Teaching Profession

Missy Testerman Makes Immigrant Students Feel Welcome. She’s the National Teacher of the Year

Testerman and other teachers will attend a White House state dinner
By Madeline Will — April 03, 2024 5 min read
Missy Testerman
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Missy Testerman, a K-8 English-as-a-second-language teacher in Rogersville, Tenn., has been named the 2024 National Teacher of the Year.

Testerman, who taught 1st and 2nd grade at Rogersville City School for three decades before earning her ESL endorsement three years ago, was awarded the national honor Wednesday during an appearance on CBS Mornings. She was chosen for her focus on inclusivity and connection in rural Appalachia, and her commitment to serving her students and their families.

“There are 3.5 million dedicated teachers in this country, so to be chosen as the one who gets to advocate for our teachers and our students over the next year is just a phenomenal honor,” Testerman said in an interview with Education Week after the announcement.

“Teaching is an immensely hard job,” she continued. “There’s so many demands placed on teachers, and the emotional workload is every bit as hard as the physical workload. ... But I want [teachers] to remember there will always be joy in education, and they are the joy-makers. They are the people who make it possible.”

First lady Jill Biden surprised Testerman on CBS Mornings with flowers and an announcement: When Testerman and the state teachers of the year visit the White House this spring for an annual ceremony, they’ll be honored in a state dinner.

It will be the first time educators are the guests of honor at a state dinner—a formal event typically used to recognize visiting foreign heads of state.

“I always say teachers are heroes,” said Biden, a long-time educator who teaches English at a community college in northern Virginia.

Testerman said she was “incredibly touched” by the invitation: “I know that we share the joy that there is to be found in education,” she told Biden.

Becoming a teacher of English-learners

Testerman told Education Week that her career trajectory changed when she found out that her school’s ESL teacher was leaving.

“Instantly, I became worried about who would advocate for these families,” she said. “I was very vested in them. I had been the classroom teacher who had them in my classroom—I considered their families to be my friends.”

She then pursued her ESL endorsement through the Tennessee Department of Education’s Grow Your Own program, which creates a pathway for licensed teachers to add that endorsement for free. The state pays for the coursework, materials, and exam fees. (The Grow Your Own model also provides a pathway for people to become teachers.)

Missy Testerman

Being an ESL specialist is different from being a classroom teacher, Testerman said: “In addition to just teaching content, it is figuring out which community resources families need or what I can do to help them.”

Just last week, Testerman said, she helped the mother of one of her students find tax documents in her native language. She will also schedule doctor’s appointments for her students, or help their parents contend with utility companies and government bureaucracies.

She also hopes to advocate for her students and their families on a larger scale, by calling for policymakers to maintain civility as they discuss immigration. Too often, she said, politicians will speak negatively about immigrants or rely on stereotypes in interviews or on social media.

“It emboldens other people to feel as though it’s appropriate to also say those things, and children are a reflection of what they hear,” she said. “Sometimes, that language makes it back into the school day, and it’s hurtful. It’s hurtful to my students, it’s hurtful to their families, it’s hurtful to me. ... If politicians would tone down the rhetoric and just stick to the issues that are at hand regarding immigration, instead of just putting out blanket statements, it would be very helpful.”

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CBS Mornings interviewed several of Testerman’s former students, who spoke of her warmth and commitment to their success and well-being.

“She really believed in us,” said Mariam El Kammash.

Testerman has often taught multiple siblings, creating strong bonds with their families. Jasmen Aglan, another former student, said: “Mrs. Testerman helped us feel more welcome when my brother started school. She’s really nice to my family.”

Said Caroline Hicks: “Every time I see her in the hallway, she always makes me smile every time, and I really like that.”

On the CBS Mornings program, Biden said those types of relationships are paramount to the work of a teacher.

“Students are struggling with mental health issues since the pandemic and so are teachers,” she said. “Our students trust us, and they come to us every day with what they’re struggling with, and they expect us to help them and find answers. I think we have such a strong bond with our students. It’s such a great part of the job—that connection.”

An ambassador for teachers and students

Testerman will spend the next year on a sabbatical from the classroom, serving as an ambassador for the teaching profession.

She was selected by a national committee from a pool of 55 teachers of the year representing states, territories, the District of Columbia, and the Department of Defense Education Activity.

The committee includes representatives from 16 education groups and is run by the Council of Chief State School Officers, which facilitates the award.

“With a rallying call to action for her fellow teachers, Missy’s message of advocating for inclusivity and success for all students meets the moment we’re in as a country,” the committee said in a statement. “We believe her knowledge of both the issues and the people involved in education policy and practice will lead to better outcomes for students, and we know Missy’s voice will resonate with every teacher she meets as she serves as the 2024 National Teacher of the Year.”

The three other finalists were: Joe Nappi, a higher school history teacher in Tinton Falls, N.J.; 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.

Rebecka Peterson, a high school math teacher in Tulsa, Okla., was last year’s winner.

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