How the 2024 National Teacher of the Year helps English learners adapt in rural Appalachia

Two young female students work at a desk while a teacher wearing a red shirt with white hair looks on.
Missy Testerman works with English learners at Rogersville City School in Tennessee. She was recently named the 2024 National Teacher of the Year. (Image courtesy of the Tennessee State Department of Education)
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As an English as a Second Language specialist at her Tennessee school and a long-time member of her rural Appalachian community, Missy Testerman often finds herself straddling two worlds, trying to bridge the divide.

That could mean anything from accompanying a student and his mother to get a refill for epilepsy medication, to showing the staff at the local courthouse how to use a translation app so they can communicate with immigrant families.

“Simple gestures such as sitting with my students’ families at high school graduation or a school play goes a long way in helping them find acceptance in our rural area since I have belonged to this community for decades and others trust my lead,” Testerman wrote recently. “I take this role as ambassador seriously, and I am thankful for the opportunity to connect these groups.”

And now, Testerman will be serving as an ambassador on an even bigger stage: She’s the new National Teacher of the Year.

Testerman, who teaches English learners at Rogersville City School, earned the title on Wednesday as part of a competition run by the Council of Chief State School Officers. She was previously named Tennessee’s top teacher for 2023.

She’ll spend the next year traveling the country, speaking out about issues she says teachers need to be making noise about, including the persistent mental health challenges kids are facing and the need to offer services even as COVID relief funding dries up.

“At times, it feels as though state legislatures across this country are passing laws that do not address actual problems,” Testerman wrote in her application. “Schools had to hire someone to scan every book in the building under the guise that pornography is lurking in a kindergarten classroom, yet we do not have funding to hire a behaviorist to help with the kindergarteners who are disrupting classrooms every day.”

Chalkbeat spoke with Testerman about how field trips to the post office help her English learners, why she went back to school at the age of 51, and why it’s important for lawmakers to understand what’s really happening inside the nation’s classrooms.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

You got your ESL endorsement after teaching for 30 years. Is there a moment or an interaction you had that made you think: ‘I’m going to go back and do this right now’?

Yes, actually, there was. One of my closest allies at school was our ESL teacher. She came to me and let me know that she was moving at the end of the school year. She had done a phenomenal job, not just educating these students and helping them acquire the English language, but also serving as their family resource person in our community. So I was very worried about who was going to advocate for these families.

The next day, I received an email that went out to everyone who was teaching in the state of Tennessee, explaining how the Tennessee Grow Your Own program works. One facet is that teachers who are already licensed could add an endorsement area in a hard-to-fill position, and that year, it was math, special education, and ESL. I was 51 years old, not your typical college student. But I enrolled, and at the end of the year, I was able to transition into her role and become the advocate for my students’ families.

You talked about how much you enjoy getting to be the first person who takes your ESL students to the library, or the post office, or the courthouse. Why is it important to you to do that, and how does that help your students and their families?

Many of my students are their family’s translators. They are the ones calling and making doctor’s appointments at 7 years old, or they are the ones who are translating documents.

A woman wearing glasses and a gray blazer with shoulder-length white hair.
Missy Testerman is the 2024 National Teacher of the Year. She teaches English learners at Rogersville City School in Tennessee. (Image courtesy of Leeping Lenses Photography)

A lot of times, my students are in a situation where pretty much all they do is come to school and go back home. They haven’t had the typical exposure to the things that we’re talking about. They may pass the post office every day, but they don’t understand: This is where I go when I need to mail a package.

Or they may be aware that we have a library, but there’s a language barrier for their parents to be able to take them to the library and explain that they need a library card.

Those are experiences that I get to have. And not only do I get to have them with my students, and open up that pathway for them to be able to share with their families, but also it helps the people in my community to see my families as just another member of the community. It helps them to adapt to living in our rural area.

You’ve been talking with educator prep programs and offering your feedback. What are some of the ways that you’d like to see teacher training improve or change?

The literacy piece is always a big thing. We passed a law called the Tennessee Literacy Act in 2021, and that requires that anyone entering into our classrooms be proficient in the science of reading, and how to teach literacy at any level — not just to students coming in. That’s been part of the conversation.

I’m also talking to them about the types of mental health challenges that we’re seeing, so that they can work that into the curriculum for students to be prepared, and to know what resources are available in schools.

As National Teacher of the Year, what do you want to make sure policymakers are better educated about?

I want our policymakers to know what’s going on inside our classrooms. For far too long, policy has been made by people who are not education experts. They’re not teachers, they don’t spend a lot of time within classrooms.

But we’re not going to make anyone aware unless our teachers are willing to speak up and be advocates — for their students, themselves, our profession — by being honest about what our struggles are, and what will make those struggles better.

Right now, I feel like the most pressing issue that schools across our country are facing are mental health challenges. I’m in a pre-K-8 school, so I’ve seen lots of different situations, anything from depression in our older students, where they are just totally withdrawn from the school situation — they don’t want to be there. That affects their education, obviously, and it also leads to chronic absenteeism.

In our younger students, what I’m seeing and what I’m hearing from other teachers is that students are showing up unable to regulate, or to deal with their frustrations.

These mental health challenges don’t just affect the child experiencing the crisis, or the teachers, they affect every kid in the classroom, every school employee who tries to help and intervene. I see that as a particular challenge.

You wrote in your application that ESSER funds are winding down, but we’re still dealing with big challenges around academic recovery and mental health. How do you think your advocacy can help raise alarms about some of the things that you’re seeing?

That $122 billion that was invested into schools helped schools hire mental health counselors, guidance counselors, behaviorists, and other support staff. And we know we’re still struggling with student mental health at this time. For those supports to be taken away can lead to a very difficult situation.

I hope that I empower teachers to share what that looks like, and why that’s difficult, and why that interrupts the learning of other students in the classroom, so that systems all across the country can figure out a way to make up for those funds and keep the supports in play.

Kalyn Belsha is a senior national education reporter based in Chicago. Contact her at kbelsha@chalkbeat.org.

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