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Teacher morale and appreciation are at a complicated crossroads right now, in the midst of another very difficult year of teaching. We may not be able to fix the problems teachers face, but we can do some things to make the situation better. Candido is joined today by Jonathan Juravich to discuss why we need to appreciate our colleagues, how we can improve morale in our buildings, and why recognition is such a powerful tool. Full episode transcript below.
Candido: Recently the Art of Education University saw a need to boost teacher morale and offered an opportunity to win a little something to treat themselves. So it probably goes without saying that both teacher appreciation and morale might be at a complicated crossroads.
Personally, I see a combination of joy and tension in my building. I see teachers who love their job, but are just so drained and feeling disconnected right now. I was able to be on a panel with Jonathan Juravich in which he addressed just this. He spoke of the importance of teacher appreciation and school morale and along with some of his colleagues has made it their responsibility to prioritize both. So let’s get into a conversation with Johnathan about this. This is Everyday Art Room and I’m your host, Candido Crespo.
Jonathan, thank you for being here. Look, you’re a little bit of a celebrity around here, so I can’t just jump into the conversation because I believe there’s some new listeners. So can you help our new listeners know a little bit about you? Where do you teach? Who do you teach?
Jonathan: Yeah. I am an elementary art teacher outside of Columbus, Ohio at this great school called Liberty Tree Elementary. I teach 700 students from kindergarten to fifth grade once a week. And it’s joy filled, it’s unexpected, but I also am the host of the Art of Education’s limited series podcast, which was The Art of SEL. Which talked about how we address social-emotional learning as our teachers, and then a host of other crazy things. But yeah, but my day to day job is that I work with these amazing spirited little humans every day.
Candido: How long have you been in the career?
Jonathan: This is my 17th year.
Candido: Wow. All right. And has it always been with the same grade level or have you made any shifts or?
Jonathan: Ooh, you know, like most people, I thought I was going to be a high school teacher.
Jonathan: Right. And then you end up in elementary school and you’re like, oh, oh my people. Come gather around friends, let’s join each other on the carpet. So yeah, I started out my first year in my same school district before my school was even built. And I taught only kindergarten and first grade for two years at multiple schools. And then my school opened and that’s where I’ve been ever since.
Candido: Okay. All right. So what I’m bringing you on today for is to discuss teacher appreciation and morale. 2022 as a year following the two previous years has been complicated, right?
Jonathan: Oh, yeah.
Candido: Yeah. And so this particular topic I think is important and probably for every single one of us. I don’t think anybody is an exception to this feeling and this topic. So you personally, you’ve been celebrated and recognized pretty significantly. And that includes locally and statewide. I mean, you’re also on TV. So I’m wondering why do you believe teacher recognition is important?
Jonathan: Yeah. I mean, I guess the backstory for the listeners is that I was the 2018 Ohio Teacher of the Year, not just art teacher, but for all teachers in the state of Ohio and was one of four finalists for National Teacher of the Year, which is pretty crazy. And also has brought up a lot of questions about teacher recognition. Why is it important? Why do certain teachers get more, I guess, “attention” than other educators, but it’s something I believe in and have believed in fully. At my own school, I oversee our buildings culture, and environment with the team of teachers. And whenever Teacher Appreciation Week comes up every May, we always have this discussion like, well, what are we going to do for all the teachers? And someone will always say, well, we shouldn’t do anything. We’re the teachers, people should be doing stuff for us.
And it’s like, but don’t we appreciate each other, don’t we want to celebrate one another, don’t we want to encourage one another? Because today I’m feeling like joyful, happy. I feel like I’ve got the greatest job in the world, but the person next door to me might not. Isn’t it my opportunity to help uplift this other person? I will tell you one other story is that I was giving a presentation and this retired educator after like 35 years in education, I’m talking about the importance of teacher recognition and appreciation. And he comes up to me and says, “Well, in all my years of education, nobody ever recognized me, no one ever applauded me. So why should I do it for somebody else?”
Candido: That’s unfortunate.
Jonathan: It was a gut check that A, that his perception was that but then also that’s even possible. That there aren’t people out there recognizing and celebrating one another.
Candido: Right. Oh, of let me step back for a moment because I know about the statewide recognition. I didn’t know about the national.
Jonathan: Oh yeah.
Candido: What’s the, not so much the nomination portion, but when you received the award, what was the celebration like? What was that… Was there an event around that?
Jonathan: Oh, okay. So at my school, when I was named the Ohio Teacher of the Year, I knew that I was going to be recognized, but nobody else did. The staff, students, they all came down to the cafeteriazium. They all came down thinking they were coming to a character education assembly and whoop, surprise. I was being recognized. But I went out of my way that day to make sure both visually and through a speech that I had prepared that I brought attention to all of the people in that room. All of the educators, which includes the secretaries, the cafeteria staff, the custodians. I actually made a button of every single one of their faces and I wore it on a crazy vest while is receiving this recognition because it’s not just about one person.
Like none of us do the work we do in an isolated situation. It’s about all of us. And if you take a step back, I mean, there are so many people that have fed into us as individuals and as educators. And that’s why we are the people we are today. So it was an opportunity to do that. Now, fast forward to the finalist for National Teacher of the Year, that was a crazy other experience. But yeah, that involves lots of trips and spending time in Washington DC and yeah. It’s wild. Because we don’t go into education for big recognition but we all crave small recognitions and gratitude and you’re doing a good job, right?
Candido: Right. All right, so we’re talking positively about this. But there’s also the dark side, those feelings of people being like, well, teacher appreciation, they pass and my administration didn’t recognize me. Or you said that on your vest, you had everyone recognized and you took the initiative to do that. We are very capable of blaming somebody else for our inability to do our job. So if we’re capable of doing that, we also have to be capable of thanking somebody for being able to do our job. It can’t be both ways, right?
Because if somebody’s hurting our job, somebody’s got to be helping our job. And I think it’s easy to forget that part or it’s so easy to entertain negative energy over joy. I’m glad you did that. I think that’s wonderful. And I hope that if listeners take anything out of this conversation, it’s just that. It’s understand that you are working within a team and it’s okay to recognize those around you. But let’s dig a little deeper, lets get more specific. So thinking in day to day recognition or appreciation that isn’t an award, what thoughts come to mind?
Jonathan: Okay. I got a lot, so buckle up, right. So I mean, let’s do the simplest one. I have kids, my kids go to school. When they come home, I ask them about their day and they’ll tell me something about their day. And I could either just like half pay attention while I’m looking on my phone. I could say, oh, okay or I could dig deeper and ask them for clarification. And then it’s one of my goals then to email that teacher and thank them. We get so many weird emails as teachers and as art educators, like people don’t always reach out to us with like the, oh my kid loved this experience today. But I’ll push, especially my third grader to tell me about her day. Tell me about a teacher that made a difference and then sending them an email. That is the smallest thing that we can do because as an educator, I understand that it matters. So I hope then that it will also matter… It will matter, I know that to her teachers.
But in my own building, we do this thing in November where it’s like a chain of thankfulness. Where I’ll start November 1st and I have this note that says, I’m thankful for you because. I’ll write two notes to people and hang them up on their doors in my classroom. And then in the mail room is a stack of these thankfulness notes. So those two people go down and write notes to two other people and to two other people and to two other people until by the end of November, everyone has gotten one of these gratitude notes on their door. And again, everyone; teachers, cafeteria staff, secretaries. And the goal is yes to read these notes of gratitude, but then also for the students to see it. For students to see that we’re thanking one another. For parents, when they’re able to come into the building to read these little anecdotes about like these stories of everyday life that we’re living together and why we’re grateful for each other.
Candido: I need to stop you there. I need stop you there because I’m like, I love this idea of the chain, but what happens if somebody names you like immediately. Are you then picking two more people?
Jonathan: Oh, you know I do.
Candido: Oh, okay.
Jonathan: And then I mean, honestly, there are times because we’re human and this is the part that I think we have to just address. We are human, we make mistakes. People mean well and want to write notes of gratitude and then forget. So at the very end of November, I and our school counselor, go around the whole school to make sure that everybody has received a note of gratitude. And if they haven’t, we have a text chain where the group of people that we’re like, okay, this person didn’t get one. I’m sure that it’s just because of where the room is and we make sure that everyone has that note.
Candido: Very thoughtful. That’s very kind.
Jonathan: We’re trying, right? We’re all trying.
Candido: Yeah, we are. You do end of the year trophies?
Jonathan: Oh, yeah. So do you know in high school where you used to have like best hair?
Jonathan: Or like nicest smile. Hey side note, I was voted most artistic. Ay, right? Right.
Jonathan: Surprise. And the other person at our high school that was, is my friend Kristen and she’s now an art teacher too.
Candido: Wow. Okay.
Jonathan: That’s a side note. Okay. So you know those things. So what we did is we take all of the staff members’ names and we put them into a bowl and we walk around and everybody picks out a teacher’s name. And this is towards the end of the year.
So all of the staff are picking out staff names from this bowl and they have to come up with an award for that person. So then on our last staff meeting of the year, which is an extended one. The first person is typically me, stands up and I’ll say, “this award goes to…” And it’s normally just like an old softball trophy that someone donated to the school that people like hot glue stuff too and like add things onto, or they make up little certificates or even bring in little gifts. But it’s again, a chain and each person then shares about this award. But at the same point, then you’re learning about these funny and heartwarming and also like terribly sad stories from the school year that you had no idea were going on. But it’s a way to recognize people that oftentimes we maybe don’t know so much about them that are in the building. But it’s beautiful. It’s one of my favorite things. It does take a while, but it’s worth it.
Candido: Right. So you say it’s one of your favorite things?
Jonathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Candido: I can see your role in this becoming burdensome, but you enjoy it enough where it doesn’t become so. I don’t know. I’m thinking, I’m not this person, right? So I am probably the type of the type person that will check in the morning, say good morning to someone. And if there’s something that I want to compliment them on, I’ll do it there, but that’s it. Then I’m keeping it moving. But there is a celebration behind a lot of what you’re doing.
Jonathan: There is. And I think a lot of it comes from the fact that again, that I’ve had the opportunity to be a recognized individual. I’m an extroverted introvert or an introverted extrovert. I don’t know which way you want to put it. I like to close my art room door sometimes. But yet I also want to help celebrate other people. And so yeah, there is a lot of celebration in it, but I also know that my staff culture is one that buys into the work that we’re doing. And yet, there might be some grumbling here and there about like, oh, we’re doing this again or, oh, that takes time. But in the end, everyone begins to realize that like, it matters. I mean, even me, I’ve had some very wild, beautiful experiences as an educator, but I like when people tell me that I’m doing a good job. It makes me feel connected. It makes me feel like what I’m doing matters. And I crave it just like anybody else, because I’m a person.
Candido: Yeah. I get it. I totally get that. I have a… I guess, I don’t normally talk about this, but one of my best, I guess the best relationships and working relationships that I have is the custodial staff and myself. And there’s one individual in particular who can read and register my facial expressions on the day and he’ll come and he’ll remind me. And him before I got to meet him, before like I knew him personally, he would stop into my classroom on his own accord, open the door and just say, “It sounds like they’re having fun in here and I’m glad that’s happening.” And that’s the only thing he would tell me. And then now we’re at the point in our relationship where he’s like, as soon as he sees me look other than joyful, he’ll remind me of my importance in the building. And it’s so good. It’s so like, it’s better than morning coffee. It’s the jolt that like, that can just get me going at any time of the day.
Jonathan: Yeah. I mean, we also have these groups that we formed in our building that we use for like professional development days and we call… Our mascot is the lark.
Candido: Is it?
Jonathan: Like the song bird.
Jonathan: I helped pick it so there it is. But it’s the lark. And so we have what we call flock families. So it’s like these flocks of people, there’s five or six groups, but it’s, each one’s made up of 12 people. And what some of us have done is taken that as an opportunity to show appreciation and build morale. So like making little things to put in different people’s mailboxes for 12 people. Sure, it’s not for the entire staff, but taking opportunity to recognize these people that are a part of this little family that’s been created.
Candido: I love that. Now in most reading classes or writing classes, teachers usually place emphasis on acknowledging a teacher maybe during the school year, maybe at the end of the school year. This may be part of me talking of my middle school experience, especially for eighth graders like writing to their teachers. But I’ve seen it in elementary as well. I’ve received even apology letters too, right? I’ve seen that assignment. That’s not my form of discipline. It’s really weird when a kid comes in and writes me a sorry note that I’ve never asked for. I’m like, I thought we handled this already, but okay. Do you do student to teacher recognition?
Jonathan: That’s good. So that’s a good question. And again, I think recognition, it’s an interesting way to put it, right? Because it could be at any number of things. When it comes to appreciation, if you think about opportunities or lessons that you embark on that offer kids an opportunity to make portraits, several times we’ve done it where like they make a portrait or they make a portrait of a loved one at home. And then we talk about like, Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we made portraits of the entire staff, right? And so then taking that opportunity to have them look at a staff photo and each pick out a person until all of the people are picked out and make a little portrait for them. But there are some that we made 10 years ago that are still hung up outside of classroom doors. Because if you think about it, like kids make us… We’re the art teachers, kids make us little portraits of ourselves all the time. Especially when you look like a cartoon character, like I do. So like…
Jonathan: All the time. But that’s might not necessarily be true for the fifth grade teacher. So I mean, it’s something that they are so proud of. And every year I think, Ooh, this is the year where we need to make sure that we do this or make these images. I don’t know, sometimes people come to me as they do to probably every art teacher in America. And we’re like, Hey, we’re thinking about making a giant thank you card. And you’re like, oh, okay.
Candido: Yeah, that.
Jonathan: Can you just give you the supplies? But you know, I oftentimes like to just give the supplies and have that be something they make later, but sometimes there are opportunities where, especially if I feel the purpose. If you feel that purpose and if the kids buy into it too. Do they understand why. If they don’t understand why and I can’t explain fully then maybe this isn’t for us to be working on together in the art room and maybe just buying a card is a great idea too.
Candido: Yeah, that’s fine too. If the student… I usually, I lean into students asking me for those, because then I feel like, like you said, they’ve bought into it and they understand the assignment. But when teachers do ask me, I definitely… I haven’t had those problems with communicating with other teachers, my sentiments towards them asking me for favors. I haven’t had that problem very long time. And you know after a while, like who’s coming in for what, what a favorite looks like and what an abuse looks like.
Jonathan: Yeah. I will say that kindergarten last year, there was a teacher who picked up her class and you could just see something in her eyes, kind of like you were talking about like people that can read you. And the kids came in and were talking about their teacher and how much they loved him. And I was like, well, let’s make her a trophy. Let’s make her the most awesome award. And they’re like, let’s do it. And so we took one of those softball trophies that someone had donated and like, I let the kids dream up what they were going to attach to it. And meanwhile, they’re working on their work that they were already going to do, but each kid came up and added something into it. And then when she opened the door to pick them up, we presented it to her. And I mean, it was the goofiest/ugliest thing I had ever seen. But she loved it and she displayed it in her classroom because there was sentimental nature to it.
Candido: Sure. I’m sure the timing, it was just right. It was just right. So we’re talking about individual recognition, but there are opportunities to do whole staff recognition and well, you’ve already talked about one, how you manage to do it. Does your team do anything that like celebrates the school as an entity as opposed to the individual teachers?
Jonathan: Yeah. And I mean, this is the tricky part, right? The individual versus whole. Because I mean, if I’m being completely vulnerable, I’ve had relationships that have gotten really messy because of teacher recognition. Because either of my recognition or someone feeling like I should have recognized them and I didn’t. Because whenever you are seen as this leader of building culture and you accidentally leave someone off or you didn’t get to them in a timely a manner by celebrating them, like those are real feelings that they’re experiencing. But it also didn’t come from a place of like hurt or anger or anything on my end, right?
So yeah, that’s me speaking very vulnerably. But we… I mean, let’s just talk about like crazy things. Like there’s lots stuff on like Instagram and social media about like wellness wagons that like come to this school with snacks. Well, our school counselor often does it, but she’s been real busy. So we, my music teacher and I, we took our planning period one Wednesday a month, on wellness Wednesday, and we barged into each classroom door and she sings like, “Free snacks.” And like, I got the cart and we’re like dancing into the room and everyone gets a free snack. Everyone happy. Like we get interrupted all the time. Why not be interrupted with like chips? And we have a secret plan for next week.
Jonathan: Where we’re buying a bunch of flowers from the local grocery store, especially like the bouquets that are like, Ooh, discount. They’re not going to make it much longer. And we’re going to divide them all up and so our wellness wagon is going to be a flower cart that we’re going to push through the school.
Candido: That sounds very cool.
Jonathan: Give everybody flowers. But I mean, it doesn’t have to be costly, it doesn’t have to be expensive, it doesn’t have to be overly involved. I think that’s the thing about art educators is we already solve problems all the time on a shoestring budget or with these quirky materials we already have around us. If there’s a way to do that for everybody, what a great opportunity.
Candido: I appreciate you being vulnerable. I think that’s important and something that I want to push in this podcast as well, because we want to remove any type of false gestures or false narratives of the perfection of the position. So thank you for sharing that. Yeah.
Jonathan: There’s nothing perfect over here.
Candido: No, no, no.
Jonathan: Candido, I think that’s part of it is we shouldn’t be afraid to tell each other we’re proud of one another either. And I’ll never forget a second grade teacher where she came in and told me all these things she had taken care of that day for the building. And then on her way out the door, I said, “I’m proud of you. Thank you, thank you. This is amazing. I’m really impressed with everything that you’ve done for our building.” And it really took them like off kilter for a minute because they weren’t prepared for their colleague, their friend to say something like that. But we should, we should say it more often, but it’s always should come with that explanation like why you’re proud of that person.
Candido: Let me throw this in here because it’s something that I’ve done in the past, but not intentionally. But now that I’m thinking about, it’s assisted in building these relationships and teacher recognition. So we get approached for these favors to assist for things. But I’ve thrown a wild curve ball at all of my teachers and in the beginning of the year, especially like on the days where he is setting up prior to superintendent day. I’ve gone to the classrooms in advance and said, Hey, I have a moment. Do you need help with anything? And that sort of sets the tone for the school year, because now I’m telling them and approaching them in a way that says I’m available. Can I help you? Versus, later on once I’m rolling, I’m not there.
But these teachers then they understand that you see them as a teammate and that you want to be helpful. And you can also set those boundaries for what the school year is like. And there’s that special feeling, right? Because they feel like teammates. You’re acknowledging them as a teammate in the way that we know how. We’re artistic, we’re creative and posters for us are, I don’t know. I’m sure, it’s like minutes. It’s not even like… Let’s just do this thing.
Jonathan: It’s like minutes, yeah.
Candido: So I just thought about that because that’s definitely a way I’ve started this school year and it’s assisted in building relationships with my other colleagues.
Jonathan: I bet.
Candido: We’ve talked about a few things that your team does, but there’s one that you mentioned when we were on the NAEA panel and that was the birthday balloons. Let’s talk about that.
Jonathan: Yeah. Okay. So a little context. There are teachers in our school who are dear, dear close friends of each other. They’re not a clique. A clique often means that you’re like excluding people on purpose, there’s a hierarchy. They’re just really good friends. They’re physical neighbors, but then neighborhoods, they’ve gone on vacation together. But then at school, they were also celebrating each other with balloons and streamers on each other’s birthdays. And someone came to me and they’re like, yeah, I feel like we’re not being included. And I was like, well, then what’s the solution, right? You push back. And they’re like, well… And I was like, well, we’re not going to tell them to stop celebrating one another. Why don’t we celebrate everybody? So now, this year we bought an electric balloon pump and lots and lots of balloons and the weird, like it’s called balloon tape.
It comes with these little holes in it. But we now make like a balloon arch or a balloon like swag thing over everybody’s door for everybody’s birthday. And yes, they’re half birthdays. And what’s cool about it is, is that there are teachers who this is really exciting for them. They spend a lot of time in the building. This is where they have the most human interaction and yet, now when there’s balloons up, the kids are like, “Happy birthday.” And like saying happy birthday to these teachers. People comment like, oh, you knew what colors I love. And I was like, yeah, I’ve been in your classroom. I know what colors you love. But then the half birthdays, we have a new teacher to our building. And she said, I have never been celebrated in this way at any school that I’ve been at. She’s like, because her birthday’s in July and we’re not here in July. And so, whereas everybody else would get some kind of recognition or be in the staff newsletter.
That’s never true for her. So teary eyed, she’s like, can I have a hug? But it sounds goofy, it is. And I actually, honestly, Candido, I don’t even like balloons. I have this problem about the impermanence. Like, they’re all going to pop eventually. They’re all going to make a mess. Sometimes, I’m hanging them at like 06:30 in the morning, over someone’s door and they pop and I almost fall off a ladder. So I mean, this is, it’s real, right? Like, none of it is perfect. I have to like fill in the spaces of all the pop balloon. Like please don’t pop, please don’t pop. But it makes people happy and it’s a simple thing that we can do. And this year for my in-laws, when they asked what I wanted for my birthday, I said, balloons.
Candido: Whoa, whoa.
Jonathan: And they didn’t take me serious. They thought I was being… And I was like, no, not inflated. Like just please go to Target, buy me a lot of empty balloons.
Candido: I need them.
Candido: I need them. I want to close out with this question. We’ve talked about teacher appreciation, what ultimately leads to school morale. So why do you think that school morale is significant?
Jonathan: I think one of the things I just said about the fact that we spend so much time there, right? And it’s about the wellbeing of everybody is this morale because it dominoes. When the teachers feel connected, included, appreciated, they want to do their best. They want to make connections with each other. They want to make connections with their students. Hey, guess what happens? Their students who want to be there, the students want to be a part of it.
Our principal actually is morning at a staff meeting, showed us a video where it was about like, when we fall, we help each other back up. And we’re going to fall, we are. It’s going to happen, but we are going to continually reach out a hand and help each other back up. And it was the perfect video for us to watch. Especially throughout this school year and the fact that it is about our morale, but I think we also have to realize as educators, that we’re also in charge of that morale. Not just the people in leadership positions, but all of us. And if we have the opportunity to like reach out to someone else in the building and say, thank you or say, I’m proud of you or write them a little note of gratitude and slide it in their mailbox or random pieces of candy. Everyone loves candy. Then I mean, those little things can help boost morale. Again, have us all want to be a part of something.
Candido: Right on. Jonathan, this cannot be the final conversation on the Everyday Art Room podcast between you and I. There are things that you have done that I’m quite intrigued by, but let’s save those for other conversations and other episodes. So I’ll close by saying thank you.
Jonathan: Oh, thank you. And I feel honored and appreciated to be a part of this podcast so thank you.
Candido: Teacher appreciation plays such an integral role in our profession. We need to know that the work we are putting in day and day out is seen. However, we don’t always get that from the places or people we hope. It’s then that I want to remind you that you matter. And the absolute most important recognition and opinions are that of your own and our wonderful students. I definitely want to thank Jonathan for acknowledging his colleagues and seeing the value in teacher appreciation. We’re a team and we shouldn’t have to wait for others to acknowledge us. Here’s a challenge, write, “I appreciate you and the work you do” on a sticky note and leave it in the mailbox of a colleague. Write your name if you’d like, but anonymous works as well.
For more resources on this topic, check Jonathan’s article; Why Is Teacher Appreciation So Important? And in episode 267 of our ed radio, in which Jessica Provow shares her favorite teacher portrait lesson. Thanks for listening to Everyday Art Room. I hope that you’ve learned enough to want to know more. Catch you next week.
Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.