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Here’s What We Can Do to Empower America’s Teachers

For over 30 years, parents, community leaders, advocacy organizations, and policymakers have come together for one week in May to honor educators’ contributions across the country.

Teacher Appreciation Week offers us a chance to commemorate the passion our teachers devote to their instruction. We take this time to applaud the additional investments in school supplies and instructional materials educators make for our children—and acknowledge the extra hours they invest in supporting our students’ extracurricular and academic pursuits.

However, this Teacher Appreciation Week carries a different tone. Educators across the country are making their voices heard to policymakers, fighting for better pay, more up-to-date classroom resources, increased autonomy, and greater levels of support in their schools. We instead should use this week to confront how the teaching profession has fallen prey to a perfect storm of factors, becoming one of the most underappreciated fields in America.

The storm starts at the statehouse, as legislators across the country have implemented cuts for years that have left teachers without raises, forced schools to reduce their teaching corps, increased class sizes, and starved classrooms of up-to-date textbooks and modern technology.

At the same time, accountability-focused policies have challenged our teachers to meet extremely high standards. Studies over the past decade show how these very policies have limited their autonomy, accelerated burnout, and prompted record levels of turnover. On top of these expectations, educators have assumed additional roles in the classroom, supporting students as they grapple with traumas such as increased homelessness, food insecurity, and the damaging aftereffects of the opioid crisis.

These changes have wreaked havoc at the beginning of the teacher pipeline. According to a report by the Learning Policy Institute, teacher education enrollment dropped by over 35% between 2009 and 2014. A 2016 national survey of college freshmen reported the number of students who intend to major in education has reached its lowest point in 45 years.

To overcome this teaching crisis, policymakers and reformers must shift from the past focus of considering these as separate policy issues. Due to limited professional development for educators, many don’t have the resources or strategies to cope with challenges in the classroom—and they’re burning out. Increases in teacher pay alone cannot offset this. Likewise, additional funds for school supplies and educational technology will not alone help teachers adequately teach their students critical social-emotional skills.

Instead, we need to shift to a holistic approach that takes all of these factors into account—one that, for example, not only offers our teachers additional classroom resources, but also additional school support staff to best serve children’s needs.

States can begin to address the problem by prioritizing education in their budgets, reversing the decline in investment per student in more than half the states between 2008 and 2015. West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Arizona—four of those 29 states—have taken the lead this spring, supporting increases in teacher pay and local education budgets with corresponding tax levies after educators mobilized.

By providing school districts with a much-needed infusion of resources, states can enable our educators to finally replace their tattered textbooks and outdated instructional materials. Schools will be able to hire the full-time counselors, psychologists, and resource officers needed to fully support our youth. And districts across the country can make strides in recruiting and developing high-quality teachers.

In addition, policymakers and school leaders must rethink accountability, focusing on students’ academic improvement rather than year-end test scores. Doing so will give teachers the autonomy to respond to their students’ individual needs.

Beyond that, schools should use qualitative measures when assessing teachers, focusing on their students’ level of academic engagement and motivation in the classroom. Schools should also evaluate teachers according to the social-emotional measures of their students, in areas such as collaboration, persistence, and emotional awareness. Student—and, in turn, educator—success extends beyond a test score.

We are at the cusp of a new opportunity to elevate the teaching profession to the level of respect it deserves. There is no more fitting time for us to come together and truly support our present and future educators.

Patricia “Tish” Jennings is an associate professor of education at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and an internationally recognized leader in the areas of social-emotional learning, teacher stress, and mindfulness. She is also the author of Mindfulness for Teachers and a new book forthcoming this fall, The Trauma-Sensitive Classroom.