Annie O’Brien (Los Angeles ’09)

I’ve been around the education world – working as a teacher, a teacher mentor, and most recently, as a principal at Oak Park Preparatory Academy in Sacramento, California. No matter my school or title, I’ve seen one thing remain constant: teachers do not get the recognition they deserve. This needs to change, and the time is now.

Let’s join together this Teacher Appreciation Week (May 5-9, 2014) to celebrate all the incredible, hard-working teachers shaping our kids’ futures and preparing the next great minds to change the world. Wonderful teachers exist everywhere. From a dad teaching his son to tie his shoes, to a biology teacher setting up the day’s lab, to a weekend karate coach reviewing board breaking –take a moment to thank your #besteacherever.

Shout out your favorite educators using the hashtag #bestteacherever on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or this dedicated site. Teach For America will compile your messages to form the world’s biggest thank-you card to teachers.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight the hardworking and dedicated Oak Park staff, whom I have the honor and privilege to work alongside every day. You all touch many more lives than just the students you teach – you impact families and our community, and it goes without saying that I couldn’t do my job without you.

This graduation season, our nation celebrates a special milestone: more Americans are completing high school than ever before! The high school graduation rate has risen to 80% and is expected to reach 90% in the next five years. Experts say this increase is a result of gains among the nation's African American and Hispanic populations.

The rapid expansion of charter schools has led to increased tension between charter school supporters and opponents. Because some charter schools are housed in the same buildings as state public schools, opponents argue that charter schools unfairly impinge on the already limited resources and space of traditional schools.

Zeke Berzoff-Cohen

Berzoff-Cohen and Intersection student leader Naomi Cornish speaking at Goucher College.

What would the movement for educational equity look like if it was led by our students? I wrestle with this question on a daily basis at The Intersection, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that teaches leadership, advocacy, and organizing skills to high school students. Founded three years ago with fellow Baltimore ’08 corps members Yasmene Mumby and Matt Stern, The Intersection aims to combat the collective sense of disempowerment among our students. Even for those steadfastly pursuing education as a means of personal and professional advancement, many of our students felt unable to address the structural barriers that kept their families in cycles of poverty and kept our city segregated. Digging into Baltimore’s history of white supremacy, we came to recognize that many people of color have come to feel civically disconnected due to years systemic discrimination in housing, police, education, and several other institutions. My co-founders and I knew that in order to address this cycle, our students needed to become leaders with the skills to organize and advocate for themselves and their communities.

We believed then, as I believe now, that young people deserve a seat at the decision-making table. In the past three years, Intersection student leaders have registered hundreds of voters, built a community garden in a food desert, played a leading role in a coalition that passed the Maryland Dream Act, and recently embarked on a campaign to reduce gun violence through youth job creation.

I was fortunate enough to share the incredible work of my students at the recent Teach For All conference in Santiago, Chile. The conference brought together Teach For All staff, educators, social entrepreneurs, system leaders, and students from across the world to explore ways to accelerate alumni impact and systems change. During the conference, I was struck by the repeated emphasis on both deep-level community engagement and student leadership as key ingredients to solving educational inequity. 

Choi and Kamras.

I distinctly remember sitting at my desk in the midst of my Tuesday grad school class, reading a chapter on the importance of self-reflection as a teacher. While I felt strongly about the necessity for teachers to practice self-reflection, I found it incredibly difficult to do in practice. Between juggling the never-ending needs of students, lesson planning, parent phone calls, and trips to Target, there is often hardly a moment to dedicate to yourself as a teacher.

Perhaps this is why I seize every opportunity to learn from the self-reflections of other educators, school leaders, and others in the field. Last week I had the opportunity to catch up with Jason Kamras (DC-Metro ‘95), Chief of Human Capital for D.C. Public Schools and 2005 National Teacher of the Year, to reflect upon the lessons (and mistakes) learned from IMPACT, the fallacy of the poverty vs. teachers debate, and the power of the parent perspective.

You've now been at DCPS for 17 years—7 years [as human capital chief], 10 years [as a teacher]—of all the work that you have accomplished, what are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of my time teaching 7th and 8th grade math at Sousa Middle School and the work that I did with my kids there. Despite all of the larger policy changes that we’ve been able to make, I would still view this as my greatest contribution thus far.

Emily Southerton

To fling my arms wide

In some place of the sun,

To whirl and to dance

Till the white day is done.

Then rest at cool evening

Beneath a tall tree

While night comes on gently,

Dark like me—

That is my dream!

—Langston Hughes, from “Dream Variations”

Langston Hughes dreamed of a world where his being was not seen as a harsh contrast to the norm, but one where his story was understood to be as much a part of the universal fabric as night was a part of the day.

This April, the Poet Warriors also had a bold dream—we dreamed that we’d be heard, that we’d be understood, and that our dreams would matter as much as any other.

Christine Vela framed our month by calling the nation’s attention to the silencing effect of the single story, showing how our booming national dialogue so often excludes diverse voices and closets America’s truths: “It’s dark and it’s lonesome and it’s not at all where/I want to be,/But most of all, it’s silent/It’s hushed down to a nearly inaudible whisper.” Like Hughes, Christine used metaphors of darkness and light to dream of a better America, one where all can speak boldly and be heard. She spoke of an experience that many can identify with, “waiting for that door to burst open and let light come in,” but then stepped forward to be an example; she brought her own story to light, she offered it to all of us, and claimed her place within the American story. “With one heart-wrenching throwback of this closet/I’ll say the words I’ve been meaning to say/My whole life.”

Christine opened the door for herself to enter the national dialogue, and she led the way for many others to follow. Throughout the month, hundreds of Poet Warriors boldly stepped forward and added their stories to our story, and we even had the privilege of watching as they did.

At Teach For America and the National Academy of Advanced Teacher Education (NAATE), we’ve seen firsthand the tremendous impact that great teachers have on their students’ academic and personal achievements. There are few things more powerful than an excellent educator, and we are thrilled to celebrate those who continue to devote their talent and time to opening doors of opportunity for students.

The mission of Teach For America is to ensure all children have the opportunity to attain an excellent education. With over 10,000 Teach For America alumni working toward this mission everyday as classroom teachers, we are honored to recognize 8 as this year’s Excellence in Teaching awardees.

The awardees come from different backgrounds, take different approaches to their classroom, and model our core values of Transformational Change, Leadership, Team, Diversity, and Respect and Humility. They teach across a wide range of grades, content areas, ability levels, and schools – since the award’s inception, we’ve also seen a balance of recipients across charter schools and traditional district schools serving low-income children and families. While each has made a profound impact on students in their own classrooms and beyond, no two are the same and they are all reflective of the diversity of thought among our alumni teachers.

These teachers are just a small sample of educators proving what is possible when we provide students with the opportunities, supports, and guidance to succeed. NAATE provides top teachers with an intense program that balances instructional mastery and leadership. We are proud to welcome this year’s awardees into the upcoming cohort.

You’ll be hearing a lot more from these educators as they embark upon a year-long ambassadorship, representing their students, schools, and communities in professional learning opportunities provided as NAATE program Teacher Fellows. They’ll also be sharing these experiences right here on Pass the Chalk during the 2014-15 school year.

Without further ado, let’s get to know them.

Inside the Ryman Auditorium. Photo credit: RecoilRick.

Last weekend was a great weekend. My husband and I celebrated his 40th birthday, and one of the things we did was attend a Nickel Creek concert at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. And, surprisingly enough, it was at this concert that the why of our diversity work was further clarified for me.

After a really incredible—and yet in some ways challenging—few days spent participating in staff-wide diversity conversations, I had wondered to myself about the nature of this work. It is hard. The analogy I am most often reminded of is when I try to clean a room in my house: as I empty the drawers, pulling out items tucked and hidden away over the years, the room tends to look far messier before it gets clean. Often, in that moment of cleaning when I’m surrounded by clothes, middle school yearbooks, and random bills, I wonder, why am I even doing this? I must admit sometimes that is my tension as we tackle our diversity work, too.

But as I looked around in the Ryman on Friday night, I was reminded why our work of thinking about race, class, nationality, gender, privilege, and history has to be part of our work. Nickel Creek is an amazingly talented group, and Nashville is a diverse city. Yet in the Ryman’s 2,300+ person auditorium, I saw only a few other folks who weren’t white. As I sat there, I began realizing why this task of thinking and working honestly—to be not only anti-racist but fully appreciative and inclusive of diversity—is so important and so challenging. We tend to live in homogeneous silos, and our lives can so easily be separate experiences even in a city as diverse as Nashville.

In a ruling that reignited the Affirmative Action debate, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Michigan’s ban on considering race in admissions decisions at the state's public colleges and universities. Disappointed by the decision, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor released a public dissent expressing what she believes is fundamentally wrong with the decision.

While the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Michigan case rattled Affirmative Action supporters, it was not the first major strike against Affirmative Action. In this New York Times piece, data show minority students' college attendance rates before and after Affirmative Action bans in California, Texas, Florida, and Michigan.

During my spring break this year, I traveled to Mexico to collaborate with first-year corps members in Enseña por México, one of the newest additions to the expanding Teach For All network. I saw firsthand that there exists more than one oportunidad to improve Mexico’s educational standards. Just like in Teach For America, corps members, or PEMs (Profesionales en Enseña por México), are among the top university graduates, all enthusiastic and impassioned to fight against the social and economic injustice of education inequality in their country.

One of the most rewarding parts of the exchange was hearing the stories of others who are devoted to the Teach For All cause. My host, Luis Miguel Reyes Loyola, became aware of the importance of education at the late age of 18. Luis Miguel decided to dedicate himself to his studies, a decision that paid off when he was admitted into UNAM, Mexico’s premier institution of post-secondary education. Led by these transformational experiences, he began teaching and became a member of the first cohort in Enseña por México. Like many of us, Luis Miguel moved away from his urban home to rural Puebla to become a corps member.

Emily Southerton

"This whole idea of place and identity and what's home and what's not home, [is] such an American question that we've been asking since [Walt] Whitman, trying to put that finger on America.”

-Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco in a 2013 interview with NPR


“Nothing can stop me from living here

In Westwood,

Not the money

Or the drugs

Or even the guns.

This is my home.

The one I grew up in.”

-Lilia Duran-Cabral, Colorado Poet Warrior, excerpt from “Westwood”

Whether it’s the story of a secret space, our collective spaces, ours homes, our streets, or our borders—stories of place are as unique to the writer as they are universal to us all. Across the country students are writing about their place, and within these stories, we see the story of our nation as a whole. Students grapple with the questions that have gripped our nation since its founding—what is home? What is my place? What effect does this place have on me? And what effect do I have on this place?


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We believe education is the most pressing issue facing our nation. On Pass the Chalk, we'll share our takes on the issues of the day, join the online conversation about education, and tell stories from classrooms, schools, and communities around the nation.

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