When schools first shut down and flipped to remote teaching, parents got a tiny glimpse of what teachers do. As they watched through their children’s screens, praise and respect for teachers skyrocketed. TV showrunner Shonda Rhimes famously said in a tweet, “Teachers deserve to make a billion dollars a year. Or a week,” after a little more than an hour with her children.

I felt valued when my students’ families said they appreciated the at-home learning materials I put together and how well I was able to engage their preschoolers through a screen. Friends who aren’t educators made comments such as, “Wow! I never realized how much energy you need as a teacher, but now I see.”

We are now almost done with the first “normal” school year since the start of the pandemic, and unfortunately, perceptions of teachers are also going back to how they used to be. We see headlines like “The major teacher shortage” and “Crisis in education.” It seems like, as a nation, we’ve forgotten what we realized about educators in 2020 — that teachers make an essential contribution to the functioning of society.

This change in public perception has caused many educators to leave the classroom, and fewer and fewer students are enrolling in educator preparation programs. While other teachers and I can continue to advocate for ourselves and our profession, there are two big things that we need: better pay and more respect. We won’t attract and retain highly qualified teachers if we don’t make the working conditions better.

Pay, while not easy to raise, is the more straightforward answer. A study published in March 2022 found that students perform better when teachers are paid more. There are measures nationally to increase the starting salary of a teacher, but that is not enough. We need to elevate the profession.

The profession needs three things to attract top talent and address the issue of respect: purpose, autonomy and impact.

Purpose: A 2019 report from a human resources company that looked at people’s mindsets and how they affect our daily experiences showed that 97 percent of people feel more engaged when they have a purpose. A clear example is firefighters. Firefighters know that they provide an invaluable contribution — they respond to emergencies and often save lives. Even though being a firefighter is stressful, dangerous and not necessarily well compensated, they feel a sense of purpose. Being a firefighter also draws a lot of respect, which adds to the person’s sense of self-worth.

What educators are asking for is the same acknowledgment: They provide a much needed service to our community. A once-a-year Teacher Appreciation Week is not enough. While many educators enter the profession because of a calling, they quickly find out that rather than teaching what really matters, they are asked to “teach to the test.” Educators often aren’t allowed to teach the way they want to and instead are given scripted curricula.

Autonomy: Consider people who have a doctorate. The jobs they take, such as researcher or professor, have a similar starting salary. Yet, they are highly respected and seen as experts in their field. Doctorate holders choose their path of study based on their interest and skill. They dedicate a lot of time so they are the best of the best and are treated as such.

What educators are asking for is to be treated the same — as experts in our fields. Instead, we are micromanaged, given scripted curricula and told, “Here, do this.” We’ve spent countless hours learning how to teach. We also get to know our students as individuals. Teachers can take a group of 30 children with different personalities and needs and create individual relationships. We teach so much, from how to read to the importance of our history to how to measure the area of a room, and how water can be a solid, liquid and gas. Teachers are experts both on how to teach and on our students — we should be allowed the autonomy to teach how we know is best for each child.

Impact: Teachers want our voices to be heard — we want a seat at the decision-making table. Too often, the decisions that affect me aren’t even made by former educators. My current CEO has never taught in a classroom. This is true for many school board members and state-level superintendents. I can’t think of another profession where the voices and experience from the field are so undervalued that they aren’t even required for leadership. I believe all school leaders need to have classroom experience as a qualification before they can take a position of power. Also, current teachers should be on decision-making boards at all levels — local, state and national.

Purpose, autonomy and impact are what we’re asking for. What keeps me in the classroom is feeling that I can make a difference in the lives of my students, working at a school where my principal gives me autonomy and having a strong belief in the impact of a great foundation in early childhood. A combination of the three is what garners respect. What we do deserves respect, and as educators, we can’t go around just demanding it; we have to be given it by society as a whole, such as what happened at the start of the pandemic.

What if the headlines instead read, “Teacher vacancy rates at lowest level in years” and “Longtime high school history teacher retires after 40 years, with more than 1,000 former students and families coming to celebrate his career”?

— Margi Bhansali is a Chicago Public Schools teacher and parent.