Teacher Appreciation Requires Political Action, Not Just Free Snacks

This year, skip the brownies and call your legislators.

Teacher Appreciation Week is here, and parents, students and school districts all around the country go out of their way to offer their thanks for the work that teachers do. As a teacher, I can promise you that we appreciate the snacks in the faculty lounge, the discounts at some local stores and the kind notes from our parent/teacher organizations.

As much as we appreciate the kind gestures from our communities, Teacher Appreciation Week feels a little different this year. The elections of 2016 have surely had an impact on how appreciated teachers feel this spring. During President Trump’s inauguration speech he said that public education was a “system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge.” He included our schools as part of an “American carnage,” that was at the center of his view of our country.

Since taking office he has proposed a 14% budget cut to the Department of Education. Maybe most importantly, the president nominated Betsy DeVos, a billionaire with no educational experience, to lead the Department of Education. Ms. DeVos’s only work in the field of education has been to donate millions of dollars to candidates and organizations whose sole purpose is to divert tax payer dollars from public schools to private companies who seek to make a profit opening charter schools. It is important to note that the charter schools in Michigan (where Ms. DeVos has driven education policy for many years by funding Republic candidates who implement her agenda) score worse than their public counterparts according to an analysis of federal data. This is who Mr. Trump has chosen to lead our nation’s schools.

In my home state of Iowa, the Republican legislature and governor continued to underfund public schools while destroying collective bargaining for teachers. Republican legislators in Iowa tell educators that resources are limited at the same time that the state cuts hundreds of millions of dollars in tax credits to companies and individuals who pay no state income taxes.

While this week might be Teacher Appreciation Week, it seems that our legislators are doing all they can to demonstrate their appreciation to Big Business during every day of their legislative session. When we starve public schools in order to feed businesses who are making massive profits we are sending a message to the students who need the services that our schools offer.

It seems that our legislators are doing all they can to demonstrate their appreciation to Big Business.

I think it’s safe to say that teachers aren’t feeling very appreciated right now and there isn’t much on the horizon that will change that. Enrollment in teacher preparation programs has fallen from 691,000 in 2009 to 451,000 in 2014, a 35 percent decline, according to the study, “A Coming Crisis in Teaching? Teacher Supply, Demand and Shortages in the U.S.” What does it say about the state of education in our country that so many fewer students are choosing to become teachers?

What do teachers want during Teacher Appreciation Week? We are thankful for the treats in the faculty lounge and many of the other nice perks that are provided during the week, but that’s not what we really want. What we really want is for our communities to insist that our legislators not just talk about making education a priority, but to actually make education a priority. Public schools won’t change in our country until education becomes THE issue in national, state, and local elections.

We cannot say that we want better public schools while continuing to elect legislators who force austerity on our public schools in order to protect massive tax breaks for wealthy corporations. There is a narrative being told by those who are in favor of starving public education that our schools are filled with wasteful spending. If that is the case, what programs would you cut? Would you cut the arts? Would you cut programs for special needs children? Would you provide less technology? Would you eliminate industrial technology programs? Should we offer fewer world languages? Seriously, what would you cut?

In addition, there seems to be a belief that teachers advocate for more money simply to raise our own salaries. The truth is that, just like every other profession, salary impacts who chooses to enter the field. If we don’t pay teachers a fair salary, the shortage of smart young people going into teaching will continue to grow. Veteran teachers want nothing more than to hand off our schools to the next great generation of smart, driven, and dedicated education professionals.

There is one last thing you could do for Teacher Appreciation Week.

Take a moment and thank a teacher who changed your life in some way. While teachers want our country to truly invest in making our schools great, we know that teaching is about the privilege of helping young people grow. I encourage you to say “thank you,” to a teacher who made a difference in your life. I want to say thank you to Mr. Gartz, my high school band teacher who demanded excellence and who helped me to recognize the joy in making music. He was one of many teachers who made my life better. As we appreciate teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week, remember that great teaching doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is vital that we lend our voices and our votes to the cause of great public schools.