Over the past few years, teachers have spoken out about low pay, crumbling classrooms, and an increasing amount of responsibility. Even so, the four finalists for the 2020 National Teacher of the Year award are optimistic about the future of the profession.
Teachers are sharing their stories and their students’ stories more than ever, and it’s time for policymakers to listen, the finalists told Education Week today in a roundtable discussion at the office of the Council of Chief State School Officers. (CCSSO administers the National Teacher of the Year program and selection process.)
“I have not only the privilege, but the responsibility of being that voice for my students,” said Tabatha Rosproy, a preschool teacher in Winfield, Kan., and one of the finalists. “We need to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves yet, and to empower them to speak.”
The other finalists for the year are 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; 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 CCSSO spokeswoman said plans for this year have not yet been finalized.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What do you see as the state of the teaching profession? And are you optimistic about the direction it’s 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.
Rosproy: More than ever, I feel ... invigorated to share those wonderful teaching moments and those incredible stories from our classrooms with my colleagues. We’re in this age of social media where things can be shared in a positive way, and I think teachers are using that to say, “Hey, this is what’s incredible about schools.”
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 you like to promote as 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 in 2013, 1991, and 1988; there has never been an early-childhood educator named as 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. This is my 24th year teaching. It used to be, when a child had a parent who was about to divorce, [the student] was in crisis and we had to attend to that. Now, we don’t even get to know what are the issues. 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.
You had mentioned self-care for educators. With the increasing amount of trauma that children are facing, I’m sure it comes back to teachers.
Kubesch: We experience secondary trauma just like secondhand smoke. When I started out, I would go home every single day in tears. How do I handle this? ... There’s no way for universities to prepare us for these challenges. ... I became certified as a yoga-for-trauma [instructor], and all of a sudden, I felt like there’s clarity in my world.
Rosproy: I think that a lot of times in the education field, it does feel like crisis management. What we’re doing is moving from fire to fire to fire, and we’re really unable to teach the content that originally, I think we all thought we were hired to teach. We’ve really had to reframe what our expectation of our day is going to look like, but the more that we can put into ... removing barriers for families, making our classrooms more equitable—all of our themes are a little bit different here, but they are all the same thing. We care about students in their whole lives, not just when they’re in our classroom. We want to make them as successful emotionally, academically as we can, but we need some help from the policymakers and our colleagues to make that happen.
Last year, a couple state teachers of the year refused to attend the White House ceremony in protest of President Donald Trump’s policies. If there’s a ceremony this year, would you all attend?
Rost: I think we need to think about this program, and how we represent it, and how we represent the people coming after us. That should be a priority. We need to make sure that we keep the lines of communication and the relationships open between anybody who’s representing us at any level. I think that the most important focus is on relationships with those people, and how can we work together to reach a common goal.
Dier: If any of these [other] three people got selected, then I would want to show up and support the platforms of self-care, early-childhood education, or teacher retention. That’s something that impacts me and teachers around the country regardless, so I feel like if I didn’t show up, it would detract from the people that need to be elevated and uplifted the most.
If you do have a few minutes with President Trump or Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and you could speak to them one-on-one, is there any message that you would like to say to them?
Rost: I would talk to them about what’s going on in my classroom, and how I’ve provided an excellent education for students in this tiny little town in the middle of nowhere, and how all teachers can do that, and how we can equip and elevate other teachers into a professional leadership space so they can provide equitable education, no matter who their students are or where they’re from.
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. They 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 populations in the country, and I would definitely 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 would want to bring those stories to them and try to reach that human level, because 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.
Leila, you mentioned student voice. Especially now that we’re in an election year, civics education has become such an important conversation. You all teach different grade levels, different subject areas, but how do you instill the importance of student voice?
Dier: I teach social studies in our hyper-polarized 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, they’re already experiencing trauma. We need to create spaces where students can learn how to deal and manage. That way, when they have the obligation to vote, they’re making informed decisions, because they had a class that really prepped them. Because if you leave politics out of the classroom, that’s actually a political move in and of itself. Neutrality is not real.
Rosproy: For my students, what that looks like 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 teach controversial issues in science, and we do it in a way where we look at things from different lenses. ... But I also make sure to advocate for my student voice in our school and in our communities. I asked for students to provide their voice with a lot of school issues, and then they go to the administrators. Their voices are more powerful than mine. I’ve also 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.
Kubesch: I teach in a community that is isolated, and we don’t have school buses or funding for field trips. We have two [remote] talk shows, one in English and one called Youth Voices Without Borders for kids whose English is not primary. It’s important for them to be able to have larger dialogue with the community, so in a way, they can bring people to their school and ask about things that are very important.
What advice would you give to a high school or college student who is considering becoming a teacher?
Dier: Never forget the why. If they have that inside of them, never forget why they did it. And also know that it’s going to be challenging. Your first year, you’re going to feel like you’re failing. That’s how we all feel. In many ways, it means that you care. So never stop caring and always feel connected. The more connected you are with your students, the better they can reciprocate that connection, and the better you become at being an educator, and the better you can be an ally to students.
Rosproy: When there’s a really tough situation, [my principal and I] always say to each other, “If not me, who?” If you’re not going to stand up, who will? I’m using my privilege and my voice to do what needs to be done. But also, take the help. I think my first year teaching, I thought I needed to do everything by myself, I needed to prove myself in some way to my colleagues. ... Take that help, as we really do grow and learn from collaboration with each other. Getting help is not weakness, it’s strength.
Rost: Hopefully, every person has had at least one person in their lives who has made a tremendous difference, and even if they haven’t, then that should be the motivation. You have the opportunity to be that one person to literally thousands of kids. I think that is so powerful. When I was in college, I was going to go into research. I was interested in science, and I decided to shift to teaching because I realized that I could spend a decade working on one problem in research, or I could impact thousands of kids. There is no more powerful profession than that.
Image of Rost, Dier, Kubesch, and Rosproy, courtesy of CCSSO
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.