Commentary: Here's how to actually show appreciation for teachers

Baldwin Park, CA, Thursday, May 6, 2021 - Starbucks in one hand, smartphone in the other, Jesus Medina looks for teachers arriving on campus at Sierra Vista High, to add to his collection of selfies minutes after hanging a teacher appreciation banner. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)
At Sierra Vista High School in Baldwin Park, student Jesus Medina hung a "Teacher Appreciation" banner and took selfies with teachers. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Sunday was Teacher Appreciation Day at Dodger Stadium. So my family, filled as it is with educators, took in the game against the Cincinnati Reds at Chavez Ravine. (And my youngest son took home a foul ball hit by Shohei Ohtani, a souvenir that easily offset the steep price of a ticket.)

But my wife couldn’t make it for Teacher Appreciation Day. Because she’s a teacher. And teachers often work on Sunday.

Summer vacation looms, but there is no soft landing when school days remain.

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This personal irony neatly illustrates the peculiar way we treat teachers. On the one hand, their exalted status in society is unquestioned: Politicians seek their endorsements, polls show Americans trust them more than most other classes of workers, and once a year the Dodgers give paying fans a tumbler or sweater emblazoned with an apple in their honor.

On the other hand lurks a hidden reality I’ve seen in 15 years of marriage to a teacher:

The 4 a.m. iPhone alarms to resume lesson planning after passing out the night before from exhaustion. The endless test-writing and grading. The soul-crushing sense that if students tune out during a class or perform below expectations, it’s the teacher’s fault.

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It’s a job done, in roughly equal parts, inside and outside the classroom. Everyone envies what they see — the 8 a.m.-2:30 p.m. workday and summer breaks — unaware of the countless morning, evening and weekend hours spent away from their own children to make educating yours look easy.

You don’t have to marry a teacher to understand the psychological consequences of all this. Though burnout afflicts workers in all professions, a Gallup poll in 2022 found that it hits teachers the hardest. Research has shown teacher exhaustion correlates with poorer outcomes for students, and according to the education news site Chalkbeat, states that track turnover in schools (California isn’t one of them) have reported educators leaving the field at record rates in recent years.

I see symptoms of this upheaval all the time, often in the annual soul-searching among teacher friends over whether they can take another year of this. These people aren’t in it for the summer breaks or museum discounts.

But most end up returning to the classroom, so it’s worth asking: What sustains them? What keeps them coming back?

I have an idea, and though my sample size is small by research standards, it provides abundant anecdotal evidence.

My wife and two of her sisters teach, their mother is a retired teacher, and their late grandfather worked in L.A. Unified back when it was called the Los Angeles City School District. Jokes and acronyms from the world of education (good God, the endless acronyms) lace our conversations.

And, of course, teachers who read The Times (and sometimes even their students) write letters to the editor shedding light on the reality inside their classrooms.

From all this, here’s what I’ve gathered: For each challenging administrator or parent, there are at least 10 students who revere their teacher or at least act as if they understand how much work is put into all this. For many students, people like my wife and her sisters are among the most important adults in their lives — not quite surrogate parents, but indispensable in a way that only empathetic, trained educators can be.

So the work itself might be fulfilling, but material support from the rest of society — and not the kind of conspicuous, empty praise already given in abundance — falls short. We can of course pay teachers a lot more (because nothing ices burnout better than a fatter paycheck), but for most districts that’s a nonstarter with California’s budget deficit estimated at $56 billion over the next two fiscal years.

Here’s another approach that might sound unrelated: We can build a lot of housing, and then build more. At a starting salary of about $60,000 per year, new teachers can forget about renting their own apartment in L.A., let alone living near their school. Subsisting on a young teacher’s pay might be doable if we fixed our housing shortage.

But these are long-term solutions. If you’re interested in showing you appreciate teachers’ work and understand their plight, here’s a tip: Don’t tell them how wonderful their lives must be because they’re about to have a summer vacation.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.