When it comes to national debates over education policy and school funding, teachers need to have a seat at the table, say the four finalists for the 2019 National Teacher of the Year award.
“Teachers need to have a voice, and it needs to be a voice that has impact,” Donna Gradel, one of the finalists, told Education Week today in a conversation at the office of the Council of Chief State School Officers. (CCSSO administers the National Teacher of the Year program and selection process.)
These nationally recognized educators offered their perspectives on the recent wave of teacher activism, attracting new talent to the profession, and the importance of civics education.
The finalists for the award are Gradel, an environmental science and innovative research teacher in Broken Arrow, Okla., Kelly Harper, a 3rd grade teacher in Washington, D.C., Danielle Riha, a 5th-8th grade teacher in Anchorage, Alaska, and Rodney Robinson, a 6th-12th grade social studies teacher at Virgie Binford Education Center, a juvenile detention facility in Richmond, Va. Read more about them here.
The recognition honors teachers for their work in and out of the classroom. One of the four finalists will be named the national winner in the spring, and will be honored in a ceremony at the White House. Last year’s National Teacher of the Year, Mandy Manning, recently held a demonstration in El Paso, Tex., to protest the Trump administration’s policy of detaining immigrant children and separating them from their parents.
Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Over the past year, teachers in states across the country have walked out of their classrooms, demanding higher pay and better conditions for their students. And the 2018 midterm elections saw dozens of teachers running for their state legislatures, many putting education funding in the foreground of their campaigns.
Given that so many teachers are now calling for change, what do you think needs to be done to keep teachers in the profession?
Robinson: Government needs to get serious about education. We’re in a stage where this is a national emergency. Teachers are leaving in droves and there’s no one in the pipeline to replace them. I think the government needs to put forth a clear-cut investment in education.
It’s more than just more pay for teachers: We need a lessened workload, we need more counselors in the schools, we need to treat teachers like professionals, we need proper professional development. We just need a wholesale investment from the federal government and state governments to make sure our kids get what they need.
And by teachers getting involved in government, we’re going to have the right people at the table. I’m so happy that [2016 National Teacher of the Year] Jahana Hayes is on the House education committee, because we now have a teacher in charge of directing policy for education in the United States—something that you think would seem like common sense.
Riha: I think policymakers have a tough job. Because they don’t get to see what we see everyday—they don’t get to see the growth, they don’t get to see the spark in the kids’ eyes. I think it’s up to educators to teach them and to show them what each kid really needs, what each community needs, because it’s different everywhere you go.
Teachers unifying and speaking up for what their kids need—and what they need in order to provide them with equitable education—I think that change is positive and it’s powerful.
Gradel: We need to restore respect to our profession, and that can be done in many ways. Of course salary, paying someone for their worth, helps with that. But also as Danielle alluded, teachers need to have a voice, and it needs to be a voice that has impact.
I’m from Oklahoma, so we had a walkout, and when you see that collective voice—it had a huge impact. I think that we’re seeing activism across the country because we haven’t had respect, and we realize that we need to recruit and retain good teachers for our students—because we care about our students. That’s the most important thing.
The other thing is, I think we need to watch the standardization. Too much standardization takes away from the innovative teacher. With all the social issues and trauma, things that we are confronting in the classroom, we need to have people who are able to face that challenge and inspire our students to go above where their situation might keep them. Allow teachers to be innovators and get outside the standardization box.
Harper: I think it’s a non-negotiable for us to have a seat at the table where decisions are being made that affect our profession and our students.
It’s also essential that our kids receive teachers consistently through a pipeline. Especially now that our nation has more and more students of color, we need teachers of color. I think about myself as a millennial woman of color, a black woman, and I think about who’s coming behind me to ensure that our kids see someone who looks like them. If our younger folks aren’t seeing teaching as a viable option, that’s not okay.
Things that we can do to make teaching sustainable and exciting for our brightest minds? One, ensuring strong mental health support for our kids, as well as our teachers. Secondary trauma is real in our schools. Our kids go through difficult traumas; teachers also need supports in how to support those students experiencing trauma. That’s essential.
All four of you have advocated for students’ political and civic empowerment, or prioritized community engagement in your schools. What lessons can students learn through civic and community participation?
Harper: Teaching 3rd graders, that’s part of our curriculum in D.C.—talking about government and how to be an active participant in your democracy. Last fall, my kids got to testify at D.C. City Council, and it was so exciting to see little 8-year-olds sitting up there, advocating for an issue that they believed in. (Editor’s note: Harper’s students were speaking in favor of more funding for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education.)
And then, just last week, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a $4.6 million increase in technology funding for schools. The kids got excited, because they saw themselves as that change agent. When we provide opportunities for kids to learn about civics and why it’s important, we can help create engaged citizens.
Gradel: I teach environmental science, so my students have been able to work very closely with our city and community to bring about a paradigm shift in how our area is willing to serve environmental problems.
We’ve never had a recycling program, if you can believe that. But the young students who’ve come through and stood in front of the city council now are implementing a city-wide recycling program. We’ve also worked with our city on how to find sustainable ways to clean water. We passed a bond for half a million dollars for what’s called the Together Project, where my students are working with city officials and engineers to try to solve our problems sustainably.
Riha: For me, civic engagement identifies richly with my indigenous group. My students participate in an elders and youth conference, put on by the Alaska Federation of Natives—it’s the largest policy organization in the state. They learn how our state was organized into corporations, rather than all the people put on a reservation. Students know who their indigenous leaders are, they know who their legislators are, they write on current issues such as indigenous language revitalization and how to keep the education system working to benefit all students across the state.
We have really unique situations in our state where rural is extremely rural. We have kids who live in places where they don’t have stores; some kids have never had a salad, or a piece of fruit. The students are very active around, how do you get that representation in your government when you live that far out?
Robinson: I’m a social studies teacher, so I always take a student-centered approach to make them more civically and socially responsible students and change agents in their community. I’m glad Virginia has finally added “citizenship” to one of its five Cs for graduation in the new graduation plan. Not only are we making them better graduates, but we’re making them highly qualified citizens.
Photo: National Teacher of the Year finalists Rodney Robinson, Danielle Riha, Kelly Harper, and Donna Gradel at the CCSSO office. Photo courtesy of CCSSO.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.