Over the past year, Chalkbeat has shared stories from dozens of teachers, principals, and educators sharing what motivates them and what it’s like to be an educator in America today.
One teacher pushes her students not to despair, but to act in the face of climate change. Another discussed the importance of showing up to school after a student’s death. And a principal talked about what it was like to inspire former students to become teachers — she recruited four of them to work at her school.
These are just a few of the thousands of educators making a difference in U.S. schools. After you’ve met these 10, we invite you to read more from our pages.
She shows students how to fight climate change locally
New York City teacher Sarah Slack’s award-winning career as a science educator began with a desire to share accurate information about the world with students, such as the fact that Pluto has not, thus far, exploded.
Over 14 years in middle school classrooms, Slack has learned to draw on students’ passion for their communities. To teach about the climate crisis, she shows students that they don’t have to save the whole world right away. They can begin by working to save their neighborhoods.
She helps her students gain media literacy
Tara Cocanower wants her world studies students to have a diverse diet of news media and cite evidence for their opinions about current events. And she wants all of it discussed in a respectful way.
The 2023 Indiana Teacher of the Year, whose approach to teaching is inspired by her grandmother Phyllis’ emphasis on humility, is also a voracious reader whose historical interests stretch from ancient Egypt to World War I. And she doesn’t want her lessons to be confined to her classroom walls.
“I love hearing that what I’m teaching overflows from the classroom to the dinner tables, couches, and patios of my students,” she said.
A principal’s ex-students can’t stay away
Marla Travis, the principal of West Philadelphia High School, calls four of her teachers “my children.” They’re not literally her offspring, but she’s got a good reason for using that phrase: Jean-Claude Forte, Yaseemah Foster, Robert Green, and Brittney Smith all used to be students of hers at a different Philadelphia high school.
While they took different paths into the teaching profession, all four talked about Travis’ influence and what it’s like to work for her now. And two of them said they are studying to become principals one day.
He fell in love with teaching while incarcerated
Ryan M. Moser was less than thrilled he entered the Florida Department of Corrections and a classification officer assigned him the role of teaching assistant. But he became dedicated to the work, helped fellow inmates earn their GEDs, and learned to become a mentor in the process.
Moser, who says he “hated school” as a student, also learned about prison bureaucracies and the inequities he and his peers faced. Eventually, his cynicism transformed into pride in his students’ curiosity and successes.
She wants more students to read Native authors
When it comes to depictions of Indigenous peoples and nations that today’s adults might remember fondly from childhood books, Dr. Debbie Reese has some basic advice: Let go of them.
Reese has written extensively about the harm that such stereotypical presentations — from “Little House on the Prairie” to university mascots — can do. She’s also advocated for students and teachers to read more books by Native authors.
He inspires students of color to new heights
Colorado science teacher Eddie Taylor came to teaching the same way he came to summit Mount Everest: through serendipity.
Taylor sees other parallels between the teaching profession and the world of outdoor sports, such as a lack of diversity. Taylor, who is Black, said he thinks that just like his (ultimately successful) quest to climb the world’s highest mountain, his lessons and his presence in the classroom inspire his students, including students of color.
“Sometimes that kid’s just going to connect with that person a little better,” he says.
His healing music earned a Grammy nomination
When the pandemic shut down schools in 2020, Chicago music teacher Trevor Nicholas drew on his childhood experience and composed songs for his students. His belief in the “healing power of music” ultimately led to a Grammy nomination for his work.
Nicholas has also helped raise more than $300,000 in grants, donations, and free music lessons for Chicago Public Schools students. “As a teacher, I give my students space to work individually, to jam out, and have some fun,” he says.
Tennessee teacher faced grief and found hope
During his career in Memphis schools, veteran math teacher Adrian Hampton has many fond memories, like the time he and his students met President Barack Obama at commencement. But one day before a scheduled interview with Chalkbeat, one of his students, Damien Smith, Jr., was shot and killed. At the time, police said 23 children in Memphis had died by homicide during the 2021-22 school year.
An emotional Hampton discussed how he and others deal with gun violence’s impact on schools, why he showed up to work instead of taking the day off after his student’s death, and what gives him hope.
Why one teacher tells students to ‘trust your pen’
English teacher Talena Lachelle Queen infuses poetry into her writing lessons in Paterson, New Jersey, to help students learn about their creativity. And her favorite lesson is what she calls the “science of writing,” in which she creates parallels between math instruction and essay writing so that students can better understand how to express themselves powerfully.
Queen, who previously worked in broadcast journalism and ran a preschool and day care before becoming a teacher, also says that praise even for seemingly trivial things is a big help. “Love creates sincere feelings of safety. It prompts scholars to confide in me and want to get higher grades because they know they are valuable,” she says.
A mother’s journey inspires an adult education career
Christian Young’s mother dropped out of school when she was 17. Yet she didn’t give up on education, and went on to get her GED, bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and finally her doctorate.
That experience inspires Young’s work in Michigan, where in March he was named the Adult Educator of the Year by the Michigan Reading Association. Most of his students are parents, and he empowers them to get involved in their children’s schools to share their important perspectives as adult learners.