By Maia Appleby
Students, parents, and the community at large should recognize the important work of teachers throughout the year, but it’s nice to set aside a special week just for that purpose!
Teacher Appreciation Week has become an established tradition in school districts throughout the United States, but few seem to know how it started. We did some digging and found interesting, yet not widely known, information about the history of this highly recognized week.
It All Started with a Teacher in Arkansas
Specifically, it started with an African American woman who taught at a school in the segregated South. At some point during the early 1940s, Mattie Whyte Woodridge (1909–1999), an Arkansas teacher, decided that educators should be recognized for the contributions they make to society. She soon ventured to work on a mission to make that happen.
Woodridge wrote to every governor in the United States. She corresponded with a host of politicians and leaders in education, stressing the need for a national day to honor teachers. In 1944, one of the many letters she wrote landed on the desk of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Mrs. Roosevelt acted upon that letter, asking the 81st U.S. Congress to consider setting aside one day per year to acknowledge and honor the work of teachers. In addition, the National Education Association (NEA), joined by its state affiliates in Kansas and Indiana, worked tirelessly to help make Woodridge’s suggestion a reality. Like Mrs. Roosevelt, the NEA lobbied Congress to create a day for the nation to celebrate teachers.
Woodridge Gradually Saw Her Plan Materialize
Mattie Whyte Woodridge continued to work as an educator in the Arkansas Delta, eventually serving as principal of North End Elementary School in Helena in the 1950s. Although her idea worked its way through Congress for decades, she lived to see its fruition.
At first, Congress declared March 7, 1980, as National Teacher Day—but only for that particular year. However, a growing movement to make it an annual event had already taken root, and people throughout the country continued to celebrate it. For several more years, the NEA and its affiliates observed National Teacher Day on the first Tuesday of March, and in 1985, the NEA Representative Assembly voted to officially designate that day as National Teacher Day.
The National Parent Teacher Association was also eager to make the day of recognition official but took it a step further: each year, the first full week of May would be designated as Teacher Appreciation Week.
Teacher Appreciation Week Is Established
In May 1999, Representative Rush Holt, a congressman from New Jersey, delivered a touching speech as he discussed National Teacher Day before the 106th Congress. Here’s an excerpt:
As a teacher myself, I know that teaching is a hard and sometimes unrecognized job. But of all the important jobs in our society, nothing makes more of an impact on our children than a well trained, caring, and dedicated teacher. No job ultimately is more important to our society.
On August 14, 1999, just three months after Holt gave this speech, Mattie Whyte Woodridge died at age 90. Although details of her important lifelong mission are sparse, her patience and diligence led to the permanent establishment of an annual event that continues to make educators and students smile year after year.
Woodridge doesn’t have her own Wikipedia page, nor is she profiled in many history-based publications. In fact, her name is rarely mentioned, even among all of the festivities that Teacher Appreciation Week brings each year. As we honor our teachers, let’s also remember and honor her legacy.