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All across the United States parents and caregivers are receiving and forgetting instructions on what they’re supposed to be preparing for their preschool and elementary school kids’ teachers. That’s because next week is officially “Teacher Appreciation Week,” an official holiday orchestrated by a combination of Classroom Parents and PTAs that, over the course of the last four decades, has exploded into an intricate, overly-complicated, largely hollow performance of gratitude.
This year, Teacher Appreciation is particularly overdetermined, because most teachers have had an ass of a year — attempting, based on their location and particulars of their situation, to balance potential COVID exposure, extreme hygiene theater, in-person learning, distance learning, hybrid learning, vitriolic attacks from parents on their unions, and generalized demoralization. Depending on the state and strength of union, many elementary and high school teachers may be struggling to make ends meet; almost everywhere, ECE teachers receive truly garbage pay. That was true before the pandemic, and as with so many jobs deemed “essential,” the garbage pay feels even more insulting.
Parents are also exhausted after this ass of a year, but the United States is particularly good at looking a sprawling problem like systemic disinvestment in public education square in the face and thinking “I bet some very small individual purchases will fix this.”
Teacher Appreciation used to be a single-day, celebrated on March 7th. But in the 1980s, the PTA (Parent-Teacher Association) lobbied to expand it to a full week — and move it to early May. Like so many other capitalist American rituals, Teacher Appreciation Week has come to individualize care, and gratitude, and behavior: so long as the parent practices gratitude towards their kids’ teachers in the form of thank-you notes and gifts, larger decisions (like, say, voting) that negatively affect the entire educational system (and other people, particularly people who aren’t like you) can be excused.
You might be saying: I really thought I was just getting my kid’s teacher a nice lotion from Bath and Bodyworks. You were, indeed, getting a nice lotion (in addition to the Starbucks giftcard, the homemade loaf of pumpkin bread, the mug that reads BEST TEACHER EVER, or whatever other slew of tokens has become an “optional” display of thanks). I’m not really trying to shame anyone who’s come to participate in these rituals, because they’ve been slowly normalized — and who wants to interrogate a gift-giving practice? But I am trying to call attention to the way in which practices like Teacher Appreciation Week enroll both parents and educators in a larger exchange schema that somehow manages to ask very little of parents and give very little to teachers in the most exhausting way possible.
Temporarily setting aside the fact that this is the sort of labor that almost always falls upon mothers, and serves as yet another way in which working moms, less financially stable moms, single moms, and/or less mobile moms can “fail” at public performances of proper motherhood…and also setting aside the many parents are already paying up to a third of their income on daycare and preschool…and also setting aside the fact that those failures often filter down and serve as sources of shame for children…and also setting aside the fact that making participation in these weeks “optional” is at once bullshit and gaslighting, these gifts don’t actually make the teacher feel supported.
When I started tweeting about these scenarios earlier this week, my DMs flooded with messages from teachers telling me about all of the lotions and tchotchkes and socks and candles they have to handle disposing every year. Some they have family members put them on Facebook Free Groups, because god forbid a teacher reject “appreciation.” Some they donate. Others they surreptitiously throw away. It’d be one thing if these gifts were actually coming from their students — if a ‘spa item’ overflowed with meaning. But it does not.
They’re like the gift from your Aunt who feels like they should give you a candle the size of your thigh for Christmas and you have to fly all the way home across the country with it before it sits in your closet before the next time you move. They’re like when your high school boyfriend got you Black Hills Gold earrings that were definitely not your style and you had to hide them in your jewelry box for years. They’re like the latest pair of tube socks your mom got you that go on top the 25 other pairs of unworn tube socks your mom got you. They are empty tokens. They’re the gesture that doesn’t count. These gifts can simultaneously “mean well” and serve to protect parents from larger, tougher, more challenging understandings of what support can and should look like.
So what does that support look like? The easiest route, at least in this moment, is money, filtered for actual use in the form of an actually useful giftcard. Depending on your background, you may or may not have internalized the idea that giving money as a means of thanks is tacky or untoward. That is bullshit posturing and you should forget it. A giftcard to Target will actual support a teacher in a way that a desk full of breakfast items cannot.
But that solution is also fairly shallow. There are several ways that you, as a parent or a caregiver or just an adult in the world, can support the teachers in your life in far more meaningful ways. In public, you can show up and back them and their unions at rallies. You can defend them when people start talking shit about them and their unions in Facebook Parent Groups. You can write them with specific and non-performative and non-passive-aggressive ways that they have impacted your child’s life, and be very clear that you don’t expect a response.
In private, you can vote for politicians and support policies — especially education levies — that move to robustly fund public education. You can vocally support national plans that conceive of childcare and preschool as essential infrastructure: a market failure that demands public investment in order to 1) be affordable & and accessible to all families and 2) pay a living wage.
You can get behind unionization efforts, like those in California, of ECE workers, because worker solidiarity doesn’t just mean supporting people in your union, or in your field, or in your particular vocation. It means supporting workers — which is what teachers are, no matter how much others try to conceive of their labor as ‘passion’ and thus ‘should be done at any salary’ — in their pursuit of a living wage and labor protections.
Teacher appreciation — outside of verbal and written praise — shouldn’t manifest in individual tokens that hinge on family income and gendered labor, because we actually have an efficient, effective, and generally fairly distributed way to show public servants our gratitude and support. It’s called taxes. Taxes are the way we “appreciate” the people who build our roads, the people who process our wedding paperwork, the people who maintain our buildings. And taxes should also be the way we appreciate our teachers: to adequately outfit their classrooms with enough supplies, to make a wage that allows them not to take on a second job and afford housing in their district, to have the sort of stability that makes it possible for them to continue to be one of the most important people in your children’s lives, but also the lives of children you’ll never know.
Taxes are our way of paying for civilization. They’re also our best, most seamless, least labor-intensive way of showing we value teacher’s work. That doesn’t mean that you can’t show appreciation in other purposeful ways. But conceiving of and publicly talking about taxes in this way — and even supporting (gasp!) paying more of them, and disarticulating school funding from local property taxes — is year-long, life-long teacher appreciation.
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I've been on both sides of the teacher appreciation juggernaut. I remember when my daughter was in preschool and I was hustling harder than ever (working full time as a high school teacher, commuting long distances, parenting a toddler, etc.) receiving an email from the room parent about all the different themed gifts I was supposed to be conceptualizing, planning and buying for my daughter's teacher. I was totally overwhelmed and angered by the situation. It was ONE MORE THING I had to do, or I'd let everyone down (or so I'd convinced myself). This was on top of having to put in work hours at the preschool cleaning the bathrooms one weekend a month, when my own bathroom at home was filthy. I remembered having been a preschool teacher (my first job out of college) and how goddamn tired and broke I was. I decided to "shirk my responsibilities" as a parent in the classroom, and decided to put cash in an envelope for each of my daughter's caregivers. This has been my move ever since. Now I give gift cards to grocery stores, art supply stores or Target.
As you point out, this in no way solves the problem of real appreciation in the form of meaningful reform, pay that honors, resources, societal respect, etc.
I can say that as a teacher the gimmicky gifts sometimes have the opposite effect of appreciation. They highlight how broken the entire system is. One year the PTA at my school put boxes of bananas in the lunch room with the note "Thanks a bunch!" on the box. The bananas sat untouched and rotted over the course of the next few weeks until I threw them out. It was honestly the most egregious, ridiculous and demeaning "appreciation" I've ever received. The smell lingered.
This year simple notes (an email would be great!) from parents or students would be enough to keep me going. I keep a file of these letters and notes in my desk and look at them when I feel like quitting the profession. They perennially remind me why, after 20 years, I continue to do the work. This year gratitude has been non-existent. I've heard a lot about how schools have failed kids, how teachers are to blame...but I've barely heard one word of thanks. It's a tiny gesture, but it's a start...
This column is right on the money. It's exactly the same as all those ridiculous "thank you frontline/essential workers!" signs that I see in my wealthy neighborhood—signs which do absolutely nothing, especially when I know the people around me oppose raising taxes to better everyone around them, think essential workers are "unskilled" and therefore don't deserve a living wage, and have traveled or disregarded public health mandates in the middle of a pandemic. (Also! No job is unskilled! That's a lie we're told and many of us perpetuate to justify dehumanization of people in minimum wage jobs!) I wish all that energy for candles and useless junk actually went into asking teachers what they want, showing up at school council meetings to back up teachers (and their union, if they have one), and demanding accountability from lawmakers who seem to also hate teachers. Get them to increase the pay for teachers—parents have so much clout because no one wants to make them mad, and parents should take advantage of that. Heck, *community members* should do it too; when teachers are actually materially supported and valued, we all benefit.