Since 1984, the first full week of May has been known as Teacher Appreciation Week. Recently, and rightly so, the staff who support our teachers and students have been included. I propose that appreciation doesn’t just happen for a week in the spring, but all year round, and that it extends to everyone who works in Utah’s public schools.
One of the great blessings of serving as State Superintendent of Public Instruction is the ability to visit schools across the state and observe the hard work and dedication of adults serving our children. . From Navajo Mountain in the San Juan District to Flaming Gorge in Daggett and Snowville Elementary in Box Elder, I have observed educators and staff in every corner of this state caring about student well-being and education.
My visits are an opportunity to meet teachers and staff who are passionate about their work and eager to see their students succeed. The best data on the impact of caring adults comes from conversations with students themselves. Without fail, students share real-life examples of how the adults in their school have had a positive impact on their education and well-being.
When schools closed in-person learning at the end of the 2020 school year, we saw our entire system pivot to online and remote learning. All adults in the system have worked together to bring materials, technology, meals and mental health support to homes to help families learn from home.
No preparedness or professional development programs have prepared our schools for a pandemic. Yet, as usual, our educators and staff have found creative ways to support students academically, socially and emotionally. Due to the impact of home learning on most students and families, our state has committed to reopening schools for the 2021-22 school year. Once again, our educators and staff have stepped up to take on additional roles to ensure students can learn in person. Although the year has been stressful and less than ideal, the fact that most of our students are learning in person has helped give families and students a greater sense of normalcy and has helped our economy stay strong.
Despite these heroic actions, this school year has been even more difficult for many of our teachers. In an attempt to be more involved and aware, some parents, experts and politicians have challenged the intentions of our great teachers. This negative message, along with our teachers spending many overtime hours ensuring their students are prepared to succeed and lead, has contributed to a system of educators and staff who feel burnt out and underappreciated. . Many teachers told me that they felt like they had gone from “hero to zero” in the eyes of the public, while remaining unwavering in their dedication.
Teachers are called upon to do a lot. They must be masters of the subject. They must be pedagogical experts to impart this knowledge to their students in a way that students – and every child – can understand. They need to unzip the student data to see where to start each year with a new group of students and where problems arise with that year’s class. They must keep abreast of the latest technological innovations and prepare their students for the digital world we live in. They must master an increasingly complex legal context that surrounds the world of education.
These tasks are important. They are the cogs in the education system. But the heart and soul of education comes from the care teachers and staff give to their students. Teachers understand that parents are the first and principal teachers of their children. They also understand that as educators they play a supportive role in helping students become their best selves.
They fulfill this role not only by mastering the subject matter they teach, but also by remaining aware of the societal issues so often reflected in today’s classrooms. Teachers see these problems reflected in the faces of their students: a kindergarten whose mother is terminally ill; a sixth-grader who has just been prejudiced for the first time; a ninth grader who comes to school in tattered clothes and has no idea where he will sleep tonight.
Teachers and staff strive to mitigate these tragedies while focusing on the triumphs of what students know and are able to do. They can see the light come on in a child’s eyes when they fluently read their first sentence, overcome a difficult math problem, weld a perfect bead, perform a piece of music perfectly, or understand a difficult passage from a work of poetry. Teachers and staff savor these moments of success and show up every day hoping and working for the success of every student.
So for the first week of May, at the very least, I invite you to join me in celebrating Teacher and Staff Appreciation Week. Let your child’s teacher know that you appreciate them. Thank those who work in support roles in our schools. Even if it’s been a while since you’ve been a student, let one of your childhood teachers know that you still appreciate them.
Better yet, let’s show our appreciation to our teachers and those who work alongside them by striving to be true partners in public education on behalf of every student. Although we can improve, working together from an appreciation perspective is essential. Our economic success, our civic engagement and our societal well-being depend on it.
Sydnee Dickson is the state Superintendent of Public Instruction and has held the position since June 2016.