04/29/2016 03:28 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2017

Appreciating Teachers

The difference between appreciation and flattery? That is simple. One is sincere and the other insincere. One comes from the heart out; the other from the teeth out. One is unselfish; the other selfish. One is universally admired; the other universally condemned.
-Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

The week of May 2-6 is Teacher Appreciation Week, and you will read many expressions of gratitude for our "hard-working teachers." That's great. Teachers deserve your gratitude, and today's teachers are criticized, evaluated, and developed, but not so often praised. When a teacher does receive thanks, it's usually from a parent or a student whose life was changed by that particular teacher. Politicians and pundits almost never express public gratitude without qualification--praise for some teachers but certainly not for others (the ones they want to fire!). We hear many people say nice things about individual teachers, but not about the teaching profession itself.

This is more than an academic distinction: The degree to which society respects and values a profession affects the satisfaction and morale of its practitioners, and at the moment satisfaction and morale in the teaching profession is pretty low and interest in teaching as a career has fallen.

These trends have not gone unnoticed, which has led to the increasingly visible Teacher Appreciation week, which comes this year with a toolkit of avatars and slogans from the Department of Education to help people thank their favorite teachers.

But while all this gratitude is great, it's only part of what's missing in American education policy. Real appreciation is more than flattery--it is reflected by actions, not merely words.

How does our society act towards the profession of teaching? Here two examples.

  • Each summer, US News convenes a large conference on STEM education, bringing together "the brightest minds in business, academia, and government." The 2015 conference had CEOs of major corporations, university presidents, many distinguished college faculty, and lots of administrators from education non-profits. But of the more than 50 luminaries listed as speakers, not a single one was a practicing K-12 teacher. Apparently CEOs and college presidents have much to contribute to a discussion about STEM education; teachers do not. Even among the dozens of people who served on panels throughout the 3-day meeting, there was only one K-12 teacher. A similar phenomenon occurs at almost every prominent conference and workshops on K-12 education--plenty of business people, lots of university folks, plenty of education pundits, but almost no teachers.
  • Something similar happens in the press. Glancing through three recent articles by Motoko Rich, the senior education reporter for the NY Times, I counted 17 people who were quoted, including college professors and deans, several lawyers, non-profit executives, a school superintendent, and even the mother of a student. There were precisely two teachers quoted, and one was a breezy reference to a comment made by her "favorite middle school teacher." Again, this is typical of education reporting. When education reporters write about education, they seek out the experts--policy makers, university researchers, business leaders, but seldom teachers (and often only then for color rather than expert opinion).

When it comes to talking or writing about education, we do not view teachers as experts. We do not trust them as professionals. Can you imagine an engineering conference without engineers as speakers? Can you imagine a science article with no input from scientists? Or a report on some breakthrough in medicine without a quote from a doctor? We treat the profession of teaching differently from all others.

The teaching profession needs two things in order to thrive--respect and trust. The two go together. You can say nice words and be grateful to teachers, but if you do not trust them as professionals, you are not showing them respect. Trust means giving teachers (appropriate) autonomy in their classrooms, but it also means giving them influence over policy--real influence, not a few token teachers on some committee--and it means giving them control over their own professional growth. We need to stop fixing teachers and create environments in which teachers themselves fix their own profession. We need to trust them to do so.

Will some teachers abuse that trust? Of course. That happens in every profession. We can deal with it. Far more will not, however, and on balance education will be greatly improved for everyone, and most especially for the students.

So by all means, during Teacher Appreciation Week express words of gratitude and give awards and flatter teachers who excel at their jobs. But let's also vow to trust teachers as experts, and to do it through our actions in addition to our words. That shows genuine appreciation--the kind that lasts and makes a difference.