Teachers are sharing theirs and their students’ stories more than ever, and it’s time for policymakers to listen, say finalists for the 2020 National Teacher of the Year award.
Education Week spent some time with the four of them: Chris Dier, a high school history teacher in Chalmette, La.; Leila Kubesch, a middle school Spanish and English-as-a-second-language teacher in Norwood, Ohio; Tabatha Rosproy, a preschool teacher in Winfield, Kan.; and Linda Rost, a high school science teacher in Baker, Mont.
The National Teacher of the Year will be named in the spring. Typically, the winner, finalists, and other state teachers of the year are recognized in a ceremony at the White House, but a Council of Chief State School Officers spokeswoman said plans for this year have not yet been finalized. (CCSSO administers the National Teacher of the Year program.)
Last year, two state teachers of the year boycotted the White House ceremony in protest of President Donald Trump’s policies, but in a roundtable discussion, this year’s finalists told Education Week they would all attend to advocate for their students and fellow teachers.
Are you optimistic about the direction the teaching profession is heading?
Rost: I think that the state of the teaching profession is changing; it’s evolving in a good way. We’re seeing teachers evolve in their own self-perception and evolve into leaders.
Dier: I think that 10 years ago, there was a lot of pushback against teachers—[that] we weren’t doing enough or we weren’t qualified. But I think that mentality is shifting and I think that’s in large part due to teachers and the work that we do and us putting ourselves out there to show that we do care, and we are qualified, and we are professionals.
Kubesch: I think we came a long way, but the journey is still long, and we can’t continue alone. By collaborating and partnering with great minds, great organizations, and telling the story to policymakers, we can achieve even more.
As National Teacher of the Year, you would have a national stage. What would be your platform?
Dier: I would like to push for more intentional funding at every single level and more equitable funding for schools that are underresourced. Specifically, my platform is culturally responsive education where every student can see themselves in the curriculum and in the content and the school building. That’s proven to help students succeed by every metric.
Rost: I’m passionate about ... providing opportunities for teachers to step into leadership positions. I think we have a lot of teachers who have a lot of skills, but they don’t have an opportunity to exercise those and showcase them. That would promote retention, also.
Rosproy: I would be remiss if I didn’t use this opportunity to speak about early-childhood education and its importance in our country because it’s been a long time since there’s been this voice at this table. [Editor’s note: Early-childhood educators were finalists for the award in 2013, 1991, and 1988; an early-childhood educator has never been named National Teacher of the Year.]
But along with that comes the piece of implementing programs in all of our schools that have to do with self-regulation and mental health, which I think is an issue that’s more globally being faced at all age levels in a school. It’s something that often is only taught in the early grades, but there needs to be a continuum and consistency with how we’re teaching kids to manage these big feelings and their emotions so they can be successful adults and be critical thinkers and work with others.
Kubesch: I’m passionate about self-care for educators and youth, especially in communities that are highly impacted by a lot of tragedies, like the heroin epidemic. ... Families are impacted by homelessness, and it is so much. There are so many things on the plate, and we have to address these before the children can move on.
I’m very concerned about the debt for [school lunches] a lot of children have in my community—they have $1,600 unpaid, and how did that come about? Or literacy—if children have experienced homelessness and they didn’t return a book, they are not allowed to check out a book until that book is paid for. ... If we’re going to promote literacy, we have to have books in the hands of children.
If you have a few minutes with Trump or Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, what would you say to them?
Rosproy: I would ask them to go out to classrooms and visit and see what incredible things are happening. I think in the way that we don’t know the day to day of what’s going on in Capitol Hill, they probably don’t realize all the amazing things that are going on in rural Montana, in Louisiana, in Ohio, in Kansas. ... And I would ask for their continued support on the programs that we have in existence and the bountiful ideas that our teachers have to make it even better.
Kubesch: I would invite them to do a remote TV talk show that my students created. [My students] want to talk to them because they need to have a voice. They believe that policymakers need to hear from the children, because they feel like they have valid views as young community members, that they have opinions, that they are intelligent, that they are impacted by all the policies, and they should be a part of it.
Dier: I would also bring stories to them of my students. I live in one of the fastest-growing Hispanic population [areas] in the country and I would like to talk to them about my immigrant students or my students who live along the coast who are being impacted by climate change. ... I feel like there are a lot of commonalities that we have when it comes to education—we all want students to succeed and do well. I would try to extend my hand and reach across that aisle.
How do you promote student voice in your classrooms?
Dier: I teach social studies in our hyperpolarized climate. One thing that I do before I even talk about politics or anything of that nature is I ensure that I have a classroom where students feel connected and humanized to one another. That way, we can establish the relationships to have those discussions.
But I think it’s super important to have those discussions because students are going to enter into this partisan climate, and they need to learn how to navigate it. Sometimes we say, “When students get into the real world ...,” but they’re already in the real world. My students already face gun violence, they’re already losing their land [because of climate change], they’re already experiencing trauma. We need to create spaces where students can learn how to deal and manage.
Rosproy: In preschool, we’re probably not having a lot of discussions that are about politics, but we are having discussions about student voice, and how their voice in conflict matters, and how to use that voice when it’s appropriate, and how to listen to your peers. ... We are in a world that is full of conflict that they need to know how to navigate. We definitely want them to be empowered in that but to also know, “Hey, sometimes I have to be comfortable listening, too.”
Rost: I also make sure to advocate for my students’ voice in our school and in our communities. ... I’ve taken my students to the county commissioners, and they speak to them. I’ve told them in front of my students, “These kids are going to be in your seat someday, so you need to listen to them and what they have to say.” And they do. Those are ways that we can show them that their voice is more powerful than mine, and they can actually make a difference.
A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2020 edition of Education Week as Teacher of the Year Nominees Speak Out