Amid all the challenges associated with teaching in a pandemic, there have been bright spots in classrooms across the country. The four finalists for the 2022 National Teacher of the Year award are being recognized for their creativity in the classroom and dedication to student learning.
The Council of Chief State Schools Officers announced on Wednesday the finalists for the national award, which honors teachers for their work inside and outside the classroom. The teacher who receives the national honor will be granted a yearlong sabbatical to represent the profession and advocate for an issue of choice.
The finalists were selected “not only for their excellence in teaching and commitment to an equitable education for all students, but for their intentional integration of community and family supports to help students succeed,” the selection committee said in a statement.
Here are the four finalists:
- Whitney Aragaki, a high school science teacher in Hilo, Hawaii;
- Autumn Rivera, a 6th grade science teacher in Glenwood Springs, Colo.;
- Kurt Russell, a high school history teacher in Oberlin, Ohio; and
- Joseph Welch, an 8th grade U.S. history teacher in Pittsburgh.
Each of the finalists wrote in their application about the power of education and how it’s incumbent on teachers to make sure that all students are empowered to learn.
The finalists have a passion for learning, equity
Aragaki, a National Board-certified teacher who is pursuing a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction, teaches biology and environmental science in the same high school from which she graduated. She also works with the Hawaii Virtual Learning Network to ensure that students across the state have access to environmental science and computer science courses.
Aragaki’s instruction is rooted in an exploration of identity and is informed by place-based and anti-oppression pedagogy, a form of social justice teaching. For example, about half of Hawaiian adults will have diabetes or pre-diabetes in their lifetime, so Aragaki teaches students about the disease, its risk factors, and environmental and societal challenges. Because some Asian and Pacific Islander students have negative connotations about body size during these lessons, Aragaki also teaches about the feast-and-famine cycles of Indigenous communities before Western colonization to provide more context and cultural appreciation.
“Learning is holistic. Yet too often students are asked to leave parts of themselves at the door,” Aragaki wrote in her application. “We must activate the hearts and minds of our students through an immersive cultural context that honors our place and people. ... We must ensure that our students see themselves represented in the curriculum and that our teaching reflects our place and our people.”
Russell, who also graduated from the high school where he now works, teaches U.S. history and International Baccalaureate History of the Americas, as well as courses that he created, such as African American history and Race, Gender, and Oppression. He emphasizes cultural relevance in all the courses he teaches.
“To yield academic gains for my students, I explicitly broaden the scope of my lessons to incorporate all students in my classroom and ensure diverse representation is highlighted. My efforts to create a sense of belonging for all students has increased academic achievement and engagement in my classroom,” Russell wrote in his application, noting that there is no significant disparity between white and Black students’ grades in his classes.
Russell also helped organize a Black Student Union in 2019, in an effort to help foster a dialogue about race in his rural community. Since the group was created, behavioral referrals for students of color have decreased, and more white students have enrolled in African American history and Race, Gender, and Oppression classes. The group also met with the chief of the Oberlin police department to discuss perceived police harassment toward teenagers of color, leading to the creation of a youth advisory council.
Rivera, who has been in the classroom for 17 years, wrote in her application that she considers her role as a teacher to be a facilitator in her students’ learning as they discover the answers themselves. Through hands-on experiments and group work, her students are encouraged to ask questions and be curious.
In her application, Rivera referenced a moment two years ago, when the nearby Sweetwater Lake was slated to be closed to the public and put into private ownership. Her students wanted to do something about it—so Rivera had them research all sides of the issue and then fundraise for a local conservation organization that wanted to purchase the land for permanent public use. The students raised more than $600 from bake sales and T-shirt sales, and Sweetwater Lake ultimately became a state park.
“The message the students received? You have worth. You have a voice. You can stand up for your values and opinions,” Rivera wrote. “Education as a profession can guide students into discovering their self-worth.”
For Welch, a National Board-certified teacher who has been in the classroom for 15 years, the unit he’s most proud of turns his students into community historians. Each year, his students complete an oral history project that answers the question, “How does history shape a person’s story?” Students choose and research an event, and then interview someone who was involved or impacted by that event.
Over the years, his students have interviewed Holocaust survivors, Vietnam War prisoners of war, refugees, and more. Welch’s classes have created a four-volume community history book that is available in local libraries and several student-produced documentaries.
“Teaching that is student-centered and results in collaborations between educators, family members, and the community is the most meaningful,” Welch wrote in his application.
He added: “History is not just dates, places, and names. History is a living subject that is full of personal stories. When we focus on those stories and on diverse perspectives, experiences, and voices, we truly bring history to life and allow students to develop personal connections with the emotions of others.”
A national winner will be picked in the spring
The finalists were selected from a pool of 55 state teachers of the year who hail from 49 states, the District of Columbia, the Department of Defense Education Activity, and U.S. territories. Illinois did not name a new state teacher of the year in 2022.
A selection committee, made up of representatives from 19 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.
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 honored both the 2020 and 2021 teachers of the year at a ceremony on the South Lawn in October, since the 2020 event had been postponed due to the pandemic.
Juliana Urtubey, an elementary special education teacher in Las Vegas, won the national honor in 2021.