Obama Honors National Teacher of the Year, Calls for Higher Teacher Pay

By Madeline Will — May 04, 2016 4 min read
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Top educators from across the country gathered at the White House on Tuesday afternoon to celebrate Teacher Appreciation Day in style.

They mingled in the White House’s historic East Room. Nate Ruess, formerly of the band Fun., sang a handful of his hits and covered Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” much to the delight of the science teachers in the audience. And President Barack Obama gave a speech praising the educators and calling for an increased investment in public education.

The event was in place to honor 2016 National Teacher of the Year Jahana Hayes, a veteran high school history teacher from Waterbury, Conn. Hayes, who teaches at a Title I school, said in a speech that she derives her passion for education from her own disadvantaged background. She was a teenage mother in high school and was witness to poverty, drugs, and violence.

“Like many students across the country, I know what it feels like to have a dream and to exist in an environment where nothing is expected to thrive,” she said. “I know what it feels like to struggle to find sunlight and constantly be met with concrete barriers. ... I carry my own experience as a reminder that as a teacher, I have to be better.”

Hayes plans to use her year-long tour of schools across the country to call for better recruitment of minority teachers and to promote service learning.

In his speech, Obama praised Hayes’ commitment to her students and called for higher teacher pay to elevate the teaching profession.

“We need more teachers like this,” Obama said. “We’ve got to make the profession more attractive. We do have to have more accountability in the classroom. That doesn’t mean forcing you to teach to the test, but we’ve got to come up with measures that are meaningful so that if somebody doesn’t have the skills that Jahana or these other teachers have, that they can start developing it and we know what to look for. We’ve got to make sure we’re setting our sights high.”

The president also warned against complacency in light of recent policy changes.

“We may have replaced No Child Left Behind, which was a relief for a lot of folks, but the absence of something that wasn’t working as well as it should is not the presence of the kind of work that remains to be done,” he said.

No Child Left Behind was replaced late last year by the Every Student Succeeds Act. Not all of the Obama administration’s programs are included in the new law, but as my colleague Alyson Klein reported for Politics K-12, the White House is still trumpeting the Obama administration’s legacy so far on K-12 issues.

More STEM teachers

This year marks the halfway point into President Barack Obama’s goal, announced in 2011, to prepare 100,000 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics teachers by 2021. So far, more than 30,000 STEM teachers have been trained, and the White House announced on Tuesday that the “100kin10” initiative is on track to train the remaining 70,000 in the next five years.

Developed by the Carnegie Corporation, 100kin10 is a network of 280 public and private organizations that have collectively pledged more than $90 million to recruit, train, and retain STEM teachers.

Talia Milgrom-Elcott, co-founder and executive director of 100kin10, said she is also focused on resolving the underlying challenges that have contributed to the current dearth of STEM teachers—like the lack of prestige in the teaching profession for undergraduates majoring in STEM fields, the teacher preparation programs that do not effectively teach STEM subjects, and the lack of autonomy and creativity for STEM teachers to experiment in schools.

Damien Delton, a middle school science teacher in Mendota, Calif. who was at the White House on Tuesday, said he chose the teaching profession largely because of the STAR program, a paid summer research-experience program for aspiring K-12 STEM teachers from any California State University campus. The program is funded by 100kin10 partners and aims to produce teachers who can bring their real-world research experience into the classroom.

Delton, who is in his fourth year as a teacher, said one of his main challenges has been teaching students who have very limited science experience from elementary school. Elementary teachers are particularly ill-prepared to effectively teach STEM subjects, Milgrom-Elcott said, which is a critical problem since they lay students’ foundation for STEM skills.

“I get them fresh, and they don’t know much about science, but that’s also a good thing—I can help them open up their eyes, help them get excited,” Delton said. “When we do research, labs ... their minds are blown. That’s what I love to see.”

Image: President Barack Obama, left, accompanied by Education Secretary John B. King Jr., right, hosts the 2016 National Teacher of the Year Jahana Hayes, center, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on Tuesday in Washington. Hayes is a Social Studies teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury, Conn.

--Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.

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