Every year, the Council of Chief State School Officers recognizes a National Teacher of the Year for going above and beyond in and out of the classroom, impacting the profession not just within their districts but in state and national policy.
This year's four finalists include New Jersey Teacher of the Year Amy T. Andersen, an American Sign Language teacher; Department of Defense Education Activity Teacher of the Year Kara Ball, a STEM educator; Ohio Teacher of the Year Jonathan Juravich, who teaches art; and Washington Teacher of the Year Mandy Manning, who teaches English and math to immigrant and refugee students.
We recently asked the finalists to share their thoughts on the importance of teacher leadership and what administrators can do to set the stage for teachers to excel.
EDUCATION DIVE: What kind of support can administrators provide to best set up teachers for the kind of success you’ve experienced?
MANNING: The No. 1 support that administration can provide to educators is the time, space and freedom — or, for lack of a better word, latitude — to teach the students in their classroom, where they are. What that means is we all have different content that we have to teach, and that might stay the same from year to year, but the kids in our classrooms never stay the same. They change every single year.
We have to have the ability in our classrooms and the support from administration to do this. We have to be able to look at the students that we have and teach them in the best way for them individually. Because if we have to just focus on content and not the students that we’re teaching, we’re not going to be able to meet the needs of every single student.
All the success I have had in my classroom is when I’ve been able to individualize my instruction and not follow a set timeline or a specific curriculum. It’s always been when I’ve been able to put my students before my content.
ANDERSEN: I think trust is one of the biggest components that leads to success, having that trust between the administrator and the teacher.
That’s what’s really allowed me to take my American Sign Language program outside of a textbook or outside of the four walls of our classroom — the trust that I know my content area, I know my profession, but most of all, that I know my students and what they need to really make the learning that I want to happen authentic. Specifically, connecting with our deaf community so that students learning this new language and a new culture are experiencing it in real time, and they’re able to immediately start applying what they’re learning in a natural way. I would not be able to do that without the trust and encouragement of my administration.
BALL: I share Amy’s sentiments with trust being a key factor in encouraging not only teacher leadership, but improving school culture overall. I am a STEM teacher at the elementary level, and one of the things we strive to have our students do and be are risk-takers — in their academics, in their ideas and being creative. And if we want students to be risk-takers, we need administrators to support educators in that.
Recently, we received a 3D printer at our school because we saw them being implemented in workplaces and in colleges, and we understood that we needed to start to teach our students those skills. Bringing a 3D printer into an elementary school was an incredible risk that we took, and we’ve seen the benefits on student achievement go through the roof with the application for mathematics and also science content.
If we want our students to be risk-takers, we need our administrators to look outside of the box at how we can utilize our teachers, and that comes also with trust.
JURAVICH: For me, what administrators need to set up that success is looking to their teacher leaders and really fostering the leaders that already exist within their building. They are there. We know them and we see them, and they need to take on those leadership possibilities because they are who the teachers in our classrooms can relate to. They are people who they trust and connect with. The administrators should look to them.
One of those areas we should focus on for success for our teachers, but also for our students, is in our building cultures and environments — that they are places of trust and respect and empathy, and conducive to learning and learning how to be a human. Besides all of the other standards and things we have to cover, learning to be a person. And that starts with a strong building culture.
On the teacher leadership note, how important were people in those roles on your pathways to success? How much have you prioritized taking on those roles yourself?
MANNING: My very first year of teaching was in a really small town in rural Texas called Spearman. That first year, I was really very inexperienced, and one of the things my district did for me was provide me with a mentor teacher. She didn’t teach the same thing I did, because in rural Texas, you don’t often have two teachers teaching the same thing. I was teaching theater and speech and debate, and she was the career and technical education teacher.
Throughout that year, she was my support system. And because she had friends and colleagues she also worked with, that kind of was built in for me, as well. So she was my mentor — I observed her, she observed me — throughout the entire year, plus she gave me connections with other colleagues who became this web of support around me, this brand-new, first-year teacher.
At the time, I didn’t know what an awesome benefit this was for me. That was my first year teaching, and I saw a teacher providing me the support to become an accomplished teacher. Throughout my career, I realized that — because of this first initial experience, and then the next school I went to also gave me a mentor teacher — every time it happened, I had this support system around me of other teachers.
The best professional development I ever received was led by teachers. Any initiative at school that was really successful was led by teachers, because they know the culture of the school and what’s going to be most effective. That set up for me, “Oh, this is how it works. You become a classroom teacher, you become skilled at being a classroom teacher, and then you expand beyond your classroom and support other teachers to be accomplished teachers.”
That was my path because that first year teaching, that was modeled for me.
ANDERSEN: For me, really, discovering that teaching was the direction I wanted to go in started with a mentor teacher. I was a flute performance major at the time and had started taking American Sign Language classes.
When I would go home on breaks, I would volunteer in a special services school district. Within that school district, there was a regular education deaf classroom of kindergarten students. That teacher was completely open with, as many times as I wanted to go in that room, the door was open. She greeted me with a smile. She immediately started mentoring me, even though I was not in a teacher prep program at the time, guiding me in ways that she planned her lessons. “Why don’t you try this story? These are some techniques that will bring the kids in.”
I had hands-on experience right away, which really clarified for me the love that I had for making those connections with the children and pushed me into then wanting to go into teaching.
BALL: I was lucky enough to start teaching my very first year in the very same district I attended school — elementary, middle and high school — and was able to reach out to some of my former teachers when I started teaching, to say, “Hey, I’ve gone from being a student to being a teacher in the classroom. You were a great teacher. Could you give me some suggestions and feedback?”
Actually, when I was named state teacher of the year, one of the first people I contacted was my 9th grade science teacher to make sure he was aware of the impact he had not only on my life as a student, but getting me to where I was. My first year teaching, I was fortunate enough to be assigned — we called them “consulting” teachers, but they were a coach or a mentor who did everything from observe my lessons to go over benchmark assessments and look at my data and give me feedback on how I could be a better teacher.
There was a tough conversation one day where my consulting teacher had asked me to tell him about my students. I was a self-contained special ed teacher at the time, and I told him anything and everything from their age to their support services. I remember him stopping me and saying, “You haven’t told me about your students.”
That struck me that day, and I remember that day. It was Jan. 14, 2009, that I became a very different teacher because of that conversation. It was that trust that we had, where he felt safe to be like, “You’re doing all of the right things and checking the boxes, but you’re not building relationships. You can’t teach what you don’t know, and that includes your students.” That is the most valuable message that I have received and learned, and that was because of a teacher leader.
I now take that role on openly and honestly, seeking out people who are new to our school, mentoring college interns. My classroom is open because you have to pay it forward. In order to improve teachers, we need to have this bank of teachers who are willing to be leaders. The future of education is shared among administrators, it is shared among teachers and the students. We have to open our doors and be willing to share what is going on. We might have to take an unconventional approach and look at utilizing not only social media, but online platforms.
Some of the best lessons I use came from teachers around the world who I’ll never get the opportunity to collaborate with in person, but I can do that online. We want our students to be global citizens. We should also be able to utilize that as teachers, as well. We have teachers all over the world doing remarkable things in their classrooms every day for students. It’s just about leveraging the strength of those leaders.
JURAVICH: When I was first hired in our district, I was hired as a traveling art teacher. I was also assigned a mentor. But being a traveling art teacher, I traveled to four different elementary schools doing “art on a cart,” and there was also another art teacher already in the building at all those buildings. There were just so many students, they needed additional support to get everyone taught and in the classroom.
I had this great privilege to have a mentor, but I also had these four incredible art educators I got to spend time with, build relationships with and learn from in those first few years so that whenever a new school opened in our district and I was hired in, I had this wealth of resources and connections that I could continually go back on.
I’m now the chair of our art department for our elementary teachers, and being able to be that chair and inspire the next group of art teachers who are coming into the classrooms in our district is huge for me. I’m also an adjunct instructor at Otterbein University in Ohio, and I work with future art educators. I find it to be really interesting that I get to work with kindergarten through 5th graders all day and then take that knowledge that I’m learning and the things that happen during the day in the real world back to my students at Otterbein who are going to be in their own art rooms someday.
My principal was actually the one who I think saw that I was a leader before I did, and I value that from her. Now, in our school, I oversee our building culture and environment, and that is a position that is really near and dear to my heart because it’s so important. Within that role, I’m able to empower other leaders within our building to take on responsibilities, to speak up, and to encourage one another. It’s a really powerful moment to see my development from a teacher into a teacher leader and to be able to pass that knowledge on to other people.