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Forget the Free Food and Gift Cards. Here’s the Kind of Recognition Teachers Really Want

For educators, specific feedback is more valuable than general compliments. Public shoutouts of good work can be polarizing. And free food ranks low on the list of meaningful acknowledgments from supervisors.

That’s according to a nationally representative survey from the EdWeek Research Center of 239 district leaders, 161 school leaders, and 553 teachers. The survey—which, among other questions, asked educators to select the kind of praise or acknowledgment from their supervisor that would be very meaningful to them—was in the field from Jan. 31 to March 4.

The results provide some context as administrators try to boost low teacher morale and keep their staff from leaving. A past EdWeek Research Center survey found that 54 percent of teachers said more acknowledgment of their good and hard work would go a long way toward supporting their mental well-being.

Verbal feedback that was specific in nature was the highest-ranked type of praise, with 58 percent of all educators (teachers and administrators) saying it was very meaningful. Specific written feedback was a close second.

Forty-eight percent of educators said verbal praise with a general compliment on their work was very meaningful, with general written feedback following closely behind.

“At the heart of it, anything generic never feels personal,” said Christopher Littlefield, an author and the founder of Beyond Thank You, which trains managers in employee recognition and motivation. “What has people feeling valued is when people see both our behaviors and our intentions and creativity and effort we put in, and the time and care we put in.”

And teachers specifically want to know that school leaders understand good pedagogy, said Susan Moore Johnson, a professor of education at Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“It’s very important for them to feel like, ‘Someone saw what I did, understood it, and thinks that it’s productive,’” she said.

About a third of educators said they’d found a public shoutout of their work to all their colleagues to be a very meaningful form of acknowledgment. It’s no surprise the number isn’t higher: “Teachers do not want to be known as the principal’s pet,” Johnson said.

“What [teachers] are really hoping for is not the public recognition but getting that reinforcement that your teaching is really effective,” she added.

Littlefield said that many people feel uncomfortable with public praise because they’re nervous about what their colleagues will think. That’s especially true when the workplace culture is not one where employees regularly are publicly highlighted for good work, he said.

“When it’s regular, when it’s common, … there’s less vying for space because there’s an abundance of something we know is going to come our way, too,” he said. “When there are scraps, people fight for it.”

Words matter more than gifts

Compared to verbal or written feedback, tangible and intangible rewards—ranging from gift cards to free food to a jeans day—were much less frequently chosen by educators as being very meaningful.

Teachers were more likely than administrators to say they would find a tangible reward, like a gift card, to be very meaningful—39 percent of teachers said so, compared with about a quarter of school or district leaders, who are paid more than teachers on average.

Even so, verbal or written feedback, both specific and general, remain more common responses among teachers. (There was no significant difference between the number of teachers who chose those forms of acknowledgment and the number of administrators who did the same.)

“Teachers are teaching because they want to make a difference with kids,” Johnson said, adding that most teachers want to be recognized for those efforts. “Something like a gift card, for many teachers, would not be something they’d want [instead].”

A tangible reward like a gift card can even be insulting if it is used as a replacement for genuine acknowledgment, Littlefield said.

Employees’ preference for direct praise over gifts has been noted before, and it transcends fields. In 2019, the Deloitte Greenhouse Experience group surveyed more than 16,000 professionals working in more than 4,000 organizations in a variety of industries about their preferences for recognition.

Fifty-four percent of respondents said they most preferred a verbal thank you for their day-to-day accomplishments. Just 7 percent said they most preferred a gift.

What educators say

In open-ended responses to the EdWeek Research Center survey, several educators said the most meaningful acknowledgment of their work would be a pay raise.

Others said public support and recognition would be meaningful. A prior survey shows that about three-fourths of teachers feel respected and seen as a professional by their students’ parents, and just about half feel respected by the general public.

Genuine acknowledgment from administrators might come in the form of “having my back when it comes to parents’ attacks,” an elementary teacher wrote. Another elementary teacher suggested “newsletters to the community praising our accomplishments.”

One high school teacher said school leaders listening to teachers’ suggestions, instead of solely handing down top-down decisions “that disregard our expertise,” would be the greatest form of acknowledgment.

An elementary school principal wrote that praise should be specific and based on a variety of factors, including student growth, teacher collaboration, school climate, and data-based successes.

“It is important to recognize the hard work we all put in,” that principal wrote. “I like when a supervisor takes a ‘we are all in this together’ approach.”

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