In this episode of Teacher's Corner, Stenhouse authors Paula Bourque, Matthew Kay, and Terry Thompson discuss the myth of the perfect teacher, what we get wrong—and right—about teacher appreciation, and how we can show appreciation year round.
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Nate Butler: This is Teacher's Corner from Stenhouse Publishers. I'm Nate Butler. I want to start this episode of Teacher's Corner by expressing our deep appreciation to the three educators and authors who appear on TC today: Paula Bourque, Matthew Kay, and Terry Thompson. Their insightfulness and honesty was far beyond what I could have imagined.
Nate Butler: When we discussed our plans for Teacher Appreciation Week over here at Stenhouse, a podcast featuring several authors seemed like it was a no brainer. We knew we wanted to create something thoughtful that explored the idea of appreciation. But personally, I wasn't coming up with any questions that expressed what we were looking for. They were pretty good questions, but they weren't the right questions for this episode.
Nate Butler: Fortunately for everyone, Terry ran it past a group of teacher friends and returned with a raft of fantastic questions that they would ask were they in my shoes. We managed only to get through a couple of them before running out of time today. To those teachers, thank you. And thank you, listeners. We hope you like it.
Nate Butler: Our conversation today begins with the question, "How do assumptions of perfection, the myth of the perfect teacher, affect the way others see teachers, the way we see ourselves and how might we begin to accept appreciations?"
Nate Butler: Matt Kay speaks first, followed by Paula, then Terry.
Matthew Kay: I think the standard for my appreciation is always going to be more about what my students think about me in relation to their expectations than what anything in the greater society or my colleagues or my principal or anybody else, because the students are the ones who are stuck with me every day. And so if I'm the one...if I have a...Outside, because of the book and all sorts of other stuff, I have a bit of a reputation. But I love the way that the 16 year-olds see through all that. And they're like, "Yeah, but I like you one day, I don't like you the other day. This is how I really feel," all those kinds of things.
Matthew Kay: And as long as they see me, it actually makes me feel like...it gives me extra license to not be perfect or to not even live up to the own image that I've put out there for myself. I feel allowed to have bad days, because the kids know me as a person. So they're like, "Oh, you're moody today. That's okay. We all get moody. That's cool," or, "Mr. Kay didn't really feel like doing much, so he just...We were watching a movie today because Mr. Kay don't feel like doing..."
Matthew Kay: I like having their respect so that they could see me as a person. They see me as a human. And I measure that much more against any outside perception about what being perfect is.
Paula Bourque: I coach 55 plus teach, and that whole idea of the perfect teacher was shattered years ago, because what is perfect? Every teacher brings something to the table that needs to be appreciated. And I feel like that whole idea of that perfect teacher myth, that heroic teacher, undermines our ability to appreciate all the different things that teachers can bring to their classrooms.
Paula Bourque: And so when we ask, "Think about that teacher that meant the most to you," we often hear that, a lot of times it's not the academic, it's not the pedagogy. It's how they made you feel as a person. And sometimes, those interpersonal traits of teachers are undervalued when it comes to teacher evaluations or it comes to looking at...Sometimes, there's awards or there's recognitions and things like that.
Paula Bourque: So I really feel like part of appreciating teachers, Teacher Appreciation Week or any time, is trying to shatter that whole idea of the perfect teacher myth and start to think about what does it mean to be a teacher. And I think the definition and the understanding of what it takes to be a teacher during this pandemic has really had a spotlight shone on it. Those teachers that kids and parents are connecting with the most right now are the ones who've built those interpersonal relationships up to this point. And that's not something that can be evaluated all that easily on the forms and templates that we have right now.
Paula Bourque: And so I just feel like instead of looking at perfect, we need to be looking at what makes somebody a human, the humanistic kind of a teacher. And so I'm really trying to appreciate that a lot these days with the teachers that I work with.
Terry Thompson: I think that many of us, when we joined this profession, when we set out to become teachers, I think it was something ingrained in us. I think it's difficult for people who aren't teachers to understand, because I think in a large way, we define ourselves by our jobs, which is difficult. You can't separate the two.
Terry Thompson: And I think that sometimes we do walk around in our humanness, in the back of our minds holding this vision of what we've thought all along was the perfect teacher or what we wanted to be when we joined the profession. And I think sometimes that can be really difficult, because we confuse that with the reality. And that can get in the way of appreciation sometimes. For instance, if a parent says, "We really appreciate the way that you stayed after school with my daughter and helped tutor her when she was struggling last year," and our first response is, "Oh, it was nothing."
Paula Bourque: Right.
Terry Thompson: That's just what we do. In our mind, that idea of, "That's what teachers do. That's just what we do, and we don't necessarily need appreciation," but I do think sometimes it gets in the way of us just stopping for a moment, taking a breath, and saying, "That is a big deal for a parent or child, for a family to have given that extra time." And then we can breathe in that appreciation and recognize, "Not everybody does this. Not all careers are like this."
Terry Thompson: So I do think that sometimes we walk around with this image and in the back of our heads, usually unconsciously, that we're supposed to be perfect. And I do think that can get in the way of reality sometimes.
Paula Bourque: I agree with that. And I think with social media, we compare ourselves to one another way too much. And we see Instagram posts or Twitter feeds or things of what teachers are doing, and I can't tell you how often I hear teachers saying, "Oh, I should be doing that. Oh, I should be doing that," instead of stopping and recognizing all the things that they're already doing. It's always this deficit model, like, "I need to be doing more." And I think that's a mindset that so many teachers have, that we always need to be doing more.
Paula Bourque: And so like Terry said, when somebody appreciates something we do, we almost blow it off like, "Well, that's nothing." And we're often thinking about, "What's the next thing I should be doing? So it's [crosstalk 00:07:41] hard. It's comparison a lot of times.
Terry Thompson:...appreciating yourself. It's like, "I need to be doing more. I need to be doing more," And the reality is I do a lot already. I really do. And maybe I could just take a beat and celebrate that and honor it, not only for myself, but for all the other teachers who work with me who are doing the same thing.
Paula Bourque: Right. And if we can't appreciate ourselves, we're not going to really be open to other people appreciating us either, I don't think.
Terry Thompson: True. Yeah.
Nate Butler: What I'm wondering about now from the other side is what do we get wrong about teacher appreciation and what do we get right?
Matthew Kay: I think we get a few things right with teacher appreciation that are more of the traditional things. It's nice on a holiday when your kids come in with a little something for you, like a little...It's nice teacher...those little Starbucks gift cards, those little things, I would be nervous to poo-poo the things that already happened, because sometimes those things tend to hit right, right in the moment where you needed it to hit.
Matthew Kay: I think one of the things that's wrong, or maybe not wrong, ineffective is when teacher appreciation...when it's the same attributes that are always being praised. Some things can be equally appreciated, but praised way less often. And I'm often a beneficiary of this, but I'm also aware of it. I have a lot of charisma. I tell a lot of jokes. I do a lot of energy stuff. And I'm much less than when I did when I was younger, but still, it's still part of my game. And I get praised a lot for that.
Matthew Kay: But I know a lot of colleagues who are way more understated, who really grind just as hard as I do and sometimes more. And because they don't have that personality trait that I have, they're still appreciated, they're still loved, their kids were still run through a wall for them, but I get the accolades. And I think one thing that we could modify a little bit is if we could find space to encourage teachers who are really great listeners and really put kids first and really, through their planning and through their projects that they imagine and design, through all of those kinds of things, they show these amazing attributes, and not just the guy who tells jokes. You know what I mean? Or not just the guy who-
Paula Bourque: Yeah, absolutely.
Matthew Kay:...jumps up on a table or does those kind of games. I think, as one of those guys, I feel like I should still be getting much less love. You know what I mean? I think there's a lot to go around, and we should remember to tell the teachers who are not me the very real appreciation that you have for them, because a lot of times I'm not the one that the kid goes to, and they have someone that they go to that is more understated. So just making sure that, in the public sphere, we don't constantly throw out the same kind of teacher...
Paula Bourque: Right.
Matthew Kay:...as modeling the things that are worth publicly appreciated.
Terry Thompson: Yeah. It's like what gets appreciated and how does it get appreciated? Who gets to choose that? Because you're right. I'm thinking about so many teachers, and I've been both in my career. I started out with a big flash and all of that wonderfulness. And before long, it was like, "I need to just be quiet or listen and be still" and became far more, I guess, introverted as a teacher. And could see there...You're right. There's such a difference in the way that systems celebrate teacher behavior. And I think that translates to appreciations, and we could definitely expand our understanding of what gets celebrated in a school system when it comes to all of this.
Paula Bourque: I agree.
Terry Thompson: Yeah.
Paula Bourque: Yeah. I work with teacher who are very extroverted and their classes are very entertaining, and then I work with some teachers who are really quiet and the kids start to blossom. The kids take over the role of their own learning in ways that I probably couldn't have gotten them to do, because I would have been trying to keep them engaged and keep them motivated.
Paula Bourque: And appreciating those teachers who can step back and let the kids fill the void and take that role, it's an amazing thing. And if we didn't have that variety of teachers, kids wouldn't get those experiences for how to work with other people and how to learn in a variety of settings. And so we don't want to have a monolithic, mythical perfect teacher that everybody looks like, because that's not the world and that's not who our kids are either. Different kids are going to respond to teachers in different ways. And we need to appreciate the unique differences that kids have. And the unique needs that kids have can only be met by a variety of uniqueness in teaching styles and teaching people that are out there. So I want us to really be able to appreciate that diversity, too.
Terry Thompson: And with that, comes to me a variety of ways of appreciating. When I think about what we get right and what's missed the mark, I have to admit every now and then, like Matt said, I like that KitKat bar in my box. That does help. But I also really ... When I think back on appreciation that I've received, it's really been the quiet, off to the side things that have caught me off guard, when an administrator would just stop by and say, you know, "Your kids are so lucky to have you," and then walk off.
Paula Bourque: Yeah.
Terry Thompson: It wasn't a big event. It wasn't a big gesture. But to me, it was a recognition of something important and it was off to the side and quiet. I think sometimes people get embarrassed by the teacher awards and things.
Paula Bourque: I agree. I don't feel like we're getting it wrong, because any act of kindness isn't wrong. I'll take that chocolate bar. I'll take the lunches once a year in the teacher's room. But it's that appreciation that I think needs to be even more systemic. It's great when my colleagues tell each other wonderful things or the administration, but I also think appreciation is when those school budgets go to your city councils, that people step up and appreciate the role that teachers have and that you have representatives in your government who appreciate what teachers do.
Paula Bourque: Teacher appreciation, it's not wrong to do the little things, but it needs to be part of this bigger system of appreciating. What do we want our country to look like? And teachers are going to get our country to whatever we want it to be. It is through education that we're going to create the society that we will be living in in the future, and appreciating the gravity of that is one of the best ways to appreciate the role of teachers. And throw those candy bars in the teacher's room, too. We'll take them. It's just a more complete package of appreciation that I think we really need to be advocating for as teachers.
Terry Thompson: I would want to go back to what Matt said, and I agree wholeheartedly, that the best appreciation is from the kids and their families. That whole idea of the little things that...the little notes they leave on your desk, the little drawings of Spider-Man they stick on your bulletin board, those recognitions that...because that's the heart of the work. That's who we do it for.
Terry Thompson: Right now
Matthew Kay: So one thing I will say, to Paula's point, is all of those people right now, it's a common joke on social media, about homeschool. And they talk about how much ... They're telling teachers, "Come get your kids. They're acting up," that kind of stuff, all those kind of things.
Matthew Kay: But I'll tell you what. On a very serious and grim note, a lot of that is going to be...a lot of that new appreciation is going to be put to the test really soon. I keep reading all these articles about the mass budget deficits and teacher layoffs that are about to happen. If you really love your teacher, in September it's going to be very important that it wasn't just words. So I'm really feeling that point, because I'm like, "That's all well and good, but I've lived through...As I approach old head status, I've been through a couple of budget cuts now.
Paula Bourque: Right.
Matthew Kay: I've seen friends get laid off. I've seen those kind of...And I am terrified of what's going to happen in the fall. So-
Paula Bourque: Yep.
Matthew Kay: If you really love me, in addition to the chocolate bar, being at the school board meeting,
Terry Thompson: Action.
Matthew Kay: Yeah. Yeah. And I don't want to say anything that's going to make the chocolate bar go away. But I'm afraid for some colleagues. I'm afraid, because the last time we did it, we laid off a lot of counselors. We laid off a bunch of secretaries. We lost all of our librarians. We lost all of our...So I know what that feels like.
Matthew Kay: And I'm on the other end now because I'm a veteran. So I'm thinking about other people. My job's probably not in danger, but I'm thinking about a bunch of mentees. I've taught students that are now teaching that are right now in that age group where they would be laid off. And so that appreciation has got to have some legs.
Nate Butler: Yeah. That is a really good point. It's more than the single day. Besides showing up at your city budget meeting, are there other ways that we could show appreciation round and not just during the holidays or during this week?
Matthew Kay: That one, I can answer pretty intimately, because I do more than a few extracurriculars at the school. I coach football and basketball, and I run a slam poetry club. And I have a slam poetry league and I have a club at my school that competes in the league. And in all of those capacities, but especially the poetry, I have been floored by the participation the parents take, volunteering to be judges, volunteering to be writing coaches, and those kind of things.
Matthew Kay: And so I think the old Jerry McGuire, "Help me help you" is where I am with these parents sometimes. It's like I'm going above and beyond, quite literally. I'm teaching after three o'clock, as many of my colleagues across the country are doing. And I know everyone's...people are working, people have schedules, but help me help you. I'm trying to help. I'm trying to mentor your kids. So if you can show up at the game so he can look up at the crowd and see his pop, that'd be great. Or if you could show up at one game, if you could judge one slam, if you could do one thing to make it so I'm not...I don't want to be a parent replacement. I just want to be a mentor.
Matthew Kay: And so if you could just help me out a little bit by giving some of your time, that's far and away to me the biggest way you can help. And it's not even helping me. It's making my extra lift that I'm often not getting paid for when it comes to the poetry stuff, it's making that extra lift just slightly more fun. It makes it slightly less like work and slightly more like fun and mentorship when a parent volunteers to drive a bus or the parent volunteers to chip in at the bake sale or parent judges a slam. It makes my heart work a little bit more like heart work and less like work. And so that's far and away from me the biggest thing.
Paula Bourque: Yeah, that's a good one. I think sometimes it's hard for us to maintain an attitude of gratitude 24/7, all year long about things. And sometimes, it's nice to have holidays and things that spark us and remind us to reach out and be thankful. But I think if we could just develop just more of an idea of partnership with schools and communities and society year around when it's time to make decisions about budgets, but also...
Paula Bourque: When I reached out to a couple of teachers on Facebook, they said the things that meant that most of them were kids or parents not in their current class, but who come back over time and tell them, "This is what your teaching has meant to me," or, "This is where I am in my life right now because of you." And so just keeping that appreciation for more than just that moment, I think, has been what a lot of the teachers said was some of the most important and more meaningful ways of being appreciated by the kids and the parents, is that they know that they made an impact on their lives long after that school year was over. So I think that's one thing maybe people could think about, too.
Terry Thompson: Yeah. I think that you hit the nail on the head. The both of you did, because, Matt, what you're saying is, "It's one thing to say you appreciate me. It's another thing to show up. It's another thing to show me that you appreciate me." And just this idea of...
Terry Thompson: We talk about giving feedback to students, right, and being specific in that feedback, instead of just saying, "You did a great job," saying exactly what you did that made a difference in the work you were trying to accomplish and the goal you're trying to meet. And I think that that comes to mind when I think about teacher appreciation as well, that what's been more meaningful to me as a teacher is when someone's real specific with that level of feedback, "I appreciate you, and here's what I appreciate about you and what you do." That to me raises the level beyond a simple, "Happy Teacher Appreciation Week" or a gesture to something a lot more intimate.
Paula Bourque: Yeah. Yeah.
Terry Thompson: I do think appreciation at its heart is intimate. It's an intimate connection with someone that you're trying to express that level of appreciation to. And that's when it lands well. That's when it hits its mark.
Paula Bourque: Right. Yeah.
Terry Thompson: Yeah.
Paula Bourque: Yeah. I think teachers, they want to be noticed. They want to be seen. And sometimes, we do so much work behind the scenes that nobody sees. If you have an opportunity and you see it and you name it and you recognize it, I think that's super important, because there's so much work that teachers do that nobody has any idea how much work goes into the little bit that gets seen.
Paula Bourque: And so as a coach, that's one of the things. I see a lot of the behind-the-scenes work, and I really try to be specific when I talk to teachers about the appreciation that I have for what they do, because it's sometimes it's things that other people don't see.
Nate Butler: And that wraps up not just another episode of Teacher's Corner. Many thanks again to everyone involved in creating this episode. Paula Bourque's most recent book Spark! Quick Writes to Kindle Hearts and Minds in Elementary Classrooms, Matthew Kay's Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom, and Terry Thompson's The Construction Zone: Building Scaffolds for Readers and Writers are all available at Stenhouse. I'll leave links to everyone's sites and Twitter handles in the episode description.
Nate Butler: Check out our website at Stenhouse.com, where you can find podcast archives, book previews, study guides, and more. If you haven't done so already, we'd appreciate it if you can take one minute to give us a review at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or whatever aggregator you use. It means a lot. If you've done so already, thank you.
Nate Butler: Please consider sharing this with a friend or colleague who you feel could get something from it. And as always, thank you for listening. And if you have any questions or comments, we'd love to hear from you. Send your thoughts to us at Marketing@Stenhouse.com. Until next time, stay safe, sane, and healthy.