The 55 teachers of the year from every state and U.S. territory gathered Thursday night to celebrate their profession in an evening of laughter, tears, and some policy talk—starting with an address by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
The gala was hosted here by the Council of Chief State School Officers, which organizes the Teacher of the Year contest. Sydney Chaffee, who teaches 9th grade humanities at a small Boston public charter school, was recently named the 2017 National Teacher of the Year.
During her speech, DeVos thanked her most influential teachers, including her 2nd grade teacher, her high school band teacher, and her high school government teacher—"You can blame him, maybe, for my being here today,” she said to laughter. DeVos, who is a strong advocate of school choice, has been met with skepticism from many educators across the country.
“Great teachers give of themselves so students get what they need to learn,” DeVos said. “Teaching is a selfless calling. ... We must do more to affirm the important role of teachers in our society because, let’s face it, teachers are the foundation of every other profession.”
DeVos gave shout-outs to all the National Teacher of the Year finalists, as well as the state teacher of the year from her home state of Michigan—Tracy Horodyski, who is a reading intervention and literacy coach at Zinser Elementary in Grand Rapids. Audience members cheered, but grew quiet as DeVos transitioned into talking about policy.
“One-size-fits-all solutions never work for every student in your classroom, so why should we think they will ever work at a larger scale?” she said. “Every student is different, so we should not then insist that their challenges can be addressed with the same solution or answer. You know this reality. You live it every day. You know how to educate your students, so that’s why I see my job as getting Washington out of the way so you can do yours.”
...and an otherwise friendly room went dead silent when she shifted from teacher shout outs to that //t.co/oInjJwGFN7
-- Dan Brown (@DanBrownTeacher) April 28, 2017
DeVos also acknowledged that many of the state teachers of the year had invited her to visit their rooms. (You can see which schools DeVos has visited so far with this handy Education Week tracker.)
“I want to spend as much time in schools as this job will allow, because I believe that policymakers, superintendents, state and local leaders, members of Congress, and this administration should make a point of soliciting the input and experiences of our best teachers,” she said. “You have the most direct connection to students in the classroom, and you will bring fresh perspectives to the table.”
“We may not always agree on specifics, and that’s OK, but I will always welcome the ideas of anyone who genuinely seeks to improve education for each and every student,” DeVos concluded.
DeVos left the event immediately after her speech, and Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the National Education Association (and the 1989 Utah Teacher of the Year) followed to raucous applause. She urged the state teachers of the year to use this year to advocate for their students and for improvements to education policy.
“Teaching is not our job, it’s our cause. It’s a social justice cause,” she said. “Decide what your state is going through. ... with all the passion of your social-justice heart that brought you into education, then speak.”
Chaffee also took the stage to give the keynote address. She told the story of how she encouraged a shy, bullied 9th grader, Damien, to play the role of a swaggering, cocky young man in a play. After weeks of coaching and support, on opening night, Damien nailed his line.
Now, Chaffee said, Damien is a 4th grade teacher (with a class of 39 students). “Damien is young and idealistic and has big dreams for his students. ‘I push them,’ he says, ‘by telling them how much I care.’ Damien inspires me,” she said.
“It is our job and our great honor to help our students unleash the genius in each of them,” Chaffee concluded. “Inevitably, we will fear that we are not good enough or worthy enough for this immense task. We will fear falling when we try to fly. But even if we do fall, we can celebrate the lessons that it taught us and how much closer it got us to the sky. ... It is one of the great privileges of my life to have this opportunity to share the sky with all of you. Let’s be fearless. Let’s take risks and dream big. Let’s convince ourselves that it is our destiny to fly.”
The day before, all of the state teachers of the year met President Donald Trump in the Oval Office.
A great great honor to welcome & recognize the National Teacher of the Year, as well as the Teacher of the Year from each State & territory! pic.twitter.com/jGgfNWwy3c
-- Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 26, 2017
“Each of you has dedicated yourself to inspiring young minds and to putting our children on a path to happiness and success—lots of success,” Trump said, according to remarks released by the White House.
He applauded Chaffee, pointing out that she is both the first teacher from Massachusetts and the first from a public charter school to win this honor.
“Sydney, I would like to congratulate you on this tremendous achievement,” he said. “There is nothing more important than being a teacher, and certainly for being a great teacher. You’re all great, great teachers, and congratulations to all.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.