Teaching Profession

Here Are the 4 Finalists for National Teacher of the Year

By Madeline Will — January 24, 2024 8 min read
From left: Missy Testerman, Christy Todd, Catherine Walker, Joe Nappi
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A science teacher in Alaska who encourages students to become stewards of natural resources. A music technology teacher in Georgia who teaches students how to create podcasts. An English-as-a-second-language teacher in Tennessee who builds bridges between cultures. A history teacher in New Jersey who guides his students to research and celebrate their own identities.

These are the finalists for the 2024 National Teacher of the Year, the top national honor for teaching.

The Council of Chief State Schools Officers on Wednesday announced these top contenders for the national award, which honors teachers for their work inside and outside the classroom. The four educators were selected from a pool of 55 state teachers of the year, representing states, territories, the District of Columbia, and the Department of Defense Education Activity.

The winner will be granted a yearlong sabbatical to represent the profession and advocate for an issue of choice.

The finalists are:

  • Joe Nappi, a high school history teacher in Tinton Falls, N.J.;
  • Missy Testerman, an English-as-a-second-language specialist and program director in Rogersville, Tenn.;
  • Christy Todd, a middle school music technology teacher in Fayetteville, Ga.; and
  • Catherine Walker, a science and career and technical education teacher in Anchorage, Alaska

“Teachers nationwide have met the moment by responding to students’ individual needs in the face of myriad challenges from recent years to ensure students succeed,” said CCSSO Chief Executive Officer Carissa Moffat Miller. “From rural Appalachia to the glacial slope of Alaska, these finalists represent the best of infusing creative approaches and building excitement for learning by students of teachers across the country whom CCSSO is honored to celebrate through the National Teacher of the Year Program.”

A history teacher’s emphasis on identity

Nappi has been teaching at Monmouth Regional High School in New Jersey for 18 years. He currently teaches U.S. history to sophomores and a Holocaust, Genocide, and Modern Humanity course to seniors.

“I ensure that all of my students see themselves reflected in our lessons and can see the connections between what we are learning and our world today,” Nappi wrote in his application.

For example, he designed a personal heritage project for students to research and present on a topic relevant to themselves, their family history, or some aspect of their culture. Adopted students have researched their pre-adoptive culture, LGBTQ+ students have shared their pride in their identity, and students who grew up in mixed-religious homes have reflected on their experiences.

The projects have created a strong classroom community, Nappi wrote. As one student said, “We’ve sat in classes together forever, but I never really knew who I was sitting with before this year.”

The celebration of identity has extended to the whole school: Nappi’s students had flagged rising animosity toward immigrants and minority communities and designed a diversity day program, which gave students from marginalized backgrounds opportunities to share their stories.

Nappi wrote in his application that he encourages his students to “be the change” on an issue they care about. And he’s also done so himself: He helped create a faculty-run, charitable organization at his school that deploys staff donations to meet the needs of students living in poverty.

In the past 16 years, he and his colleagues have collected and distributed more than $75,000 in direct aid—which has been used to purchase eyeglasses, winter coats, and groceries, pay electric bills, and fund scholarships.

“That is why I do this job, to be there for my students when they need me the most,” Nappi wrote.

An ESL teacher’s commitment to bridging cultural divides

Testerman taught 1st and 2nd grade at Rogersville City School, located in rural Appalachia, for three decades before transitioning to lead the English-as-a-second-language program for the one-school district. The school serves immigrant students from newcomer families as well as students whose families have lived in the area for centuries.

Testerman wrote in her application that she is “passionate about helping bridge the divide between my students’ families and those who may view them with suspicion,” and she views herself as an ambassador for immigrant students.

Part of that work means supporting families as they adjust to American society, she wrote. She has gone with a student and his mother to the courthouse to help the family get their car tag, and she has attended a doctor’s appointment with a student and his mother as their advocate.

And Testerman has infused a celebration of diversity within the elementary curriculum. She established the Second Grade American History Wax Museum, now an-annual lesson in which students research a famous American and prepare a one-minute speech and presentation. Testerman made sure students were selecting people from a variety of backgrounds and cultures, which resulted in class discussions about privileges and inequities throughout history.

“My students were exposed to stories of Americans who did not look like them, allowing them to understand those cultures and their own by seeing that people are inherently the same, no matter the culture,” she wrote. “We all have struggles and triumphs, and we all belong.”

Testerman also established a boot camp at the beginning of the school year to help students think critically about problems on standardized tests so they can feel confident about the expectations. The intervention led to an improvement in test scores, she wrote.

Testerman also organized and led a local teachers’ union to demand changes to school conditions, such as a lack of hot water in the building.

“No one knows the struggles that America’s families face more than we do because we see them, and we watch as our students struggle to survive them,” she wrote. “It is time that teachers begin to articulate the problems that we witness.”

A music teacher helps students find their ‘creative superpower’

Todd began her teaching career as a chorus director at Rising Starr Middle School who emphasized making sure all students have a chance to participate. As a first-year teacher, she created a music class for students with disabilities. Advanced Placement Music Theory students served as music mentors, helping their peers match pitch and stay on beat, and then the students came together for an end-of-year concert.

A decade later, 25 percent of choral students in the non-auditioned program were receiving special education or English-learner services. Students who had served as music mentors went on to become music therapists, music educators, and special education teachers as adults.

Todd left her position as the chorus director in 2018 to teach music technology, but she still co-teaches in the program, using assistive and adaptive technologies to expand the ways students can create music.

“I believe that every student has a creative superpower,” she wrote in her application.

To help students find that superpower, Todd launched a schoolwide “Make Kindness Normal” podcasting unit in fall 2020, which incorporates literacy standards and attempts to build students’ empathy, which had slipped since the onset of the pandemic.

Todd helped with the technical and artistic skills needed, and ultimately, more than 500 students in dozens of classrooms created podcasts about kindness that featured historical moments, interviewed local nonprofits, and shared personal stories. Todd compiled those podcasts into an album, which has been publicly released and is available for streaming.

Teachers within the school have continued to experiment with podcasting.

“In order to make school relevant and meaningful, we must build connections across classrooms and within our communities to support transfer of student learning,” Todd wrote in her application.

A science teacher exposes students to real-world careers

Walker is a National Board-certified teacher at Diamond High School in Anchorage who teaches oceanography, marine biology, unmanned aviation science, and engineering essentials. For all of these courses, she develops problem-based, career-oriented lessons that focus on sustainability and stewardship of natural resources.

“Students cannot know what careers they want without first experiencing them,” she wrote in her application. “The best way to accomplish this is to meet and interact with people in those careers, ideally people who look like them.”

Walker regularly invites professionals—ranging from octopus specialists to commercial drone pilots—to speak in her classroom. She also brings students to conferences, helps them get internships in their fields of interest, and guides them to complete hands-on projects rooted in the local community.

For example, in her drone class, students researched traditional methods of collecting data from whales, as well as why that data is important, and then brainstormed ways drones can improve safety and efficiency while decreasing costs. They adapted their drones to collect “whale snot” and tested their designs with a cardboard fog whale.

Walker also sponsors several extracurriculars for students, including the Green Effects Recycling Club, which does campus cleanups, and the National Ocean Science Bowl Club. Students have participated in remote beach cleanups and worked with a local engineer to turn plastic trash into synthetic lumber.

“Students learn that their decisions matter and that they are never too young to protect and change the world,” Walker wrote.

A national winner will be selected in the spring

A selection committee, made up of 16 representatives from education groups, chose the finalists based on their written applications, and will pick a national winner this spring based on interviews with each of the finalists.

Rebecka Peterson, a high school math teacher in Tulsa, Okla., won the national award last year for her passion for making mathematics engaging, relevant, and accessible to all students, and for her commitment to recognizing the good things happening in the classroom every day.

Typically, the national winner and the other state teachers of the year are honored in a White House ceremony in the spring. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden honored the 2023 teachers of the year at the Rose Garden in April.

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