Appreciation Week Brings Little Cheer To Teachers

May is the month when teachers win awards and have their appreciation week, but tight budgets and campaigns against public employees have lots of teachers feeling anything but appreciated. NPR's Matt Colburn reports.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

May brings teacher appreciation day and teacher appreciation week. The events began when Eleanor Roosevelt persuaded Congress to salute the nation's educators half a century ago. But these days, budget woes and political struggles have left many teachers feeling distinctly unappreciated. NPR's Matt Colburn has the story.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

MATT COLBURN: This is Albert Einstein High School in Maryland, just outside the D.C. Beltway. It's hot, the AC isn't working and by last period the students are restless. But Melissa Pouridas isn't cutting her class any slack.

Ms. MELISSA POURIDAS (Teacher, Albert Einstein High School): Guys, we did have homework so please take it out.

COLBURN: Pouridas has been an English teacher for 11 years. She says she doesn't always feel appreciated.

Ms. POURIDAS: I feel valued by my students. I feel valued by my colleagues. But by American society as a whole, I would have to say that I don't.

COLBURN: She adds that if people really valued education they wouldn't keep cutting teachers' salaries or squeezing their pension benefits.

Polls show teachers are popular. Back in February, and NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that 73 percent of Americans have a positive view of teachers. That's typical, according to Andrew Coulson of the libertarian Cato Institute.

Mr. ANDREW COULSON (Cato Institute): Any time that you ask the public questions about teachers as individuals you tend to get fairly favorable responses. The only time that you start to get negative responses are when the public is asked about teachers unions and collective actions by teachers organizations.

COLBURN: Remember that NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that found 73 percent of Americans support teachers? It found less than 50 percent support teachers unions. Along with other public employees, teachers have found themselves targets in the budget wars being fought in state capitols.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Man: Obama and the union bosses are standing in the way of economic reform, intimidating taxpayers, leaving classrooms empty.

COLBURN: That's an ad run by the Republican National Committee during the budget battles in Wisconsin earlier this year. Again, Andrew Coulson of the Cato Institute.

Mr. COULSON: For a long time, the unions themselves were viewed in an indifferent way or a benign way even. Now, the unions are seen quite negatively. It is only beginning to be the case that the public is transferring that criticism, that hostility from the unions to the teachers.

COLBURN: Teachers unions argue that teacher appreciation has fallen because of the campaign against collective bargaining for public employees.

Ms. MARY BELL (President, Wisconsin Education Association Council): I think we have a very active conservative group who have very loud microphones and a lot of ink.

COLBURN: Mary Bell is president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council. She says often people don't connect the teachers they love with teachers unions.

Ms. BELL: They don't understand that those effective teachers that they know and that they respect are supported by a union.

COLBURN: But the union issue may be only part of teaching's image problem. The Gallup Organization has long asked teenagers what they'd like to do when they grow up. Girls almost always list teaching as a favorite occupation, but boys are far less likely to see teaching as something they'd like to do.

Professor SARI BIKLEN (Sociology/Education, Syracuse University): So, I think in this society the profession of teaching is very gendered.

COLBURN: That's Sari Biklen, a sociology professor at Syracuse University. She studied the history of the teaching profession.

Ms. BIKLEN: It's not that all people who teach are women but that the occupation was originally constructed around the idea of women earning a second salary.

COLBURN: Today, eight out of 10 teachers in public schools are women, but most probably don't see their jobs as a second salary. Now, teaching is seen as a lifelong career.

Ms. BIKLEN: So, we imagine a career where, you know, you start out at some rung of a ladder, you get more important...

COLBURN: But that's not necessarily true for teachers. They may continue in the classroom year after year without much sense of advancement, dealing with the struggles of the students and with the conflicts and attitudes of adult society.

Matt Colburn, NPR News.

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