This week, parents and students are baking cookies and buying gift cards for teachers around the country. As sweet as these gestures are, Teacher Appreciation Week provides little material comfort to many teachers, including the 59 percent who work a second job to pay the bills. Muffins don’t tangibly help teachers — but they do assuage community guilt about poor pay.
Parent associations deploy their power organizing breakfasts in elementary school, while high school students bring their teachers doughnuts and even, at the school where I teach, carol from room to room. It’s heartwarming, but I love to hear them sing anytime, not just at appointed appreciation periods. As one friend whose parent association sends flowers for her children’s teachers told me, “Call me a cynic, but nothing says ‘So sorry you are underpaid’ like an enormous bouquet.”
The average teacher salary across the country is $58,950, down from seven years earlier and $2,000 less than the average annual salary for all college graduates. Averages hide a lot, including higher salaries for teachers with master’s degrees or doctorates who have been in schools for decades. In states such as Arizona and Colorado that have seen walkouts this year, the averages are below $50,000.
Communities try to help (or buy off) teachers through projects on DonorsChoose and other platforms, where you can pay for whiteboards, iPads, and, for one Oklahoma classroom, chairs. Last month, a cryptocurrency startup gave $29 million to cover all classroom asks in the United States on DonorsChoose — generous, but a drop in the funding bucket.
In comparison, Philadelphia’s annual school budget is nearly $3 billion. Occasional donations, even in the millions, can barely cover repairs in those Philadelphia school buildings with flaking lead paint, mold, and asbestos, as the Inquirer reported last week, requiring billions in repairs or rebuilding. Covering basic classroom needs through private donations is not a sustainable model.
Teacher appreciation weeks and donations not only don’t help, they may make things worse by deprofessionalizing a highly skilled job. There is no attorney or contractor appreciation week: presumably those professions are compensated well enough that they don’t need token brunches to fill the gap. There is also a gendered element to these displays of thanks to female-dominated professions. Like Administrative Professionals Day (April 25), Nurses Day (May 6), and even Mother’s Day this Sunday, Teacher Appreciation Week is a poorly concealed effort to buy goodwill with baked goods instead of raises.
Of course, teachers do work with children, which seems to qualify them for special hardship bonuses in the form of flowers or cards. Yet pediatricians and coaches do as well, but they don’t get weeks of pastries, likely because these are traditionally high status or male-associated jobs. Elementary school teaching, nursing, and secretarial work are the most common jobs for women — and all have official appreciation days and weeks, while only one explicitly relates to children. The most common occupations for men — drivers, managers, and retail supervisors — go tragically unacknowledged. (Household calendars tend to miss Truck Driver Appreciation Week, in the second week of September.)
So, what should teachers get instead of bagels? More than just living wages, competitive salaries that acknowledge their skill and training, on par with doctors and lawyers. I work in a district that pays relatively well and feel fairly appreciated. (On a personal note to my students, I have no problem accepting chocolate whenever you feel moved.) Teacher walkouts in Arizona, Oklahoma, Colorado, Kentucky, and West Virginia — states that cut taxes and let wages stagnate — may obviate the need for “appreciation.” Given the choice of good schools or no schools, state governments have been starting to find the money, even if they have to make some uncomfortable choices to do so (such as raising taxes).
In Pennsylvania, whose school funding has been called the “most inequitable in the nation,” districts and parents are also seeking aid not through donations but through a lawsuit against the state for underfunding high-poverty districts. States and cities, not PTAs alone, need to find the money. In Jersey City, N.J., where I live, a group called Jersey City Together recently asked the board of education to use the full property tax levy, leading to $5.3 million in additional revenue and reducing the chance of teacher layoffs following a new contract.
“We have to come to terms with what it costs to educate our children,” says Brigid D’Souza, an accountant who writes about school finance at civicparent.org. As nonprofit workers, teachers may be easily undervalued. “The conundrum is, how do you measure social impact?”
Teachers spend years honing their craft, mastering not only content, classroom management, and data collection, but also the art of the parent email reply. Parents and governments appreciate them most when they treat them as the skilled professionals they are.
Carly Berwick is a journalist and teacher in New Jersey.