Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Everyday Heroes

obriena's picture

Recently we have been hearing - from some politicians, the media and certain “ed reformers” - that teachers are one of the problems facing education today. While the importance of good teachers is often acknowledged, (sometimes unintentionally and sometimes intentionally) the current education workforce is portrayed as lazy, entitled, indifferent and the guardian of the status quo.

This rhetoric corresponds to the lowest teacher job satisfaction in decades, as evidenced by the MetLife Foundation’s recent Survey of the American Teacher. Last summer, I wrote about the mood at the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) annual conference. I titled the post, America’s Premiere Teachers: Demoralized, Infantilized, and Fearful?

Teachers certainly have a right to be demoralized, given not only the rhetoric surrounding them but the conditions in which they are working, which are acknowledged to be stressful and which may further deteriorate, as the effects of the economic recession continue to work their way through our education funding systems.

So it’s more important than ever that we celebrate teachers. One way in which you can help: Vote for an AFT Everyday Hero. The American Federation of Teachers has sifted through hundreds of nominations of their members and selected five semi-finalists for the 2012 teacher prize.

These five individuals are inspiring. Take Washington, DC, middle school teacher Tiffany Johnson, who frequently reaches into her own pocket to help her low-income students with bus fare, snacks, and personal items like lotion and deodorant while she motivates them “to see beyond their personal issues and to strive for educational excellence” (according to a colleague).  She also runs workshops to help parents cope with special needs students.

Think about Lee Schwanke, a National Board Certified Teacher in Minneapolis with a degree in arts education who has reached out to specialists in his school for help in designing fully inclusive arts classes. He has developed strategies to effectively engage all students in his classroom – creative solutions that help children at varying stages of cerebral palsy hold paintbrushes, help children who cannot speak participate in classroom readings/discussions, and more. He shares these techniques in a graduate-level class at the University of Minnesota.

Reflect on Leslie Natzke, a high school teacher in Skokie, Illinois, who didn’t plan on becoming a teacher. But as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, she was assigned 50 children to teach – nearly all boys. She started reaching out to girls in the community and never looked back. She now teaches French and English language learners, many of whom are refugees. She recruits English-speaking students to tutor them, and she teaches them to use public transportation (a skill they can pass on to their families). In addition, she has founded Expanding Lives, a nonprofit that brings six rural West African girls to the Chicago area each summer for training in English, computers, and more. When these girls return to Africa, they often finish high school and become role models, helping pull their families out of poverty.

Consider Miguel Orozco, who teaches third-grade at a dual language academy in Houston. He fills his classroom with “realia” (“the real thing”), objects that reflect the ethnicities of his students. He has celebrated Vietnam, China, Indonesia and elsewhere, hanging the flags of students’ home countries on the wall. And children respond to the safe environment. In addition to his work in the classroom, Orozco advocates for education in a number of ways, including counseling single parents as to how to best help their students succeed, working for gender-neutral language in parent correspondence, and standing up for teachers’ rights.

And teachers are not only heroes in their classrooms, but in their communities. Schoharie, New York, was ravaged by floods during Hurricane Irene. The community had no power, some homes had water through their second floor, and an oil spill prevented travel and left a diesel smell that lasted for days. High school teacher Martin Messner, also President of the Schoharie Teachers Association (STA), sprang into action. Realizing the gravity of the situation, he organized a clean-up effort involving hundreds of volunteers from the area and beyond. After school resumed, the Schoharie educators continued their cleanup effort after class and on weekends. And when volunteers began to leave, the STA began an insulation program that has since insulated about 160 homes, churches and Main Street businesses, coordinating with 300 volunteers and more than 100 different organizations.

Of course, teachers are not the only everyday heroes. Principals, superintendents and other educators do amazing work, as do countless other professionals both in and outside of schools. AFT is also honoring paraprofessionals and school-related personnel; representatives in higher education; public employees; healthcare workers; and retirees for making a difference day. You can vote for your favorite in each category.

And please, recognize the everyday heroes in your own community.