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How to THANK a teacher!

Normally I write posts with math teachers as my audience. Not today. Today I want to speak to the Principals, Mentors, District officials, Superintendents, Parents, and Community Members.  My hope is that you will read this post and give at least 10 minutes in the next 48 hours to thanking a teacher – not matter if it is May, September 1st or the middle of summer.  

This week (May 6-11, 2019) is national teacher appreciation this week. There will be lots of pictures of apples and a flurry of effusive general praise sent out in tweets and emails thanking teachers for their work. The superintendent will send an email.  So will every building principal.  So will the head of teaching and learning.  The Assistant principals, school board members, parent group leaders, the local news and more will all follow with short pieces thanking every teacher. If teachers are really lucky there will be a piece of chocolate in their mailbox attached to a flyer with a picture of an apple with a standard thank you – the same one give to everyone. Or if you are really, really lucky – teachers will get a free breakfast of doughnuts and juice (and weirdly no apples – they are always pictured with things having to do with teachers – yet I’ve never once in my 28 years of education eaten one at school unless it was part of my lunch). All of this is great – but I thought I would offer up some ideas of what us teacher really would love for you to do for us this week and really all year. Note: This is purely my opinion – not all of us teachers are the same.  If you are a teacher – I’d love to hear your ideas below in the comments.

7 TIPS FOR THANKING TEACHERS

TIP #1  Be specific

The general emails and tweets during teacher appreciation week are great – but has meant more to me in my career are the short (1-2 sentences – paragraph at most) emails or conversations where someone has shared a very specific thing I’ve done as a teacher that made an impact.  For example…

  • Sara, last night my daughter told me that she misses having you as a teacher because even though you made her work hard, you really made her think and she knows she got smarter.
  • Sara, I noticed that you attended the the basketball game last night.  I saw you seek out a student and tell that how amazing they were.  Thank you for taking time away from your own family to invest in the lives of our students.
  • Sara, I walked into your room during class and all of your students were up and talking about math.  I was only there for a couple of minutes – you did not even see me – I loved how engaged the students were.  I asked a student what they were working on and they taught me what a logarithm is.  
  • Sara, my student is feeling so confident with mathematics this year.  I caught him helping his younger brother with math and usually they are fighting about who sits where when they are playing video games.  Thank you.

I personally would way rather get a one sentence of something specific about who I am as a teacher and what I am getting right – then a free doughnut.  (I like doughnuts too – I’d love both).  The general emails of praise sent out this week somehow turn me off, because they don’t feel like you see me as an individual. 

A MESSAGE TO ALL ED LEADERS:  As teachers we know best practice is to first build relationships with every single student.  We are asked to study our students, get to know them as individuals – to know their passions, hopes and dreams.  We get to know our student’s cultures.  Last year, I had 170 students I studied and built relationships for.  On Pi day I wrote every single one of them a personal note with a specific thing I noticed about them and their strengths and assets.  I wrote just a sentence or two.  I did this multiple other times in the year too.  My students need to hear this – read this.  If I (and every other teacher I know) can do this – so can you as a leader. 

I dare every building and district official to write a minimum of 170 personal notes to teachers this week. In each write a sentence that proves you know that teacher as an individual – that you see teachers as part of your school community. District officials (this includes you school board members) – If you can’t do this for 170 teachers because you don’t know them well enough like we know every student – then I’d love for you to spend time this week looking at how you can study your teaching staff and see their assets and build relationships with them.  Model for us teachers what you would love to see us doing with our students.  

TIP #2 “You know what I heard someone say about you?”

Often we hear students, parents, teachers or leaders saying something really nice about a teacher in our schools.  Those things said behind their backs never makes it to the teacher directly.  Students may be too shy to say something.  Teachers and other leaders may be too busy.  What I started doing years ago as a teacher was every time I heard something positive about a teacher being said I would write it down, not name the source and email it or put it in the teachers mailbox.  This practice may have changed me more than my teaching peers because it keeps my focus on naming the good in education and I get so many teachers emailing me back saying “Thank you Sara for telling me that.  I needed that today.  I don’t hear enough of this.”.  It is true.  Teachers are loved – they just don’t hear it enough.  

If you want to do the same as me..here is the template…

Hello friend! 
Today, when you were not around, I heard a ___(student/teacher/leader/parent)___ say the following about you:  _________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________.  I just thought you would like to know.  Have a great day.  Thank you for all the work you do on behalf of South HS students.  You matter.  – Love, Sara VDW

Don’t wait to put these thoughts on fancy note cards.  Post-it notes work great.  Email is great.  Just do it.

TIP #3 Teacher Appreciation Week is during the most emotionally raw time for math teachers each year.

The timing of teacher appreciation week for math teachers is interesting.  Math teachers have the greatest stress of anyone in K-12 education this time of year.  We are the only ones responsible for up to 1/2 of the publicly reported metrics in our school and district.  Often our leaders have things built into their job performance connected to math metrics.  Everyone in the building is expected to contribute to reading assessment performance, but math teachers are left holding math performance on their own shoulders.  May is at the end or in the middle of testing season in schools across america.  Math teachers during this time are feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, shame, and exhausted.  We can be our own harshest critics.  Many feel like failures as teachers.  Even if testing went well, we tend to focus on what did not.  Our emotions are raw.  The littlest thing, sometimes even a compliment, can set us off into tears or make us want to quit the profession.  The testing culture in America has created anxiety ridden students that we support and love on – but often math teachers own emotional needs during this time are overlooked.  

One thing most math teachers would love for Teacher Appreciation Week – would be a removal of the stress and anxiety around testing and scores.  What structures in your building can you change change the negative aspects of testing?  Start planning now so that testing season 2020 does not carry this weight for students and math teachers.  Ask for specific ways to eliminate testing anxiety and stress and work to change those things.

TIP #4 Ask for advice.

A greatest form of praise for a teacher is when a someone (including those in leadership) say something like “I noticed your classroom you ________________.  Can you tell me how you made this happen?”  If you say something like this to a teacher what you are saying to them is…..

  • I noticed something specific you do well.
  • I value your expertise and want to do know more. I can learn something from you.
  • I see you and want to hear from you.

Even if you think you know how they do the thing you ask about – asking them for advice may reveal something you did not know already.  Asking for advice levels the playing field between leaders and teachers and creates community.  

TIP #5 Consider separating appreciation from feedback.  

Many leaders I’ve worked with as a teacher or now as a leader have done a phenomenal job of seeing and naming teacher’s strengths and assets.  One way this is done is after an informal walk through of a classroom a leader immediately sends feedback to the teacher with 2-3 positive things and 1 area to grow in.  Sometimes these things get cute names like “Glows and Grows’. 

As a teacher, I know how I receive these well meaning emails or notes.  I appreciate the positive things for 10 seconds, but quickly forget about what was said and obsessively stew (in my overly busy overwhelmed self) about the noted area of growth.  All the work by the leader to note what went well is lost to what they think I don’t do well. (even the cute plant growing out of the ground can’t save my reaction)  You could have told me I was the best teacher ever, but I will not see that if I see even one small thing I should work on.   I read too much into what they said.  At times misjudge what was meant and spin in my head about what they must think of me and fear losing my job.  At year 28 – I am not quite this bad, I’ve learned how to take feedback, but every week I am coaching really good young teachers into saying in the profession because they only see the bad and not the good.  

Giving and receiving feedback is an important part of our jobs.  Do it.  But at times, consider giving feedback on what teachers are doing well – show appreciation – outside of also giving an area of growth.  If you want teachers to hear what is working.  Isolate that message so they don’t skip over it.  

TIP #6 Thank a teacher outside of the Teacher Appreciation Week.  

Sometimes teacher appreciation week feels for teachers like something that is being checked off of leaders list.  In our heads we imagine you saying, ‘Great, I sent out my yearly email thanking teachers.  Check.  I can check that off the list until our first meeting in the fall.’.  Don’t get us wrong, we appreciate anything during teacher appreciation week, but want keeps us in the profession is the gratitude we receive continually throughout the year.  We believe your general email of thanks the week set aside to honor us if you have also modeled your thanks with acts of gratitude with a personal touch all year.  

TIP #7 Do something! (more than sending a global general email or tweet)

At one school I worked at a parent came to me at the start of the year and told me, “I will be here in the building every Tuesday from 9-10:30am.  Give me anything you want me to photo-copy, cut, organize, clean…etc.  She showed up and did this.   IT WAS THE BEST.  I FELT APPRECIATED.

A community member with no relationship to a school I worked in showed up in the principals office with 10 amazing electronic pencil sharpeners and said “Give these to any teacher you think would love one”.  My principal walked into my room later that day and plugged one into the wall for me.  IT WAS THE BEST.  I FELT APPRECIATED.

An assistant principal showed up in my classroom after school one day, stacked all my chairs.  Told me to put my feet up and told me what they appreciated about me as they worked.  IT WAS THE BEST.  I FELT APPRECIATED.

A colleague told me what they hear students saying they loved about a project in my class, asked about the project and asked me for my advice.  IT WAS THE BEST.  I FELT APPRECIATED & VALUED.

A district leader walked into my room and dropped a hot white mocha from a nearby coffee shop on my desk while I was teaching with a note that said “Thanks for working hard for South HS students and families”.  This person noticed what I was drinking at a meeting months earlier, remembered and showed up unannounced.  IT WAS THE BEST.  I FELT APPRECIATED.

A parent showed up after school one day with cleaning supplies and washed all my classroom tables and boards.  IT WAS THE BEST.  I FELT APPRECIATED.

A parent tweeted out a picture of my play table and said “I wish all teachers made space for play in the math classroom.  Look at what I made.  IT WAS THE BEST.  I FELT APPRECIATED.

A student I taught 19 years ago sent me a Facebook message telling me how my class made them feel – all these years later.  IT WAS THE BEST.  I FELT APPRECIATED.

It does not matter what you do.  Do something.  Do it regularly.  Do in unannounced.  Small is all we look for.  Notice us teachers getting it right.  Name it.  

Need Ideas?  Here are some I’ve collected.  In no particular order….. 

For those of you with bad 50 year old eyes like me… you can download it HERE: 30 ways to thank a math teacher.

As always, I’d love to hear what you think. If you are a teacher – what makes you feel appreciated or loved?  If you are a parent or leader – what do you do?  What questions do you have.  Tweet at me @saravdwerf or comment below.  Also, check out my new Math Teacher Instagram Page HERE.  I am currently, out of the classroom.  This week I am committed to writing 170 1-2 sentences of specific things I’ve noticed about 170 classroom teachers directly to them.  I’ve already done 40.  I’m busy….but classroom teachers are busier.  If they can find time to give value 170 students each day.  I can find time to value 170 or more teachers this week.  May you do the same.  If 170 is too much pick a number you can do.  1 is good.  10 is better.  Thank you to all classroom teachers.  You do have the most difficult job in education.  I see you.  I hope to be a leader that you believe values your humanity and your work.  

Lastly, I tweeted out today asking teachers how they would like to be thanked.  Check out this thread and read the words from teachers for more ideas.  So far their ideas pretty much match the ones I’ve shared above.  Click the thread below to read more.

Sara VanDerWerf
 

I am Sara Van Der Werf, a 24-year mathematics teacher in Minneapolis Public Schools. I have taught math in grades 7-12 as well as spent several years leading mathematics at the district office. I currently teach Advanced Algebra at South High School and I'm also the current President of the Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics (MCTM). I am passionate about encouraging and connecting with mathematics teachers. I'd love to connect via twitter.  Join the community.  Tweet me @saravdwerf.

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