Thank a Teacher

Last week, I got to spend a few days in Washington, D.C., celebrating the 2018 State Teachers of the Year and the new 2018 National Teacher of the Year, Mandy Manning, who teaches immigrant and refugee students in Washington state. At the end of the week, everyone descended on a fancy hotel in ballgowns and tuxedos to hear Mandy speak.

As I was talking to a couple of other teachers in the hotel lobby, an older couple who happened to be wandering through approached us. They were excited to find out that they had unwittingly made their way into a sea of nationally-recognized teachers. “Thank you for what you do,” the husband said, shaking our hands. “We had no idea we’d get to meet all of these teachers tonight!”

It was a sweet moment—and a really nice precursor to Teacher Appreciation Week, which starts today. For teachers, having someone take a moment to thank us for the work that we do means a ton. We don't expect it, and we don’t require it, but it can make a huge difference to us.

But there’s a flip side to that kind of unexpected love.  

In the week since she was named 2018 National Teacher of the Year, Mandy has been subjected to ugly attacks on herself, her family, and her students. While she has used her platform to advocate for inclusion, respect, and listening to one another across differences, people on the internet have called her names and threatened her. They’ve doctored videos to make it appear as though she didn’t shake President Trump’s hand at the ceremony. (She did.) They have insisted that her choice to wear pins in support of some of her marginalized students or to deliver their letters to the president was disrespectful of the occasion.

This woman is a teacher. A public figure, too, now—but before that, quietly and consistently, a teacher.

She has committed her life to working with young people, to helping them grow and thrive. She has made it a priority to help people in her school community learn one another’s stories and see one another’s humanity. When I caught her alone, in a quiet moment before the visit to the White House, the only thing on her mind was the well-being of one of her students back home who’d gotten hurt. Mandy represents the ideals of public education: that it is democratic and welcoming and loving to all students, that it is empowering, that it is rooted in optimism and hope.

She’s the kind of teacher you might thank, spontaneously, if you met her one evening and heard about what she does with her students in the middle of, say, a hotel lobby in Washington, D.C.

What’s happening to Mandy reaffirms for me that the thing we absolutely must keep teaching our kids is how to disagree. Because too many adults, right now, resort to insults and ugliness when we come up against ideas that make us uncomfortable. We hide behind anonymity, refuse to check facts, pander to our own fragility. If we want the future to be one where people can actually get things done together, then our kids need to know how to come together and wrestle with one another’s ideas, even when they’re deeply opposed. We need to help them develop these skills and mindsets before their biases crystallize into the fear, unwillingness to listen, and outright hatred that too many adults display.

Unfortunately, as this week shows, there are some vocal people out there who think teachers shouldn’t advocate for change. So, this Teacher Appreciation Week, thank a teacher, like Mandy, for being brave. Thank a teacher who speaks out against injustice, who pushes back against policies that harm young people, who steps outside of their comfort zone on behalf of kids. It will mean more than you think.

Sydney Chaffee