In 2011, I had the privilege of traveling to Thailand and Vietnam on a Fulbright Scholarship. On the way to Thailand, one of the flight attendants came over the loudspeaker and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have teachers on board our flight today. Please join me in a round of applause to thank them for their service.” This announcement was a welcome surprise because I had never before experienced such open gratitude for what I do.
While in Thailand, we were treated like royalty. Literally. Children threw flowers at our feet and hung leis around our necks as we entered schools. People greeted us with wide smiles and small gifts everywhere we went. We experienced life as a teacher in a culture that values educators above most other professions. In fact, professors and teachers in Thailand are given their own special honorific separate from the rest of the population: Ajahn.
That moment on the plane to Thailand and the trip that followed gave me pause for many reasons, but a thought keeps running through my mind since: Who we applaud represents what we value as a society.
In her memoir, Yes, Please, Amy Poehler refers to the applause and the validation that comes with it as “the pudding”—the ultimate prize in one’s career. For her, an actor, this means a fancy award presented by beautiful, famous people after walking a red carpet. For us teachers, “the pudding” is a dish we rarely get to taste. Poehler writes, “To be…valued for your work is a whole lot better than being ignored. Nothing is worse than being ignored.” Yet, being ignored is a step up for most teachers, who are often the scapegoat for every problem in education. Feeling valued is a rare, but pleasant, surprise for most of us.
Our public schools are full of phenomenal teachers who arrive early, stay late, sponsor every club, and cheer at every sporting event because they care so much for their kids. Yet, many leave faculty meetings with lists of more things to do and a pervasive understanding that it still isn’t enough. If Amy Poehler doesn’t get “the pudding”, she still gets to go home and be a famous celebrity whose morning trip to the grocery store is worthy of front page news. Even without awards, people still validate the work that Poehler does. She gets a red carpet. She gets praise. She gets pats on the back at every turn. People show her they care about how she has chosen to contribute to the world. But for teachers, our day to day effort–exhausting, sometimes debilitating, sometimes heartbreaking effort–goes mostly ignored.
There is no red carpet for reminding an unmotivated student for the hundredth time that school is important. There is no golden statue for being the center of the world for one hundred other human beings all day long—for going nonstop from dawn to dusk so that we forget to eat or go to the bathroom. There is no applause when we walk out of the building into a dark, empty parking lot, then go home to eat microwave popcorn for dinner while grading papers. It is for these reasons, and many others, that teachers face greater burnout that most other professions. Our culture as a whole does not often validate our work.
It’s not all so dark, though. Our students applaud us. If we’re lucky, parents and administrators do too. But, most importantly, teachers applaud each other. I’ve been pretty lucky in my career to have had a particular knack for surrounding myself with those who are much better educators than me, who provide unending support and encouragement. Because of these countless people, I’ve been especially lucky of late to taste the ultimate “pudding” in our profession—Teacher of the Year. Even though this award has been such an honor to receive, I recognize that there are forty thousand great teachers in Kentucky, each and every one of them going home with sore feet, scratchy throats, and aching backs carrying the load of educating the next generation of Kentuckians. Why have we come to a point when once in a blue moon a teacher—a single teacher—is recognized among the thousands? There should be more ways of applauding every deserving teacher every day, not just one, once a year.
I don’t know what those ways are, but as I approach a sabbatical in the spring, I will make it part of my work to speak with educators across the state about ways to validate and celebrate our craft. I think a good start would be to take the time to celebrate and recognize those teachers we know who inspire us. So many of those moments in Thailand when I felt valued were small, simple moments of recognition. The truth is, we may not live in a culture that openly values and actively applauds teachers, but if we take the time to applaud each other, it may not be the ultimate prize, but it could be a start. There are no red carpets or flowers thrown at our feet, but what we do matters to the lives of the people around us, and there should be a real way for honoring each other.