Teaching Profession

The Finalists for National Teacher of the Year Have Ideas for Boosting Teacher Morale

By Madeline Will — March 19, 2024 5 min read
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Part of being the National Teacher of the Year means representing the profession—which is experiencing no small amount of challenges at the moment.

Teachers are, on average, feeling more negatively about their jobs than positively, according to new EdWeek Research Center data, and just 1 in 5 would recommend their own children—or those of a loved one—pursue a career in teaching. Teachers say they’re overworked and feel underpaid and generally disrespected.

This year’s finalists for the nation’s top teaching award have some ideas about what could turn things around—and they also have a national platform to share those suggestions with policymakers and district leaders.

The four finalists—Joe Nappi, a high school history teacher in Tinton Falls, N.J.; Missy Testerman, an English-as-a-second-language specialist and program director in Rogersville, Tenn.; Christy Todd, a middle school music and technology teacher in Fayetteville, Ga.; and Catherine Walker, a science and career and technical education teacher in Anchorage, Alaska—were in the nation’s capital last month to talk about what teachers need to do their jobs well.

They had traveled to Washington from across the country to interview with the selection committee for the top award—the winner of which will be announced later this spring—as well as to meet with media and visit U.S. lawmakers at the Capitol.

What could improve teacher morale

The four finalists agreed: Teachers have too much on their plates, and it’s contributing to low morale and job satisfaction.

“There was so much workload during the pandemic, and for a lot of teachers, it’s just not eased off,” said Testerman, the 2024 Tennessee Teacher of the Year. “A lot of the demands that were put on us during the pandemic are still on us.”

Teachers have been sounding the alarm about the heavy workload for a while, she said, and it’s time for school leaders to do something about it.

“No. 1 would be not adding anything new to teachers’ plates unless you are taking something off,” she said. “No. 2 would be taking a look at what is on teachers’ plates and seeing what is not required right now: What could be possibly removed from their plate in order to let them focus on teaching their students?”

Another factor: Students are not fully recovered—either academically or social-emotionally—from the trauma and disruptions of the last few years, the teachers said.

“Teachers love so many people that we have a lot of collateral stress,” said Walker, the 2024 Alaska Teacher of the Year. “When you see your students hurting, it makes it especially difficult to continue.”

From left: Missy Testerman, Christy Todd, Catherine Walker, Joe Nappi

Community support and involvement can make a difference, Walker said, so teachers don’t feel like they’re on their own.

“When you have experts coming in to do presentations for students, and helping keep teachers abreast of the latest technology and latest methods, and assisting with field trips and taking students on for internships and mentorships—all of that supports teachers in doing really good work and feeling good about their jobs,” she said.

And teachers have to advocate for themselves, said Todd, the 2024 Georgia Teacher of the Year. She said she spoke with a teacher who was so burned out and overwhelmed that she was thinking of quitting.

Todd asked her why—and kept asking until the teacher was able to identify a concrete reason, which was that she didn’t feel like she ever had enough time to eat lunch.

“I said, ‘OK, what can you do to get a longer lunch? Let’s go talk to an administrator, or maybe there’s another position that would be better suited for you. It’s not all or nothing,’” Todd said.

Putting teacher voice at the heart of those problem-solving conversations is key, said Joe Nappi, the 2024 New Jersey Teacher of the Year.

“I hope that this leads to a broader conversation about how we can help what is a pillar of American democracy in education stay healthy and vibrant,” he said. “The only way that we’re going to get there is by elevating teacher voice, and by hearing what teachers have to say.”

In the meantime, Nappi said, teachers should try to find value in the work they’re doing, despite the frustration.

“For teachers, it’s often so easy for us to lose sight—in all of the responsibilities and all of the tasks—[of] why we chose this profession in the first place,” he said. “And that’s the connection with the students, and the fact that we’re there for them.”

What the finalists are telling lawmakers

Whoever is chosen as the National Teacher of the Year will have the responsibility of legislative advocacy on behalf of U.S. teachers.

Testerman, the ESL specialist in rural Tennessee, said she hopes to make a plea to lawmakers for civility. Their negative comments and stereotypes against immigrants have caused people in her community to form a bias against the families of her students, she said.

“I hope to share a message that we in education, we do need [policymakers’] support, and that the policies that they pass have a very human face. The things they say on social media have a very human reaction to them as well,” she said. “And I would just like that they not use blanket statements to address an entire population of the American citizenry.”

Walker said she plans to speak to her representatives about Alaskan teachers’ retirement security. Teachers in Alaska, along with teachers in 14 other states, don’t receive Social Security coverage upon retirement.

Alaskan teachers who were hired after 2006 are entered into a defined-contribution retirement plan, which is based on each teacher’s individual investment decisions. (The state also contributes a percentage.) It’s similar to a 401(k) account common in the private sector.

Critics say that the defined-contribution plan, along with the lack of Social Security, leaves teachers at risk for not having enough to live on when they retire.

“We are losing our teachers to other states,” Walker said. “That’s one of the reasons people leave—to be able to retire.”

See also

From left: Missy Testerman, Christy Todd, Catherine Walker, Joe Nappi
From left: Missy Testerman, Christy Todd, Catherine Walker, Joe Nappi
Photos courtesy of the Council of Chief State Schools Officers
Teaching Profession Here Are the 4 Finalists for National Teacher of the Year
Madeline Will, January 24, 2024
8 min read

Meanwhile, Todd said she’s meeting with Rep. Drew Ferguson, a Republican from Georgia, to hear about his efforts to support broadband internet and ask how she and others at the local level can help.

“I think that’s really important, especially as a music-tech teacher, to make sure that everyone has support and access to fast internet,” she said.

Todd also plans to talk to Rep. David Scott, a Democrat from Georgia, who recently introduced a bill that would provide educators grants for professional development on how to best include students with disabilities. The cause is close to Todd’s heart: She created a music class for students with disabilities in which Advanced Placement Music Theory students serve as mentors and advocates for students to create music through assistive and adaptive technologies.

Later this spring, the national winner and all the state teachers of the year are expected to return to Washington for an award ceremony at the White House. They’ll have another chance then to meet with policymakers.

Said Nappi: “I’m hoping that this is the start of a conversation. And I hope that we can grow that conversation over time.”

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