In Thailand, students honor their teachers with elaborate flower displays and traditional dance performances. In South Korea teachers are presented with carnations from students and former students alike. In many countries it is a day to bring teachers more than the conventional apple – chocolates, cards, pastries are all typical. In Estonia students give their teachers the day off, taking their place and teaching each other.
Tuesday is the United States National Teacher Appreciation Day. Unlike many other countries worldwide, we have no set ceremonies. There is no particular historical significance to the date.
Celebrated on the first Tuesday of May, National Teacher Appreciation Day comes at the trailing end of the school year. It is a time when classrooms transform into saunas, and teachers and students alike can be caught looking longingly out the window.
With no set ceremonies tied to our day of appreciation, as a former student and a current teacher I will take the liberty of offering a suggestion of my own.
Last year at this time, I was teaching 6th grade in a Boston public school. In between grading and lesson planning I chose to carve out some hours of my evenings to write letters to each of my students.
It was harder than I originally envisioned. A few of the letters came quickly. There were my star students, whose letters consisted of a list of praises. But then there were the letters to my more challenging students. Looking past their type-cast roles (the troublemaker, the checked-out child, the girl with too much attitude), I found myself dwelling on those moments where they showed real maturity.
A week later I distributed these letters to the class. With the letters I passed out markers, envelopes, and lined paper and asked them to write me letters in return. The following thirty minutes were the most silent and most focused I have ever seen my students: no funny noises, no pencil-tapping, no absurd half-dance moves, no humming, no turning in seats to talk to friends. Sixteen heads bent over paper, and sixteen hands writing, pausing, and writing again.
Late that same night I read each of their reply letters. I admit that I did not remain dry-eyed. My students wrote about times when they struggled in class, with a particular concept, with a friendship. They wrote about times when they had tried harder and succeeded.
For me, the most poignant letters were from my most difficult students. They might not be star students all the time, or even most of the time, but in reading their letters I was reminded of how much they wanted to succeed. As a young woman passionate about education, it was a resounding affirmation of the importance of being a teacher.
A year later, I still have these letters in a bundle under my desk.
Teaching is not a profession that one enters seeking fame and fortune. Even the most exceptional teachers do not enjoy the celebrity that their peers in other fields receive. Theirs is often a quieter pride.
Teachers are rewarded by seeing their students succeed – by watching them understand a math concept, perform in a school play, get accepted to a great school.
But in the humdrum of school life students are more apt to kvetch about their teachers: the one who assigned too much homework, the one who was boring or the one who awarded an unmerited low grade. Student vs. teacher.
We often don’t reflect on our teachers and the impact they had on our life until long after the final school bell and the escape of summer vacation. Sometimes it is not until years later that we draw connections between our teachers and the paths they helped lead us to. (My own mother lived in Bali, Indonesia and has since become a painter, frequently painting Balinese women in markets and temple festivals all because her 7th grade geography teacher showed her students a film about Bali by the anthropologist Margret Mead.)
With no formal ceremonies or traditions tied to our National Teacher Day, I propose the following: At some point today, take a moment to think back over the teachers you’ve had – Kindergarten teachers, afterschool mentors, high school teachers, college professors. Then root through your address book and send that teacher a note (email or snail mail is fine). Your note doesn’t have to be long, it doesn’t have to be profound.
I can assure you your note will make one teacher, somewhere, smile.