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Keeping it Real: The True Art of Teacher Recognition

A few years ago, I met a former teaching colleague for dinner. As conversation inevitably turned to shop talk and gossip, she shared a story about a fellow teacher who exited the profession. “She just didn’t feel like anyone recognized her work,” my colleague said. Generally speaking, a teacher looking for professional recognition on a continuous basis might exist in a deficit mindset. However, schools often confuse the authentic and meaningful process of teacher recognition for the far more surface-level process of appreciation. While teacher appreciation is usually, ahem, appreciated (most of us love free food or swag), it doesn’t really tap into whether school leaders have a depth of understanding about the work of their teaching staff. In order to both improve school climate and create genuine methods for teacher recognition, setting up structures for meaningful exchanges is vital. What can leaders do to implement best practices with teacher recognition?

Open up avenues for teacher-to-teacher recognition.

I used to share a classroom with a colleague whom I jokingly referred to as “roomie.” One day, she walked up to me after class. “Your students always have such rich conversations,” she said. “I love how you allow them the time and space to say what they need to say and still keep the learning going.” That day, her words gave me a warm glow that I still carry with me. When teachers express whose opinions that they most value regarding their work, they point to colleagues. After all, who better understands what they’re going through? School leadership can help teachers make connections to one another by covering classes so that peer visits are possible. Nothing is more powerful than the opportunity to observe instruction and to share strategies, and leaders providing support with logistics can allow that process to occur.

Make it possible for students to recognize teachers with intention.

At the end of last school year, a teacher in my department walked into my office with the hugest smile on his face. “I just talked to a student that I thought hated me. Do you know what he said? He said that my class saved him and it was the only reason he wanted to come to school each day.” I was effusive in congratulating the teacher for creating such a beautiful learning environment, but I knew that my praise was nothing in comparison with what the student had shared. Kids usually don’t realize how much their positive feedback motivates teachers. To help create a more intentional process around student recognition of teachers, organize a table at lunchtime in the cafeteria a few times a year that is equipped with paper and pens. Then, encourage students to write notes to their teachers. Depending on the age group, notes can include sentence stems or other helpful tools. For older students, ask them to be as specific as possible with their recognition so that it comes from a place of genuine feeling.

Take time to observe instruction and provide the time and space for feedback.

Early in my teaching career, an administrator stuck his head into my classroom. “Looks good,” he said. “Thanks!” With that three-word observation, he disappeared. I remember feeling upset that he had no time to actually see what I was doing or provide any real thoughts. Too often, when teachers are perceived as meeting standard, they are very rarely visited by leaders. Instead, they are left to their own devices, which can be frustrating when skillful teaching practice involves growth based upon meaningful feedback. To recognize what teachers do, leaders must prioritize classroom visits for all staff, not just for those who are struggling. That way, when they provide recognition, it will be specific. Administrators understandably spend a lot of time putting out fires, making it hard to focus on providing instructional feedback; however, it is one of the most important aspects of building continuous school improvement and teacher efficacy.

At one school where I taught, I looked forward to Pi Day each spring. The PTSA would bring in all kinds of pies and provide a buffet for teachers. As delicious as that day was, it was appreciation, not recognition. I did not walk away from Pi Day with anything other than a full stomach and a sense of gratitude for the PTSA. Teachers do not leave the profession because they are not getting perks; they leave because they think that those closest to them do not see what they do, or even worse, that still fewer care. If we just do a few simple things to increase efforts toward true teacher recognition, the positive results of these actions will lead toward increased teacher retention and a healthier school climate.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS