It’s been a hard, sometimes demoralizing, few years to be a teacher. But it’s still the best job in the world, according to the four finalists for the National Teacher of the Year award.
“The beautiful thing about teaching is that it matters every single day,” said Joseph Welch, an 8th grade U.S. history teacher in Pittsburgh. “But one of the hardest things about teaching is that it matters every single day.”
The finalists—Welch; Whitney Aragaki, a high school science teacher in Hilo, Hawaii; Autumn Rivera, a 6th grade science teacher in Glenwood Springs, Colo.; and Kurt Russell, a high school history teacher in Oberlin, Ohio—spoke to Education Week about how policymakers can make teaching a more sustainable career. A winner for the national award, which is sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers, will be announced in the spring.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
We see surveys where large numbers of teachers are saying they want to quit. What keeps you in the classroom?
Russell: It’s the love that I have for my students. I always believe that students come first. I really get my energy, my enjoyment just from seeing students be successful.
Rivera: I’ll echo what Kurt says—really just being there, being surrounded by your students, not forgetting to stop and have some fun sometimes, and really just remembering why we got into the profession in the first place. Also, being able to name that it is a hard year and not pretending that it’s not—just being there to support each other as coworkers and as professional teachers.
Welch: It’s important to acknowledge and be honest with ourselves as a profession and for our students—to realize that it’s been a difficult time but there are such great narratives of all the positives that have happened in the classroom. I think focusing on those relationships and those small wins at times—sometimes they’re larger wins—but always coming back to that idea that we have that opportunity every day to make students’ lives better.
Aragaki: What I’m here for is to support my community. I have lived in the same community all my life. I’ve attended the school that I currently teach at. It’s really important to think about how our children will be the stewards in the future, so they will take care of our environment. I work and I teach to create this gift that I can give the future that I will not be able to see through.
What do you think that district leaders or policymakers can do to make teaching more sustainable?
Welch: Right off the bat, we need to look at how we are supporting the teachers that are currently in our classrooms from a policy standpoint. How are we fully funding our classrooms so that teachers have the resources in their classrooms to do what they need to do? Also, looking long-term, how are we going to diversify the workforce and attract new teachers into the classroom, whether that’s by removing traditional barriers by offering internships or looking at programs like Educators Rising [a preparation program for high school students who want to be teachers], and facilitating that.
There’s a nonpolicy side to this, too, and it gets back to—I use the term re-professionalized profession. Let’s trust our teachers once again. I don’t think it’s so much what our teachers need to hear. It’s that our teachers need to be heard right now.
Rivera: We were already being asked to do a lot before the pandemic, and that workload has just increased tremendously. I know so many teachers are having to work multiple jobs in order to just stay in the profession. Finding ways to help support that and ways to also just respect teachers as the professionals they are—but also remembering that teachers are still human beings. We’re not superheroes. I still need to have time to eat some lunch and go to the bathroom once in a while. Being able to support that and humanizing teachers is really important.
Russell: It seems as though the teaching profession is one of the major professions that is always [being] questioned—our professionalism, our intellect. If you go to a doctor and the doctor prescribes some medicine, it’s not questioned as much as if a teacher is reading a certain book or if a teacher is providing a certain lesson. Once teachers feel as though they are respected, that they are important, I think you’ll be able to retain teachers more.
Aragaki: Something that I advocate for is having teachers at every decisionmaking table. It’s important that teachers feel that they have a voice, but that their voices are heard when decisions are being discussed, before even being made. When teachers have that seat at the table, we have a sense of belonging. When we have a sense of belonging, we have a sense of responsibility to the school, our children, our community at large. I advocate that whenever we think about how to make the teaching profession more sustainable that we ask teachers themselves, and we don’t surmise discussions about them, but with them.
What would you say to someone who’s thinking about becoming a teacher but is maybe a little overwhelmed or intimidated by all the challenges over the past couple years?
Welch: You have the chance to build so many relationships with students, with families—partnerships with the community that matter in ways that you may not even see. You have a chance to determine such a legacy. We need your solutions. We need your energy. What’s so brilliant is you get to do it one student at a time.
Rivera: It’s a gift that just keeps on giving every year. You build new relationships. And I just love being able to go to the local grocery store or get some gas, and you see a former student there, and they are just so excited to see you and so excited to share their life with you. And that is something that continues to grow the longer you teach. I’d really encourage all the people who are thinking about it—the students are so fun, and they really make it worth it. Being able to interact with them and see their successes, support them through their challenges—that’s not something that other professions get. It’s such an amazing gift and so rewarding.
Aragaki: Teaching is a profession that impacts all other professions. Something that I think about when I wonder what I would say to potential educators is that sometimes we view potential educators as young college students ready to go. They’ve been thinking about teaching their entire four years, or even since they were in kindergarten, but our potential educators are everywhere. There are some second-career, third-career teachers who have made tremendous impacts on our schools. They have this wealth of knowledge that I don’t have because I never was in industry. I never got to see anything besides teaching. When they bring in that knowledge, the wisdom of the community, they can ... continue to mold our future with our students.
Russell: Everyone has a favorite teacher, right? That’s the impact of teaching. What I tell a young person is that it’s worth it. It is absolutely worth it. Is it difficult? Yes. Does it get hard sometimes? Yes. Does it get frustrating sometimes? Yes. But at the end of the day, it is so, so worth it. There is not a profession, in my humble experience, that has made or is making a bigger impact than teaching.