Teaching Profession

These Are the Four Top Teachers in America

By Sarah Schwartz — January 23, 2019 2 min read
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An environmental leader, a champion of student activism, a culturally responsive educator, and an advocate for students’ civic empowerment—these are the four educators who were announced today as finalists for the 2019 National Teacher of the Year Award.

The recognition, administered by the Council of Chief State School Officers, honors teachers for their work in and out of the classroom.

The finalists are:

Donna Gradel, an environmental science and innovative research teacher in Broken Arrow, Okla. At her school and in her community, Gradel has spearheaded projects with real-world environmental impact. She and her students created the “Aqua for Tharaka” campaign, which provides clean water to children in Kenya, and she co-founded a project between the city of Broken Arrow and its schools, dedicated to improving the area’s waterways.

Kelly Harper, a 3rd grade teacher in Washington, D.C. In Harper’s classroom, elementary school students study young activists. Her students have met with U.S. Representatives and local elected officials to discuss issues in their communities and steps toward change. Harper is a facilitator for D.C. schools’ Family Engagement Collaborative and the Chancellor’s Teachers’ Cabinet, a group designed to give teachers a voice in shaping district policy.

Danielle Riha, a 5th-8th grade teacher in Anchorage, Alaska. Working with indigenous students, Riha has prioritized culturally responsive teaching. She started a reading program that invited Yup’ik elders into the classroom, and she helped develop culturally relevant curricula for the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School. Riha has taught math, science, social studies, English, and culture.

Rodney Robinson, a 6th-12th grade social studies teacher at Virgie Binford Education Center, a juvenile detention facility in Richmond, Va. In his application, Robinson wrote that his goal as an educator is to develop politically responsible and active citizens. With his students, Robinson has explored the historical roots of the U.S. prison system, the ongoing effects of racial segregation, and voting rights. “One of the proudest moments is when my students are able to legally advocate for themselves, resulting in a positive outcome in their legal case,” he wrote, in his application.

Finalists are selected from the 57 State Teachers of the Year, which includes awardees from the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, extra-state territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity. The national winner will be named in the spring.

Mandy Manning, who teaches English and math to refugee and immigrant students in Washington state, was the latest educator named National Teacher of the Year, in 2018.

Another recipient of the award is now walking the halls of Congress. Jahana Hayes, the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, was recently sworn in as a U.S. Representative for Connecticut’s 5th district. Last week, she was named to the House Education and Labor Committee, which oversees K-12 education.

Photos: National Teacher of the Year finalists Donna Gradel, Kelly Harper, Danielle Riha, and Rodney Robinson. Photos courtesy of CCSSO.

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