Teacher dissatisfaction has become an all-too familiar theme within the profession.
Each new poll aimed at K–12 educators seems to paint a more negative picture of the profession than the last. In a nationwide survey of teachers conducted in January and February of 2022 by the Edweek Research Center, respondents reported feeling overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated. More than 4 in 10 teachers surveyed said they were either fairly or very likely to leave the profession in the next two years.
A few months later, a national RAND workplace survey found that teachers experience “frequent job-related stress” at about twice the rate of other working adults. Discouraging stuff.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. We asked five acclaimed K–12 teachers—finalists for the 2023 National Teacher of the Year, a program run by the Council of Chief State School Officers—to share what they believe is the best thing happening in K–12 education right now.
They each responded without hesitation. Further, their responses all centered around a similarly encouraging theme: Connectivity.
Perhaps this should come as no surprise given the isolation endured by so many during the pandemic. Read their responses to learn more about what they say is worth celebrating right now in the K–12 education sphere.
Rebecka Peterson, math teacher at Union High School in Tulsa, Okla.
Reflecting on the overwhelming negativity surrounding the education profession right now, Peterson said: “There are so many opinions. To me, opinions don’t really change us. I don’t think I’ve ever really changed my mind because of someone’s opinion. But I’ve changed my mind because of people’s stories.”
“For me, stories really soften us,” she continued. “Some of the best things right now are teachers talking about what’s going on inside their classrooms. As educators, we hold the power to direct the narrative. I love to see teachers reclaim our profession, and talk about the good, and talk about what brings us life and light and joy while doing what we do best, and educating our audience about the work that still needs to be done. Holding that balance and sharing our stories is what gets me really excited,” she said.
Peterson has long been a proponent of sharing positive stories happening in the teaching profession. For over a decade, she has contributed to a blog called One Good Thing. “Every day, I write something good in the classroom,” she said.
She’s gotten her students to engage in the practice, too.
“Every Friday my students write about something good that happened during the week,” Peterson said. “We live by the mantra that every day may not be good, but there is one good thing in every day and that empowers us to take ownership of our own stories. Our collective stories can bring so much hope.”
Harlee Harvey, 1st grade teacher at Tikiġaq School in Point Hope, Alaska, a remote northwest point of the state
Harvey pointed immediately to a noticeable sense of unity among teachers. “I’m seeing teachers coming together to collaborate in ways that keep us in the classroom and keep us working for kids,” Harvey said.
Harvey views the collaboration among teachers as more than just an uplifting experience to witness and be a part of. She sees it as a necessity. “Without that unity, we’re going to see more teachers leaving the profession,” Harvey said. “If we can continue that unity among teachers, hopefully we can stabilize the profession a little more.”
Carolyn Kielma, science teacher at Bristol Eastern High School in Bristol, Conn.
Kielma said she has always made an effort to create a personal connection with her students before attempting to teach them science content. What’s exciting to her is that, right now, the entire profession seems to be recognizing the importance of this strategy of connecting with students.
“I think that’s what’s really exciting about what’s come out of the pandemic: How to connect with all students, how to make all students feel like they have a voice in the classroom,” Kielma said.
“When we were shut down, there was a lot of learning that was difficult to accomplish because I couldn’t make those connections with my students, and I couldn’t do the humor and couldn’t have those personal relationships that are so important in order to get the learning done,” she said.
Kimberly Radostits, 8th–12th Spanish teacher at Oregon Junior/Senior High School in Oregon, Illinois
“The reality is that we just came out of a collective trauma as a society. To see teachers coming together to give their best to their students after something that was extremely traumatic is a really wonderful thing to watch,” Radostits said.
She’s equally excited to see what this collaboration brings next.
“I think we are doing a really great job of getting through recovery and starting to think about next steps and how we can grow and how we can reimagine education to take it to the next level.”
Jermar Rountree, health and physical education teacher at Washington, D.C.’s Center City Public Charter School, Brightwood Campus
Asked what he sees as the best thing happening in K–12 education right now, Rountree said: “The collaboration piece. We [teachers] are continuing to put our heads together to create a common goal for our voices to be heard, for teachers to be seen.”
Seeing the positive effect that being heard and seen is having on teachers, Rountree aims to create similar opportunities for his students. “I listen to my students. I care deeply about not only what’s happening in our school community, but also in our students’ lives,” Rountree said. “I want to make sure they understand that I am here for them, I am listening to them.”
From these thoughtful responses, it’s clear that these award-winning educators care—about one another, their students, and the teaching profession in general.
A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2023 edition of Education Week as What’s the Best Thing Happening in Schools Right Now? We Asked Top Teachers