Teacher Appreciation Week has a bit of a different meaning for many of us this year. The past two months have recast k-12 education in ways few of us have planned for. Amid all of the news stories of parents who have grown past frustrated with this new era of virtual education and tales of teacher “parades” and six-feet apart visits with students who need them the most, there are some important lessons many are learning about what goes into effective teaching and what skills and knowledge teachers today (and tomorrow) need to properly adapt to anything that might be thrown in their way.
In addition to the policy implications, Teacher Appreciation Week also provides the opportunity to reflect on those k-12 educators who have had the greatest impact on me as a both a learner and a contributing member of the great American citizenry. For me, I find it incredibly difficult to single out one teacher worthy of thanks. I think of Mr. Wolf, my second grade teacher and the first “boy teacher” I had. Or Mr. Ertmer, who taught me both economics and world history and also got me to DC for the first time through Close Up. Or Ms. Walker (now Mrs. Sowers), my AP English teacher and student government advisor who let me question whether or not Shakespeare was really worth all the hype.
I’m also a firm believer that parents are our first teacher, and they are often our most important. So in honor of National Teacher Appreciation Day, I need to recognize Mrs. Riccards, my mother and a damned good high school English teacher in her own right. I was never privileged to have my mom as a teacher (that would have been too grand a punishment for such a terrific woman). But to this day, both in my personal and my professional lives, I reflect on the lessons she taught me and her experiences in the classroom.
My mother joined the teaching profession as a mid-career. When my youngest sister hit school age, my mom went back to school to get her teaching certificate. She student taught at an Indian school in New Mexico. She went on to teach 10thgrade English at urban, rural, and suburban schools in New Mexico, West Virginia, Massachusetts, and Washington, DC. My mother taught in traditional public schools, charter schools, and independent schools.
She walked the picket lines in West Virginia for two weeks, striking with every NEA teacher across the state for better pay and working conditions (they succeeded). She was a tough teacher, always pushing her students and demanding hard work. While many would try, no one could get her to compromise her standards, not even for star athletes, relentless parents, or administrators who didn’t want the hassle. As a result, her students learned and achieved. She probably had the greatest impact on all of the “basic” students she taught over the years, kids that many people had given up on, but she wouldn’t. She pushed them, and they responded. They learned the five-paragraph essay. They learned American literature. And they learned responsibility and to set high expectations for themselves.
And me? My mom was the first to point out I have a tendency to write in the passive voice. At an early age, she made clear she and my father would never pay for grades. “You don’t earn them for me, they are for you,” she would say. She has always been proud of me, encouraging and pushing me. But she is also quick to tell me when I am being too hard on teachers, when my expectations of school improvement are out of line, or when my position didn’t align with what a classroom teacher experiences.
So in honor of National Teacher Appreciation Week (and this weekend’s Mother’s Day), I offer a big thank you to a truly terrific teacher, Mrs. Riccards (or Ma, or Grandma at this point). Know you are both loved and appreciated by generations of students who are better off for having crossed your path (no matter how tough you may have been in that classroom).
As I reflect on those teachers, including my parents, that have had the most lasting of impacts on me, I can now see some key attributes that made them enormously successful as educators. They all received rigorous, comprehensive educations that provided them with a broad higher education experience that prepared them for any challenge in the classroom. They all believed in a collaborative approach, working closely with families, with community leaders, and even with higher education to strengthen and improve the teaching and learning process. And they were all firm believes in “lifelong learning,” recognizing that their pursuit of both content knowledge and pedagogy did not end once they earned their masters degrees in achieved tenure. They all knew one learns across a lifetime, not for a finite period, and they passed that lesson on to all those learners they encountered.
Decades of research have shown that the single-most important factor in school success is an effective teacher. One of the reasons I do what I now do — focusing on how to improve educator preparation to ensure more effective teachers and more engaged learners — is because I had some of those effective teachers, those best in the world teachers. They made a real difference for me, and I believe that ever learner — regardless of race, family income, or zip code — should have similarly life-changing teachers in their lives.
Those life-changing educators are the ones that every parent overseeing virtual home school today is trying to challenge. And they are teachers we should remember each and every day.