The Best Christmas Gift For Your Child’s Teacher

gift teacher

I’m a parent as well as a teacher, so you’d think I’d be one of those parents who spoils his daughter’s teachers with great gifts for the holidays. After all, I ought to know exactly what they want. But the truth is, there are years when I get them nothing at all. It’s not because I don’t appreciate what they do. All teachers know exactly how difficult the job is. Even teachers who do the bare minimum are providing parents a hugely valuable service. If you doubt that, take a look at child care costs these days.

There are a number of reasons — most of them bad — that I fail to get my daughter’s teachers a little something to show my appreciation. I’m cheap. I’m lazy. I don’t like shopping. I don’t want to look like I’m sucking up. But the biggest reason is that I have no idea what to get someone I don’t really know. So I do nothing and then feel bad about it.

But this year is going to be different.

As a teacher, I know that we don’t really want anything.

Actually, scratch that. It’s not true. Like everybody, we like getting gifts. I should say that we don’t expect anything.

Any gift we receive — homemade macaroni masterpieces,  coffee mugs, Christmas ornaments, Amazon gift cards–will be appreciated. That said, there is one gift that will be treasured by any teacher and that I’ll be giving each of my daughter’s teachers this year.

Here’s what makes it the best Christmas gift for your child’s teacher:

  • It’s free.
  • It takes just a few minutes.
  • You don’t have to leave the house.
  • If you forget, you can still deliver it once the holiday break starts.
  • It’s foolproof; every teacher will love it.
  • It’s valuable and enduring.

What is it?

An email of genuine appreciation that specifically praises the teacher and that is copied to his or her principal.

Here’s why:

First, a lot of teachers have a tremendous amount of self-doubt. Most of us fear that we’re not very good. We’re sent this message quite regularly. Politicians aren’t shy about saying it. School leaders might try to be supportive, but administrator walk-throughs, pacing guides, and an insistence that teachers adhere to unproven programs instead of using their best judgment all send the message that we’re not trusted because we’re not very good.

Even in the best school cultures, teachers are presented with daily evidence of their failures. While we tend to credit students for their successes, we accept responsibility for their failures. And there are always failures. Stuck in our own rooms all day, we have little idea if what we’re doing is any good, so we assume it probably isn’t. We know that our most successful students would probably be successful with any teacher, while we wonder if those who struggle with us might be better off in a different room. A letter of appreciation lets the teacher know that you value their work. That they’re are making a difference for your child. That they don’t suck.

Second, teachers are evaluated by their principals. These evaluations are often based, at least in part, on observations of their teaching. The observations are subjective, and principals are human beings. They can’t know everything that’s going on because they’re too busy. But they hear things. Those things influence their opinions of teachers. If principals hear more positive things, they’ll think more highly of their teachers. It’s similar to how we judge movies. If you hear that a movie is great before you see it, you’re predisposed to like it. A principal that hears a lot of good things about a teacher is going to be more likely to give that teacher a good evaluation.

So if you want to do your kid’s teacher a solid, or if you just want an easy gift idea, send your kid’s teacher an appreciative email and make sure you CC her boss.

Here’s a template you can start with:

Dear Mrs. [Teacher’s Last Name],

I just wanted to take a minute to express my profound gratitude for the work you do as [Child’s Name] teacher. [Child’s Name] has not always loved school, but he really looks forward to coming to school each day this year. I know a large part of that is the relationship he has with you.

I also appreciate how you communicate with me and other parents through your newsletter and by promptly responding to emails and text messages. I always know what’s going on.

Lastly, I know the job of a teacher is stressful. I have just two kids of my own and can only imagine the challenges of trying to teach [Number of Students the Teacher Teaches]. While I’ve never seen you teach, [Child’s Name] tells stories, and I am impressed by the good humor you’re able to maintain in the classroom.

I hope it’s okay that I copied your principal on this email. I just want him to know how much this parent appreciates the good work you do. Have a wonderful holiday season and enjoy your well-deserved break. Thank you!

[Your Name]

Every Student An Athlete (ESAA)

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We have a crisis in America. Our kids are fat. To combat this epidemic, Congress has decided to make exercise compulsory. They’re prepared to spend billions of other people’s money. It’s a simple plan. They’re going to cut one hour off the end of the school day and students will be bused to their local gym. If no gym exists, one will be built. Students — check that — “athletes” will be assigned a personal trainer.  Some trainers will be responsible for 25 kids, others more like 150. It’s called, “Every Student An Athlete,” and the goal is simple: no more fat kids by 2025. I spoke to the plan’s architect, Tara Bullidea, and dug deeper into the details:

MURPH: Hi, Tara. So every kid, starting when they’re five, will be required to work out for one hour after school each day. How will you enforce it?

TARA: This is just like school. Athletes have to attend. It’s mandatory. I mean, I guess their parents could pick them up from school and take them home, but we really don’t want them to. We’ll threaten stuff and, oh… you know what, I just thought of this — we’ll hold the gyms accountable for athletes’ attendance! That ought to do it.

MURPH: So the gym will be punished if too many of their athletes don’t show up to exercise?

TARA: You got it!

MURPH: Okay. What if the athletes come but don’t want to participate? What if they refuse to follow their trainers’ instructions? Or what if they actively interfere with the workouts of other athletes?

TARA: Those athletes will be in big trouble. They’ll have to sit out or even be sent home.

MURPH: But wouldn’t that sort of defeat the whole purpose? They may want to sit out, and if they’re sent home, they’re not getting the exercise they need.

TARA: True. Trainers shouldn’t do that. They should do everything they can to get those students to work out. I guess maybe they should make it more fun. They should, um, build relationships so athletes will want to work out! You know, now that I think about it, if a trainer has some athletes with bad attitudes, it’s really the trainers’ fault, isn’t it? Such poor athlete attitudes should be reflected on the trainers’ year-end ratings.

MURPH: The trainers are going to be rated? How will that work?

TARA: That’s my favorite part. Look, we don’t want any consequences for the athletes. I mean, if they fail to lose weight, they’re only hurting themselves, right? But the trainers? We’re paying the trainers! The taxpayers will expect a decent return on investment. So we will hold the trainers accountable for their athletes’ weight loss.

MURPH: Oh, I see. So will there be bonuses for really good trainers? Some way to reward excellence?

TARA: No, silly. Nothing like that. We can’t afford bonuses. No, what we’re going to do is punish the gyms that don’t get their athletes’ to shed the pounds. If a gym is really bad — like if only a few kids achieve expected yearly weight loss (EYWL, pronounced “I-will”) — we may even close the gym. Or at least fire all the trainers. Also, each trainer will be rated at the end of the year, and we would expect gyms to fire the trainers with the lowest ratings. As for the best trainers, we’ll  give them the laziest, most overweight kids.

MURPH: How will you figure out which trainers deserve low ratings?

TARA: We’ll just go in and weigh all the athletes at the start of the year and weigh them again at the end of the year. If they haven’t lost enough weight, that trainer will get a bad rating.

MURPH: How much weight should each kid lose? What’s going to be the cut-off?

TARA: Oh, I don’t know. Let’s just say 10% of their original weight. Actually, on second thought, we’ll change the target every year and not tell the trainers what the new goal is. I know. We’ll come up with a really complicated formula to assess the trainers. That way, if someone starts to question it, we’ll just explain to them that they’re not smart enough to figure it out. In reality, I won’t be smart enough to figure it out either. Hardly anyone will. We’ll just say that some statisticians somewhere said it’s fine and that will be enough.

MURPH: But isn’t it unfair to hold trainers accountable when they only see the athletes for five hours a week? What if the kids go home and their parents undo all the trainers’ hard work? What if they feed their kids horrible food and never exercise themselves? What if they, God forbid, denigrate the whole idea of a healthy lifestyle? Isn’t it possible that some parents, either through ignorance or willful neglect, will sabotage the trainers’ efforts? Should trainers be punished for that?

TARA: Uh, huh. Yep.

MURPH: Okay. How about these trainers? We’re putting a lot on them and trusting them with the future health of the nation. How will you ensure that they’re up to the task?

TARA: You know, I’ve thought a lot about that. We’re going to be rating them, so they have a strong incentive to really study their craft and become excellent at what they do. They’ll be judged on their performance (okay, actually their athletes’ performance, but let’s not split hairs), so they’ll probably try really hard. So, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to require them to train kids certain ways. Now, sometimes those ways will be based on the latest scientific research on wellness. But other times, they’ll just be based on the latest fad, like maybe a popular book that’s out at the time. And to be sure they’re all doing pretty much the same thing, we’re going to make them sit through lots of meetings where we train them in these methods. We really want them to train their athletes the way we think they should train them.

MURPH: But then, shouldn’t it be you who is held accountable? I mean, if the trainers are just following your marching orders and they don’t get results, isn’t that your fault?

TARA: I don’t think so. Perhaps they aren’t training with fidelity. Maybe they aren’t very good at implementing the required methods. Their fault, for sure.

MURPH: Let’s change gears and focus on the kids.

TARA: Athletes.

MURPH: Right. What about those athletes who come from families that can’t afford tennis shoes or gym shorts?

TARA: We’ll provide those.

MURPH: So will all gyms get the same equipment? Will they have the same budgets?

TARA: Hahahahaha! No. Taxes will be raised at the local level for equipment, so certain areas will have newer machines than other areas. But every gym will have some equipment. Research tells us that it’s not the equipment that matters, but the trainer. So we won’t accept any excuses from trainers who have to work with older equipment, or even equipment that no longer works. Those trainers will simply have to be more creative.

MURPH: That sounds difficult. It might be hard to get good trainers to work at gyms with broken machines. Will you pay these trainers more?

TARA. No. Less, actually.

MURPH: But–

TARA: It’s fine! It’s all going to work out fine. We’re going to have no fat kids by 2025. They’re all going to hit their EYWL targets. Every Student An Athlete is going to be an amazing success because I really want it to be!

MURPH: Aren’t the athletes going to get tired of all this working out? Won’t they need some breaks? Even elite athletes take some time off.

TARA: Yes, you’re right. We’ll build in a few two-week breaks throughout the year and we’ll give them — I don’t know — two straight months off in the summer. It’s too hot to work out then anyway.

MURPH: But won’t a lot of athletes, especially those whose parents don’t value exercise and healthy eating, regain the weight and fall back into bad habits?

TARA: Perhaps. But the trainers will just have to work extra hard to make up for it.

MURPH: Just one last question, Tara. What is your background? Do you own a gym? Are you a former Olympian? Have you ever been a trainer yourself?

TARA: No, nothing like that. I’m rich. I’m very, very rich.

The Myth of the Ideal Teacher

ideal teacher myth

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I have a lot of problems with teacher evaluations. I’ve written about them here and here. And while I appreciate the work of people like Robert Marzano, John Hattie, Charlotte Danielson, and others who take seriously the research on effective teaching, I reject how that research has been used to label teachers. And I abhor how it’s led to the myth of the Ideal Teacher.

The Ideal Teacher, we are told, is passionate about helping kids. She understands best practices and only uses instructional techniques that have been proven effective. She’s a disciple of John Hattie’s work and discounts anything below an effective size of .40. She wastes no time in class. She’s warm and caring, and is a master at classroom management. She’s a guru of engagement strategies. She provides specific, timely feedback. She makes sure that students understand their learning targets and that they know where they fall on the success criteria. She’s enthusiastic, patient, and reflective. She is, by every observable measure, a phenomenal teacher.

None of that makes her an ideal teacher to every kid sitting in her room.

Match-Ups

There’s a saying in sports that you’ll almost always hear during playoff time or college tournaments. Coaches sometimes use it to explain why their team was just upset by what everyone thought was a lesser opponent.

It’s all about match-ups.

It’s true of teaching, as well.

It’s about timing: The teacher and student coming together at the perfect point in the child’s life and the teacher’s career. There are students who I have this year who would have benefited more from having me ten years ago, just as there are students I didn’t reach ten years ago that I can now.

It’s about personalities: Some teachers are great for a handful of students in their room, while that same teacher struggles to get through to others.

It’s about luck: Sometimes a teacher can give exactly what a student needs, often without realizing it.

Two Examples

Oprah Winfrey has famously credited her fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Duncan, on more than one occasion. She even had her on her TV show. About Mrs. Duncan, Oprah said, “I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Duncan. She so believed in me, and for the first time, she made me embrace the idea of learning.”

Actor Richard Dreyfuss also credits a teacher for where he ended up in life. He didn’t like Mrs. Wilcox. No many people did. But 20 years after sitting in her elementary school classroom he had the realization that a lot of the things he came to love in life, he learned from her: Shakespeare, literature, reading in general. Dreyfuss said, “She was a mean, impatient woman, who didn’t care about liking me or anyone else, and we didn’t like her. She was tough.”

I have no idea how Mrs. Duncan would have been evaluated under today’s systems. My guess is she would have done well. She sounds like the kind of caring teacher that students and parents adore. But although Oprah credits her for her success, Mrs. Duncan taught hundreds of other kids. You’ve never heard of any of them. That’s not to dismiss her influence on Oprah. It’s just to say that while Mrs. Duncan was the perfect teacher at the perfect time for Oprah Winfrey, she wasn’t for lots of other kids.

But I feel confident in saying that Marzano and Danielson would not hold Dreyfuss’s teacher in great esteem. She was not well-liked by students, probably not respected by administrators, and I imagine barely tolerated by colleagues. I’m also quite sure that had any of the effective teaching researchers observed her, she would not have scored highly on many of their seemingly endless criteria. And she wouldn’t have given a hoot about Hattie’s meta-analyses.

But for one kid, during one pivotal year of his life, she made a huge impact. Without Mrs. Wilcox,  who knows what happens with Jaws and Mr. Holland’s Opus.

Different Strokes

The checklists, effect sizes, and evaluation tools all send the same message: You too can be an Ideal Teacher whose students will all make more than one year’s growth and who will then go on to live productive lives if you simply do the things you’re supposed to do. We believe that a teacher who checks all the boxes will always get better results than her colleague across the hall who only checks half of them.

But the kids sitting in front of those teachers don’t care about checklists or effect sizes. And it’s important to remember that not all of them care if you’re nurturing, or patient, or positive, or fun. They’re individuals, each blazing their own paths in this world, each needing something different at one particular place and time. And they will be influenced and inspired by things we can never know.

There’s nothing wrong with reading the research and trying your damndest to be the best teacher you can be. Just don’t assume that because you can fill up a checklist you’re going to make a difference in the life of a child. And don’t assume that because you can’t, you won’t.

The Best Way to Thank Your Child’s Teacher

School is out for the year in most places. Teachers are sleeping in. Parents have arranged for child care. Students are spinning fidgets or playing video games or getting in my way at the zoo (I don’t really know what students do with their free time anymore. I used to watch Matlock in the summer). Many teachers received gifts from the parents of their students during that last week of school. I saw them on Facebook, and I don’t know a single teacher who doesn’t greatly appreciate them. In a world where genuine appreciation is as rare as political bipartisanship, even a token thank you stands out.

Gift cards, coffee mugs, thematic baskets, chocolate, and thank you cards are all great, but there is one way parents can thank their children’s teachers that beats them all. Few teachers receive this gift, even though it costs nothing, takes only a few minutes to put together, has lasting positive effects, and you can do it at any point of the school year, even now, when it’s over.

What is this wonderful, simple gift?

An email to the teacher’s principal.

Teachers Get Evaluated

Many parents may not be aware that teachers are evaluated yearly now. This is a relatively new thing, at least in practice. While there have always been teacher evaluation systems, the old ones were mostly formalities. The principal would let the teacher know he was coming, the teacher would teach, the principal would fill out a quick form that usually lacked teeth, and they’d all go on their merry ways.

Then, for lots of mostly bad reasons, politicians decided teachers were the main cause of society’s failures. They decided to weed out the bad ones. To do that, they needed some kind of system to identify the bad ones. They wanted to use test scores because test scores produce numbers and people like numbers. They seem objective. But then the forces of good convinced them that including principal observations should be part of the system, too.

So what does all this have to do with writing an email to the principal?

Principals Are Human

The system described above is meant to be objective, but it isn’t. Humans are involved. Humans have values and prejudices and feelings and all kinds of other humany things that make evaluating others objectively impossible. Two principals watching the same lesson will judge that lesson differently. Two principals will measure the value of teachers in their buildings differently.

In practice, the system actually works like this:

– A principal likes some teachers more than other teachers.
– The principal brings these biases with him when he observes teachers.
– Charitable view: Although he tells himself he’s being fair, his preference for one teacher over another shows through in his ratings.
– Less charitable view: The principal decides beforehand which teachers are going to get lower scores and then, no matter what he observes, he rates teachers accordingly. In other words, he says to himself, “Well, if the district is going to lay people off this year, I better make sure they lay off the teachers I’d rather not have in my building. One way to do that is to rate them poorly on observations.”

Humans Can Be Influenced

It is human nature to complain about things that annoy us and keep quiet when we’re satisfied. That means that if principals hear anything of the teachers in their buildings, it’s likely negative. The feedback principals receive about teachers either confirms or challenges their opinions.

Fortunately, positive feedback works the same way. Most principals are unaware of much of what happens. They can’t be everywhere all the time. They may not know anything about how well a teacher communicates with parents, or how a teacher inspired Timmy to read more at home, or the way a teacher makes learning fun. A principal might not notice the rapport a teacher has with her students. But if he receives three emails from parents praising the relationships their children have with their teacher, he’ll start to.

All of us are influenced by the opinions of others. It’s what makes hit songs, bestsellers, and blockbusters. It’s why one restaurant thrives while others close. It’s why I don’t admit to people that I don’t care for Monty Python, Wes Anderson movies, or Meryl Streep. When you hear from lots of people about how great something is, you start to think you’re the weird one. You keep those opinions to yourself. You question them. You look for evidence you’re wrong.

That’s why satisfied parents should email their child’s teacher’s principal. The more a principal hears good things about his teachers, the more likely it is he’ll start to believe them or at least question his own beliefs.

Don’t Just Tell the Teacher

Most years, I get a card from a parent thanking me. Often, the card will say something like, “Ivy really enjoys having you for her teacher. She didn’t like school before, but she’s excited to come this year.”

I love getting these cards. But I’d also love my principal to hear that, too.

Principals who hear good things about teachers will be less likely to evaluate those teachers poorly or considering moving them to different buildings or positions within their districts. Pissing off parents who have proven they’re willing to write emails to school administrators is one thing most principals will be very reluctant to do.

So if you think your child’s teacher did a good job this year, write an email to the principal saying so. It’s fast, easy, free, and will help the teacher more than anything you can get at a store.

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Feel like reading more? Try these:

10 Things Parents Just Don’t Understand About Teachers

Why Bad Teachers Are Hard to Find

Why You Shouldn’t Care About Your Teacher Evaluation

 

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Why You Shouldn’t Care About Your Teacher Evaluation

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Evaluations are in. All of your good intentions, hard work, and personal sacrifice have been boiled down to a number and a label. Are you “highly effective” or “innovating,” or merely “developing,” like you’re an insect in its larval stage instead of a professional educator?

Whatever your label or your number, you shouldn’t take too much pride or allow yourself to feel any disappointment or shame over it. Your evaluation is meaningless.

My district uses Marzano and everything is entered into iObservation. The last step in the evaluation process is for me, the teacher, to go in and “acknowledge” my scores. Why this is necessary is a bit of a mystery, since I am in no way allowed to question or challenge my final score. The state of Michigan gives districts total power when it comes to teacher evaluations. No due process. No appeals. No presumption of effectiveness. It’s all very democratic, and obviously designed to help teachers get better (he said sarcastically).

Once I acknowledged my rating, I was then provided the opportunity to leave a comment. I guess this is iObservation’s way of throwing teachers a bone. We may not be allowed to tell our principal, “Actually, the stupid learning goal was on the board. You just didn’t see it,” but we can sound off in the comments section. As a reminder, that’s the section nobody reads.

Nevertheless, it was my only chance to offer any thoughts, so here’s what I wrote:

I continue to find the evaluations arbitrary, based on questionable data, and demoralizing to the profession. That 75% of any teacher’s evaluation is in the hands of a single individual should be cause for concern. That that individual, however well-meaning and effective he or she might be, bases most of his or her evaluation on a small sample size of a teacher’s instruction is also concerning. It’s a flawed model, operating inside of a flawed system, foisted upon professional educators who were given little opportunity to provide input to the flawed legislators who pushed for more accountability based on the flawed belief that American schools, and therefore the people who work inside of them, are failing. The whole thing is nonsense, and I therefore put no stock in the above numbers, whether they be high, low, or somewhere in between. It’s a shame that principals have to waste so much time on it.

To add to the above and to put everything in list form, here is why your evaluation is meaningless and therefore not worth hanging your head or puffing your chest over.

Your evaluation is likely composed of two parts: administrator observations and student growth data. Both have major problems.

Student Growth

  • The student growth portion of your evaluation is likely based on cruddy assessments. Mine was based on screeners, which were never intended for teacher evaluations.
  • Students are not held accountable for their performance on the cruddy assessments, which makes you wonder how much they really care about them, which makes you wonder how hard they try on them. (I’ll give you a hint: two of my students were done with the 30-question reading test in 10 minutes.)
  • In my district,  growth scores are harmed by students who start the year with already high numbers. They have the least room for improvement, and that lack of growth lowers teachers’ ratings.
  • The whole thing sets up terrible incentives, which I try my best to ignore. Teachers in my district joke about getting students to bomb the fall screener to show more growth. You could actively lobby for the lowest students to be on your class roster to have a better chance of showing growth. There’s no doubt that some teach to the screeners, so kids get the idea that reading is really about saying words super fast. The list goes on.
  • Those students who missed more than 20 days of school? Doesn’t matter. It’s somehow your fault they didn’t learn as much as they should have.

Observations

  • Most of the evaluation is based on principal observations. I had two.  If we only needed two songs to evaluate a band, Tesla would be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
  • Observations are only as good as the people making them.  They’re meaningless if principals across buildings and districts evaluate their teachers in different ways, which they do.
  • Observations are only reliable if we assume that principals can shelve their personal biases when observing a teacher and rely only on their training (assuming they received any).
  • Evaluations lose their meaning when those being evaluated are judged against different criteria. The current system assumes districts have at least a somewhat similar approach to evaluating teachers. They don’t.  My wife’s district handles the whole thing differently than my district. An “effective” teacher in one district won’t necessarily be effective in a neighboring district. Some districts make it nearly impossible to be “innovating,” while other districts start teachers out there and only lower them for cause. That makes the system junk.
  • Basing a significant part of a teacher’s evaluation on an administrator’s observations makes the system ripe for abuse. Observations might be an honest appraisal of your skills or they could be the result of office politics or personal grudges. If it’s the latter? Well, there’s always the comments section.

And why only observations and student growth, anyway? I’m a teacher, a service professional. Why don’t parents get a say in this? Why don’t the students?

I don’t mind being evaluated. I just wish my evaluation actually told me something, anything, about how well or poorly I do my job. Until it does, I find it hard to care. You should, too.