Want to show teachers you appreciate them? Become a guest educator.

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week. Donuts and discounts are nice gestures, but here’s what could move the needle for educators.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

I heard an odd sound walking into the school building one day: coo-coo, coo-coo.

Unmistakably, it was a pigeon, but it didn’t sound like it was outside. I walked down the hall to see our dean and a math teacher corralling not one, but two pigeons flying around the hallway. We cooed and cawed ourselves, flapping our arms wildly like predators, and swinging brooms at the light fixtures they perched on for 20 minutes. Finally, both birds made their way out of the open window.

Headshot of a man with a dark beard wearing glasses. He’s wearing a heather gray sweater.
Ronak Shah (Courtesy of Ronak Shah)

Why were there pigeons in the building, you ask? Well, a window had been left open, and the window had no screen. The window was open because our school HVAC system — like many in the district — are too old to keep us cool in our ever-warming summers. Our old buildings have so much deferred maintenance because the property tax revenue that funded it was capped long ago. And even as schools are maintained like castles in some Indianapolis suburbs, the revenue in the city stretches ever thinner across increased transportation costs, inflation, and school safety needs that eclipse the routine maintenance costs anticipated decades ago.

Complexities like this govern our experience as public educators, and the pigeon story is not the wildest tale I could tell. The stakes could never be higher.

How do we help others understand what the day-to-day is like?

For most of us, Teacher Appreciation Week is a bittersweet time. Families, administrators, businesses, and organizations earnestly want to shower love and support on the educators in their community. But few people know what the modern teacher’s experience is really like or even hear stories like the one I just shared. So, every year, this becomes the week where teachers end up swimming in more discounts and donuts than we can stomach.

That’s why a note from someone who notices my impact resonates most. It’s not that I’m fishing for compliments. I love what I do each day as a middle school teacher, and I know that I make a difference, whether or not someone tells me. What’s validating is to hear that someone outside of my classroom has a sense of what’s going on inside of it.

So this year, I’d ask you to go one step further: Be a guest teacher in your local school.

Part of the problem is that what happens in our schools is either invisible or misconstrued to most of the public.

Education is one of the most important pillars of our democracy, and one of the biggest expenses we pay for with our public funds. Yet teachers across the country are constantly subjected to poorly conceived policy decisions that make our jobs harder. These decisions tend to be made by people who haven’t spent more than a few minutes in a classroom since they were a student themselves. I run out of fingers and toes when I count the times an outsider thought that attending high school made them an expert on what’s wrong in education.

Part of the problem is that what happens in our schools is either invisible or misconstrued to most of the public. That then extends to the people that they elect, who typically see schools outside of highly manicured walkthroughs. Understanding the experience of teaching and learning today is a civic responsibility on the same level as voting, jury duty, and filling out a census form.

So this year, I’d love to see people reach out to their local school to see how they can share what they know, or at least to observe what it’s like. This could be as simple as shadowing a teacher or being a guest speaker for a class. But the best way to get the full picture is to spend the full day as a substitute teacher, start to finish, to see what the day holds. (Of course, you’ll need to get a substitute teaching permit, but the requirements are simple.) Even better, try this out in different schools in your area of different types — high schools and elementaries, public and private schools.

I’d love to see local businesses incentivize their employees to teach in a local school for a day. Schools already pay substitute teachers a fixed rate. If the employer fills the gap between the substitute teacher wage and the employee’s salary, the employee can make the same amount that day while taking in a critically important experience. I recognize that it takes courage from the employee and commitment from both the school and the employer. But I can’t think of a better way to show appreciation than to see all sides of a teacher’s daily experience.

And finally, I’d love to see the state think big about how to reconfigure its Teacher Appreciation Grant. This fund currently sends a stipend to teachers around the state rated effective or highly-effective, but only 1% of educators were rated below this, so the amount teachers receive tends to be small and split among so many educators. Moreover, many teachers do not find the evaluation process to be fair. Instead of being tied to effectiveness ratings, why not allocate these funds for teachers who choose to work in schools that are hard to staff? We have so many shortages across the state in specific cities and neighborhoods. The vast majority of states offer this incentive, but Indiana does not.

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week to my fellow teachers. And to those that aren’t, I now think of you as future guest teachers. I can’t wait to see you down the hall, supporting students, sharing what you know, and learning about what’s going on in our schools. So happy Teacher Appreciation Week to you, too.

Ronak Shah is a seventh grade science teacher in Indianapolis and a member of Chalkbeat’s Reader Advisory Board.