Teachers have been widely skeptical and concerned about public education under President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. But the four top teachers who are in the running for the National Teacher of the Year award have a unique opportunity to have their voices heard by the new administration—and they hope to do so at the White House this spring.
The finalists for the annual top teaching award are Sydney Chaffee, a 9th grade humanities teacher in Dorchester, Mass.; Chris Gleason, a music teacher in Sun Prairie, Wis.; Athanasia Kyriakakos, an art teacher in Baltimore; and Megan Gross, a special education teacher in San Diego.
-- Emily Zevely (@EmilyJHigh) March 7, 2017
The top teachers were all here in the nation’s capital last week for a series of media interviews. They met with Education Week Teacher at the office of the Council of Chief State School Officers to discuss their love of teaching, their thoughts on the future of arts education, and their hopes of working with the new presidential administration.
The interview was lightly edited for length and clarity, and parts were paraphrased.
Education Week Teacher: How did you all get into teaching, and why have you stayed in teaching? What is the biggest takeaway from your teaching career so far?
Gross: She credited her earlier work with adults with disabilities, specifically one resident with Down syndrome and dementia. “There were a lot of things that he didn’t remember, but he remembered his teacher and how she had taught him to write his name in cursive—and he could still write it. So it was that moment, sitting in the kitchen, ‘Oh I need to be a teacher, I want to have that kind of effect on somebody’s life.’”
Gross has been teaching for 10 years. “I stay for the kids. I want to give them the tools they need to be self-determined, to be self-advocates, and to give their families support so that they can dream a bigger life for their children.”
Kyriakakos: “I wasn’t going to be a teacher, I was going to be an artist.” But her work with at-risk students in New Britain, Conn., struck a chord within her, and she became a teacher in 1995. “Those kids showed me who I could be for them. My work and art work has to do with building community—what I really want to do is start a conversation and being a teacher allows me to do that.”
“In art, the most amazing time is when I’m not actually teaching. So that moment when all you can hear is the scratching of the charcoal against the paper and all the kids are so focused and they have tapped into something really deep within themselves—and you can often hear the hum coming out of their headphones because they need to close out that world to come into themselves.”
Gleason: "[Music] touches certain parts of kids’ beings that wouldn’t be otherwise. We hear a lot about teaching to the ‘whole child,’ and what we have learned through history is that kids don’t come in as one size fits all. They don’t see the world the same way—otherwise, why paint, why have art? Intelligence is diverse and distinct.”
“It’s not about the notes, it’s teaching through the notes. Music is going to touch every discipline. I appreciate the student that can look at a piece of music and really get to understand the composer’s intent—they might not play it perfectly but they may understand empathy at a level that far exceeds their age.”
Chaffee: “I didn’t know that I wanted to be a teacher. I thought I wanted to be a poet.” Her love for teaching stemmed from a lifetime love of learning. “I had these amazing college and feminist professors and I was on fire, I was excited to be with them, learn, and have these conversations that pushed me to be a scholar in this way.”
“I’m 10 years in, and every year I get to learn more, and I get to be better. Every year I get to help kids figure out who they are, what they love, what’s important to them, and what’s the story that they want to tell.”
Chaffee is also the liaison for her school’s partnership with a local theater company that she takes her 9th graders to weekly. “Every year they do a poetry competition and then they put on a play. We are teaching them certain skills but we are also just helping them discover who they are—we’re helping them discover the power that they have and there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing a kid take the stage and have all of the power in the room in their hand, in that moment, and to see them own that and know what to do with it is so incredible.”
Education Week Teacher: How do you feel about the future of arts education, in contrast to the push for STEM?
Chaffee: “Something that I’ve been really excited about hearing about recently is STEAM. Just thinking about what are the ways in which we can stop thinking of the arts as separate? And the ways in which we can be interdisciplinary and the ways in which we think about these different learning experiences for our kids.”
“I’m interested as a teacher always on how we can be creative about the resources that we do have or the talent that we have in our building or the things that kids are passionate about, to weave these different kinds of learning together, so that they’re not just standing alone and not sort of siloed.”
Gleason: “The thing that we have to remember is that kids are diverse, they are distinct. I’ve taught for 20 years, there’s not one year that has been the same. We need to find every tool we can to teach these kids, and we have to fund it. What better thing to fund than our future—the kids are replacing us, they are the future.”
Kyriakakos: “For years, they have replaced the arts with STEM subjects. After years, studies found that without the ‘A’ or even ‘R’ [reading], our kids are not creative, innovative, collaborative, or communicative. They weren’t critical thinkers. How are these kids going to integrate into tomorrow’s workforce? We might be thinking about the ‘whole child’ and being culturally sensitive and creating citizens of tomorrow who understand history and have tapped into their inner self—all of these things are great. But we need to give them those skills, and those skills come out of the arts. We create innovators, critical thinkers, problem solvers—kids should use all the different modalities of art to talk about who they are and where they are going.”
Education Week Teacher: Typically, there is a White House ceremony in the spring to honor the state teachers of the year and the National Teacher of the Year. Given the controversy surrounding the new administration, some educators have said they would be wary of going to the ceremony this year. What are your thoughts on that?
Gross: “I have to practice what I preach and talk to my students about democracy. We live in an amazing country, and so being able to go to the White House is an honor, regardless of who that person is sitting in the Oval Office.”
Her advice to the new administration? “Speak with families who have students with significant disabilities, and speak with adults with significant disabilities—I think they are an untapped source of knowledge for informing our policies.”
Gleason: “We need to find what we have in common first; if you don’t do that then you are just looking at what the differences are. Once we find out what we have in common, then you can have an honest conversation—the end result is that we all want what’s best for kids, so that’s where we start and then we go from there.”
Chaffee: “Someone said to me recently, ‘the White House is our house.’ The White House, it’s ours.” She said she keeps in mind what Chris Minnich, the executive director of CCSSO, told the cohort:
“He told us that there may be things that we disagree on, but that you are never going to actually make any changes if you’re not there. What an amazing privilege I have to be able to potentially have an audience with Secretary DeVos, President Trump, and his administration—to be able to potentially sit at a table and have that discussion. I will absolutely be there this spring, whether I win or not, with the rest of my cohort, happy to stand and represent teachers and have those conversations.”
Kyriakakos: “We all talk from our hearts, and we need to see this is a learning opportunity for all of us. This is an amazing country, and I am a first-generation immigrant. For my family and I to be at the White House—personally, that is huge. I represent in many ways, all the immigrants’ American Dream, and we have to honor that dream.”
“We need to take care of our kids. I think it’s great to have an audience with the administration and I think that we need to tell them our stories. How are they are going to hear about our stories if we are not there to say them? We need to have a seat at the table.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.