Boosting morale the American way

1st July 2005 at 01:00
I was recently nominated for an award. Yes, I was gobsmacked and no, I didn't win, but just being nominated was such a big thrill that I was walking on air for weeks. I reckon every teacher could do with a bit of an ego boost once in a while.

My principal nominated me for Georgia Cultural Ambassador of the Year. I was extremely flattered but realistic enough to know that I didn't have a hope of actually winning the thing. Even so, as a nominee, I was invited to a glitzy award ceremony - posh nosh at a five-star hotel in downtown Atlanta and the afternoon off school.

It was all a bit like the Oscars for international teachers - speeches, trophies, power point presentations and cheers all round for the young Australian teacher who was declared overall winner. I had my picture taken on stage with the regional director and received a certificate that I'll treasure forever. This may not have been a big deal to everyone, but it made me feel like a star.

During my time here, I've noticed how America seizes every opportunity to big-up its teachers. Apparently there's a teachers Hall of Fame in Kansas, and earlier this year the entire faculty of my school went to hear Disney Teacher of the Year, Ron Clark, speak when his tour bus stopped by in Georgia. He's become a real celeb since his appearances on Oprah and rumour has it that there's even going to be a movie about his life.

The Americans certainly do the "teacher recognition" bit with bags of style. I hear that the UK's annual Teaching Awards have helped raise the profile of the profession in Britain, but somehow I can't see the winner back home ever getting his or her own tour bus. And anyway, us Brits feel rather uncomfortable making a fuss about our achievements.

Whether it's our legendary reserved nature or just old-fashioned modesty, we tend to play down our successes and get all embarrassed about public rewards. In the States, success is something to shout from the rooftops. No hiding of lights under bushels here.

Even at a local level, every school in Georgia has its own Teacher of the Year awards. Candidates are nominated by their colleagues, interviewed and observed in the classroom by an esteemed panel of judges, which at my school included the PTA president and the assistant manager of our local Wal-Mart superstore. There was a celebration in the library after school to honour the winner, a fifth-grade teacher called Mike. In Britain, this might be considered divisive, but amongst my American colleagues I witnessed no signs of resentment, just genuine delight. In his acceptance speech, Mike said, "I only do the same as everyone else here." That was a pat on the back for all of us.

Of course, we can't all be winners, and just so that no one feels left out, America celebrates national Teacher Appreciation Week once a year. My third graders made cards at home for me and parents emailed to say "thanks for all you do". The PTA served breakfast for the staff, local businesses sent in gifts and one parent offered stress-busting neck massages and a little R R during the busy school day. And in true Changing Rooms fashion, a team of moms and dads spent a weekend re-decorating our staff lunchroom, transforming it into a French-style bistro complete with soft lighting and soothing music. Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, eat your heart out.

Yes, I know it would be even better if teachers were rewarded with megabucks salaries or the cushy perks that other professionals enjoy, but back in the real world a homemade thank-you card or a bunch of daisies picked at playtime are often as good as it gets.

Teachers understand the importance of affirmation to boost self-esteem and motivate the disheartened. We strive to praise our students and reward their achievements. We celebrate their successes, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem to others. So when someone tells us that we have made a difference to the life of a child or just thanks us for doing a good job, it reminds us why we turn up for work each day and inspires us to go on. As every teacher knows, a little recognition goes a long way.

Mary McCarney is a visiting international faculty teacher at Manning Oaks elementary school, Georgia, in the United States

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