents in her class are lovely people. I live in a neighborhood known for its outrageous number of obnoxious helicopter parents, and somehow the families in her class of 18 are solid. I am sure this won't always be the case, but I am happy to have started our public school journey with individuals I don't have to hide from at the playground.

In early December, the class parent emailed us asking for contributions for holiday gifts for our lead and assistant teacher, both of whom are incredible (and that compliment comes with the harsh snobbery that a professional educator reserves for judging other educators). It is against Department of Education regulations to give teachers cold hard cash, so it had been decided to collect cash and turn it into a Visa check card because, hey, that's not cash! Email conversations flew about how much to give, when to give it, a card, etc., and my discomfort grew and grew like a giant pimple of discontent, especially when I realized that the collection was totaling hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of dollars.

I received two gifts from students during my teaching career. The first gift was from a young woman named Gloria, who was 16 years old and in the 8th grade. Both of her parents had died of AIDS, and she was living with her aunt in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Brooklyn. At Christmas, Gloria shyly came up to me and handed me a teeny, tiny porcelain mug. It had a wooded landscape painted on the side illustrating tall green trees and a brown deer standing in the grass. She mumbled that it was for me because, "You drink a lot of coffee." Although I would have to refill this mug approximately one million times to get my required caffeine dose needed for moderate performance, the gift moved me. This kid had nothing, but she chose to give me something that reminded her of me.

I am ashamed to say that the other gift was given to me by a young woman whose name I don't remember, but I remember her. She was smart, sweet, and funny -- a girl who would control the entire class with her intelligence or humor -- a natural leader. Amid the love and giving of Valentine's Day, she bopped into my classroom and handed me one earring. It was a brown kewpie doll, holding a heart. She said, "Miss, this is for you, because you're nice to black people," and she hugged me and left the room, leaving me standing there with this one earring in my hand. If I were more clever and quick on the response, I might have said, "I guess I'm not that nice, since you only gave me one earring!" but again, it was the sentiment and the words she said that have stayed with me years down the road.

Both of these gifts sit on my desk today.

Which brings me to Teacher Appreciation Week: My daughter's pre-K teacher and her assistant teacher received gift cards for the holidays that were approximately a week's worth of pay, each. And while I know that the money was full of good intentions and earnest thankfulness, as a teacher of low-income students who would stress out as the holidays grew closer because many of them didn't get many gifts and had no money to give gifts, I felt it was too much. Yes, teachers make lame salaries compared to many professionals with equal education levels, and yes, we all love a nice gift of cash, and yes, it could be considered the "bonus" that public servants don't receive, but it still felt wrong to me.

Appreciating your kid's teacher (or your own teacher, if you are a teenager/young adult/adult!) doesn't have to mean money. Write them a note. I never get tired of hearing from past and present students about how my class influenced their life in some way. Never. I have every note every student ever wrote me. No lie. Buy your teacher your favorite book and write them something in the front cover, even if it's a book from your childhood. They will read it, keep it, or maybe recycle it into their classroom library for other students to read, too. Make them a piece of art: I have a drawing one student made me of a marathon runner with a Picasso-abstract face and a Spiderman exclaiming, "I have the biggest wedgie!" tucked in my files with my notes. I love them. Bring them your favorite snack and tell them why you love it; they can always take it to the teachers' lounge because if they don't like it, somebody else will. But most importantly, tell them they have made a difference in your kid's life, or your life, or both. Tell them how and why. Be specific. Just tell them.

Because knowing that you made a difference in someone's life is, hands down, the best gift of all.

Much appreciation to the teachers out there who changed my life. You know who you are.