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TNTP Re-imagine Teaching

Teacher Appreciation All Year

May 13, 2014 | by Shira Fishman

Shira Fishman teaches math at McKinley Technology High School in DC Public Schools. She began her teaching career in 2004 through DC Teaching Fellows, after working as a mechanical engineer. TNTP’s Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Practice, which honors excellent teachers in high-poverty public schools, is named for Shira.

Does anyone else feel like Teacher Appreciation Week can leave us a bit hollow? Our annual moment for loving teachers is wonderful when it’s here—because who doesn’t love being told ‘thank you’ and getting to eat cupcakes baked by your students, guilt-free? But then it’s gone.  

Don’t get me wrong—I am extremely grateful for the appreciation shown to me and my colleagues. I revel in it. But when I think of the appreciation I crave most, it’s not gratitude for my work. It’s appreciation of teaching as a profession: the depth of the craft, the subtle ways we ignite student passion, and the beauty of the work when it is done skillfully. 

My relationship to teacher appreciation changed a few years ago when TNTP named an award for me: the Fishman Prize. As someone who thinks of herself as a typical classroom teacher, it was a very strange experience. Frankly, it’s taken some getting used to. 

But I’ve learned quite a bit through my association with the award these past few years. Above all, I have learned from the incredible candidates who advance through the stages of the review process annually, which I’m honored to take part in as a judge.  

Last weekend was one of the highlights of my year. The 10 finalists came together in New York for interviews, and it was unbelievably inspiring. These teachers come from different school districts and charter schools across the United States, teaching different subjects to different age groups, but they have one thing in common: They are phenomenal educators who are making an immeasurable difference in the lives of the children they teach—and they have much to teach the rest of us about what great instruction looks like, too. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but this ‘old dog’ of a teacher came back from Brooklyn armed with new ‘tricks’ I picked up from these amazing teachers. 

It seemed fitting that the finalists came together on the eve of Teacher Appreciation Week. Because now that the week of official appreciation is over, my hope is that true appreciation for the teaching profession becomes a year-round endeavor that focuses on leveraging our voices and expertise as educators to improve instruction across the country. When I see organizations, school districts and departments of education celebrating great teaching, listening to teachers and treating teachers as experts, I feel incredibly optimistic about the future. 

The Fishman Prize and other prestigious awards and fellowships for great teachers are going beyond the standard Teacher-of-the-Month fare. The winners of this year’s Fishman, who will be announced next week, will be awarded $25,000, and will come together to participate in a summer residency, where they’ll nerd out with each other over instructional practices and publish a collection of essays exploring the essential elements of their classroom practices. These essays offer an insider’s view of their classrooms, which serves a two-fold purpose: Other teachers can learn from these expert practitioners, and the public has a chance to see first-hand what’s possible when great teachers take the lead in even our most challenging classrooms. 

The Fishman Prize is far from the only opportunity for great teachers to be recognized and brought together for meaningful collaboration: The U.S. Department of Education created the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship to bring outstanding teachers to Washington and give their voice to the national dialogue about education policy. The Milken Educator Awards program rewards top educators around the country with $25,000 awards and provides an avenue for these educators to share resources, lessons and ideas. Those are just a few. Opportunities like these are telling teachers—and the public—that our work is worth much more than a pat on the back, and they offer great teachers platforms to engage with leading policymakers at the district, state and even federal levels. 

Recognizing great teaching like this, with the glitz and glamour of the Nobel Prizes (although not quite that much money…yet) does more than just make teachers feel warm and fuzzy: It puts us on the map. It elevates teachers as leaders not just in our classrooms but also in our field, and gives us a platform to have our voices heard. These opportunities are helping to turn what has long been viewed as a job into a true profession. 

So to the ten finalists for this year’s Fishman Prize—thank you. Thank you for being such phenomenal and inspirational educators who taught me so much in one weekend. To my colleagues, thank you for pushing me to become a stronger teacher every day. And to all of the teachers out there—those who are at the top of their game and those who are striving to improve every day—thank you for working tirelessly in this challenging profession to make such an impact on our children. You are appreciated this week, this month, and always. 

Shira Fishman

Teacher, McKinley Technology High School - DC Public Schools