Last week was the first day of school and it’s the first time in 40 years that I am not there. Having retired this year, my emotions are a mixed bag, a jumble of sadness, relief, guilt, mild panic, and curiosity. The first few days of school have always been my favorite. The middle elementary students are so ready to be back, excited for new possibilities but also comforted by familiar routines, friends, and spaces. They are on their best behavior and anxious to give a good impression. The teachers are experiencing many of these same feelings and their classrooms have new paint, school supplies and zero toppling piles of very important papers. The energy is palpable and positive, all surfaces and human faces gleaming. It is a day filled with joy. 


So, it was last week and this week that I am looking back on my decades of first days to reflect on my years as a teacher and to advocate for the teaching profession. Media is jam-packed with stories and images about the issues and challenges our education system faces, and yes, there are many. One that shows up continuously is that teachers are underappreciated. I have seen numerous accounts of this and even know several people who feel undervalued, and more common, under-supported. I have been extremely fortunate in my career to have always felt valued, appreciated, and supported. I have been shown sincere gratitude from my students, their parents, administrators, and the community at large; but for me, the most meaningful messages are often from the former students in their teens, 20s, 30s (and even some beyond!) who let me know in small informal, and formal ways that I made a difference in their lives. That is the feedback that kept me teaching and that keeps most teachers in the profession, feedback that allows them to continue despite the significant issues and challenges that every educator encounters. I have a “don’t quit teaching” envelope that is stuffed to the brim. Thank you to all of you for keeping me going! 

In her book, “The Teachers,” author Alexandra Robbins writes that teachers are heroes, and she quotes Christopher Reeve who defined a hero as “an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.” If you are reading this and a current teacher or former teacher pops into your head, consider contacting them. Send a simple thank you or a more detailed remembrance. It really makes our day and has more impact than you may ever know.  

While gratitude and appreciation go a long way in the fight to attract and keep good teachers, there are many other important steps schools and individuals can take to remove some of those “overwhelming obstacles.” Here are just a few (most come with a price tag to be sure, but we cannot afford to continue to cross our fingers and ask teachers to work long hours and take up the slack). 

Schools can 

  • Keep class sizes reasonable. Every child and parent wants their teacher to really know them. Understanding and accounting for the needs of each student in a class takes time, effort, and energy. This also goes for special educator caseloads and paraprofessional assignments. Find out what “reasonable” means for each grade and discipline in your community.
  • Ensure that teachers have the support and supplies they need.
  • Increase teacher pay. Although there are many variations, in general, according to an NPR report, “Teacher pay has stagnated while the cost of a four-year degree has nearly doubled.”
  • Increase paraprofessional compensation. Many fast-food jobs offer a similar hourly rate.
  • Most importantly, trust teachers. Make sure teachers are included in the major decisions that impact themselves and their students. Give teachers a meaningful voice in designing curriculum and policies. 

Individuals can 

  • Support and thank your school board for working on the above suggestions.
  • Trust teachers. Parents, be sure to model this trust for your children. You may not always agree with them, but when parents don’t trust a teacher, the child knows it. 
  • Don’t allow politicians to demonize teachers. Call them on it if you hear or see it.
  • Continue to fight for gun control legislation.

I have loved being a teacher and I expect that I will continue to be an educator for years to come. But I still have hope that this undeniably essential profession can become better and stronger. In fact, I believe our future depends on it.  

Sullivan lives in Waitsfield and retired at the end of June from Warren Elementary School.