Like many people I know, I spent many hours as a child “playing school” in my basement. Occasionally I had to be the student while my younger sister bossed me around, but mostly, I was the teacher. Looking back, there were a shocking number of unruly imaginary students in my classroom, but mostly, I loved creating worksheets, explaining concepts, and telling my students what a great job they did. I just knew I would be a fabulous teacher.

Fast forward to the summer after college, when I moved to Texas to start my job as a high school Spanish teacher. I was a little surprised to realize that all the fun decorations I planned for my classroom would need to come out of my own pocket, and grateful to the teacher whose classroom I took over when she retired for some of the things I could repurpose from her room. I spent the entire month of August in orientations, planning my first weeks of school, meeting with my new department, and getting my room set up. So it didn’t take long for the phrase “teachers have the summers off” to start to wear on me.

I loved teaching, but I didn’t love being a teacher. I soon found it impossible to use the pedagogical practices I knew were best for student learning when it meant reading and responding to 120 journals every week, or creating four different lesson plans a day to provide differentiated instruction. I happily kept my classroom open after school for those students I soon learned had nowhere else to go (my favorite time to build personal relationships with my students), but that meant that my school day started at 6:45 and wasn’t done until 5 – at which time I went home and graded papers or prepared an activity for the next day. Boys in the school knew there were no male teachers in our entire wing of the building and camped out smoking in the bathroom over lunch, making my classroom stink all afternoon. All of this was in the days before active shooter drills were needed, and at the front end of the development of annual testing requirements.

Things really ramped up when I became our building’s union rep. Stepping into that role, my eyes gradually opened to the fact that despite all the nice things people say about how wonderful and loving teachers are, there were critiques that were also broadly shared, like

You only work 9-3 for 9 months of the year, you should get paid less.

Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.

And a particularly harmful sideswipe I often heard even from people I thought were boosters of education: “Teachers are wonderful, it’s teacher’s unions that are bad. They don’t care about students, only protecting themselves.” As if unions were something other than simply a collection of teachers.

In the decades since I left teaching, these perceptions and attacks have only gotten worse. Teaching is still a profession that many people claim to love and respect, but those emotions are accompanied by policies that expect teachers to sacrifice not only time and money, but personal safety, private opinions, and professional respect, as well. Educators from preschool to higher education are leaving the profession in unprecedented numbers. As one faculty member I work with recently said, “Every year in education is more difficult than the year before.”

It is really easy to watch the news or check your social media and get a perception of teachers that is only a tiny sliver of reality, especially if you aren’t connected daily to schools. But virtually without exception, the teachers that I know and work with every day are people who care deeply about making sure that school is a place where all students can learn and thrive, so that they have every opportunity to live into their full potential as humans. And they make incredible sacrifices that no banker or engineer or lawyer is expected to do, in order to ensure their students have what they need.

This is Teacher Appreciation Week, and I see many terrific examples of ways to celebrate, from classroom supplies to gift cards to flowers and neck massages in the teacher work room (I thought this list was a particularly good one!). These are great! You should do them! But if you truly appreciate the educators in your life, here are three ways to really have the back of teachers:

    1. Talk about it on social media. Today, people who want to undermine public education and the people who work in it are very loud, and they tell a story about schools that is often not based in reality. If you appreciate the teachers in your life, counter that narrative with examples on your social channels of the great things educators are doing to support you, your kids, or others who need it in your community.
    2. Show up at board meetings. People who want to complain about education today are organized, and they are showing up in places of power and influence that you likely are not. Commit to attending at least two meetings next year of your local school board or college trustee meetings, which are public for all public institutions. See what decisions are being made and how they make teachers’ lives better or worse.
    3. Vote for people who support teachers. Many of the things that make teacher’s lives more difficult are decisions with your state governor and legislature. During the upcoming election season, learn about what your local teachers are saying they need to be successful (this often comes from a local teachers’ union or association). Then, ask candidates whether their plans align with what teachers say they need – and refuse to support those who don’t.

It is time for teacher appreciation to step it up several notches — or soon, there won’t be many teachers left to appreciate.