A Moment with Dr. Moore

May 22, 2024

What Teachers Want: Marking Teacher Appreciation Week

“I have always felt that we do not give an honorable enough place in our communities to teachers,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote on January 14, 1953. “Next to parents, they are the most important people in our communities. It is quite impossible to give teachers monetary compensation that will repay their devotion to the job and the love that must go to each and every child. But I think we could compensate a little more adequately the teachers in our communities if we were conscious of their importance,” Roosevelt pointed out in her popular newspaper column, My Day.

The former first lady reached millions of readers between 1935 and 1962 as she expressed her views on social and political issues, current and historical events, as well as her private and public life. And in that column from January 14, 1953, Roosevelt called attention to the role teachers play in building the future of our nation. “It is in the classroom that our children get their best lessons in democracy, and the men and women teaching our children must remember that school experience is just a preparation for the wider experience of life and citizenship in a democracy.” And “one way to encourage teachers is to do them honor on National Teachers Day,”—an occasion Roosevelt did much to bring about.

She took her cause to Congress in 1953 and convinced it to pass a joint resolution making the first Tuesday of every March National Teachers Day. Still, it took 27 years longer for it to become an official national day. That wouldn’t take place until 1980, when the National Education Association joined with the Kansas and Indiana State Boards of Education and lobbied to have the day recognized nationwide on March 7. Then, in 1984, the PTA successfully lobbied to move the holiday to May and expanded it to encompass an entire week. Eleanor Roosevelt’s idea for honoring teachers became Teacher Appreciation Week.

This month, it was again that time of year when teachers receive flowers, cards, emails, muffins and mugs as thanks for their work. But teachers still don’t feel valued and often speak grimly about the roadblocks they face. Novice teachers fear that they are drowning as they try to lead their classrooms with little support from other teachers. Seasoned teachers feel isolated from colleagues in the one teacher, one classroom model or feel that the principal of their school is not helping them to continue growing their skills. And many of these veteran teachers take jobs in administration because it’s the only real avenue for career advancement.

It’s no wonder that we struggle to staff schools with the diverse and talented teachers that young people need. For more than a decade, fewer people have been pursuing teaching careers, and 20 percent or more of new teachers leave the profession within five years. Now children who are old enough to go to primary school are entering just as teacher flight reaches its peak after years of declining working conditions and worsening compensation.

Take the case of Wisconsin, for example. Between 2010 and 2021, the inflation-adjusted median salary of the state’s K-12 teachers fell by about $6,000 and fringe benefits fell by nearly $8,500. Meanwhile, insurance co-pays and deductibles shot up, as attendees heard at a recent meeting of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. And there’s a disconnect between these figures and a well-researched fact. Having a great teacher is the single greatest factor in student success. So, teachers deserve more than just our thanks one week of the year, said Dan Rossmiller, the government relations director of the association. “They also deserve respect and to be treated as the professionals they are.”

The best way to show we appreciate teachers is to invest in them and make sure they have the resources and tools they need to be successful. And that’s especially true for our early childhood teachers since what they do directly affects children’s future learning outcomes and lifelong success. Yet wages for early childhood teachers lag far behind those of their K-8 peers, a gap that deepens inequities, too. Black and Latina women, who make up a large part of the early childhood field, have poverty rates that are about 7.7 times higher than other teachers. Meanwhile, they’re overworked and stressed out, wearing too many hats and leaving the early childhood profession at rates never seen before.

It’s time for us to do more than talk about how much we love our early childhood teachers and heed Roosevelt’s call to action. I’ve worked hard as Council CEO to raise our educators up, and I’m glad to see that some state and local governments are taking up the cause, too. Last year, Minnesota signed into law the Great Start Compensation Support Payment Program, which provides $316 million this year and $260 million every two years that ensue to directly boost early childhood teachers’ pay. Recently, the Early Educator Investment Collaborative, a group of high-profile foundations, awarded $9 million in grants for state and local partnerships in Colorado, Louisiana and Washington, DC. The grants will support public systems innovations to increase and sustain benefits and compensation for the early childhood workforce.

And in Philadelphia, Mayor Cherelle L. Parker is also taking steps to grapple with the child care shortage. A new $3 million program will provide bonuses of $1,500 for assistant teachers and $2,000 for lead teachers who stay on their jobs for the upcoming school year. In addition, the city will provide teachers with stipends to attend summer training on how to support children facing trauma and mental health issues, Parker said at the Citywide Play Date where she announced the bonus program. “As mayor and a working mother,” she explained, “I know very well that improving and investing in pre-K education is critical to ensuring our children have high-quality support, so they are prepared for kindergarten, elementary school and beyond.”

No matter what path a young person takes, we should ensure that no doors are closed to them in the future, as Khalid N. Mumin, Pennsylvania Secretary of Education, pointed out this month. “So, consider asking your lawmaker to support a budget that invests in education, from pre-K to secondary,” he said. “That’s the gift that will keep giving for generations to come.” No doubt, it has a positive impact that lasts beyond the first years of a person’s life and even affects their children, as lots of solid research has shown.

When children receive quality early learning, they’re not the only ones who come out ahead. We all benefit, too, as Eleanor Roosevelt pointed out in her My Day column some decades ago. “Children are future citizens, and if they are neglected in these early years, it will hurt not only the children themselves but the community as a whole. Many communities can carry the expense of such organization for children’s centers without state or federal help, but where state help is needed, it should be given. And when states are incapable of giving sufficient help, it should be forthcoming on a national scale.”

And this message from My Day continued to ring true this month as we marked Teacher Appreciation Week, the holiday Roosevelt sparked in 1953. Now, as then, giving teachers coffee mugs and muffins is nice, but it’s no way to show how much we value the important work they do. So, like Roosevelt, I’m doing my best to speak out on behalf of our teachers. It’s time for us to get out and make people realize that teachers serve the public good. We need to give our teachers what they want: the respect, raises and room for professional growth that will really make their day.

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