The summer has come and gone, and the fleeting school break is a reminder of the great weight that teachers carry throughout the year. We’ve seen a noteworthy rise in stress levels among teachers and school level leaders, twice that of the general population of working adults according to a recent RAND Corporation survey; and though the summer months may appear to alleviate some level of stress, the burden is never fully relieved from our teacher force.
That is why we should take every opportunity to honor and uplift teachers for what they deliver to students and the broader school community all year long. In that spirit, here is a bright spot in the roundup of the 2021-2022 school year: an introduction to four of the dozen-odd educators in the Teach For America network in North Carolina awarded Teacher of the Year in their respective schools. Their commitment, creativity, and perseverance truly exemplify great teaching, and their stories are sure to inspire us all to meet their efforts with appreciation and support.
Daeja Godette: W.A. Patillo Middle School Beginning Teacher of the Year
Daeja is a second-year special education teacher in Tarboro and joined Teach For America upon earning her bachelor’s degree from Hampton University. She takes every day as a middle school educator with a sense of humor. Looking back on the year, she is most proud of the growth of what she calls her “exceptional children.”
“At the start of the school year,” Daeja says, “we had a student who struggled with adjusting to the setting of middle school and often would have tantrums — run, hide, yell, and cry — whenever they felt a big emotion they couldn’t explain. By the end of the year, they would go to one of their safe spaces when they realized they were close to a boiling point. They would share their emotions verbally and by using a plushy.”
This student also inspired Daeja to begin an art wall, decorated by students just like this one. “Whatever it takes!” Daeja says.
In part, she attributes her success to the opportunity to step into leadership, serving as co-chair of her department and learning more about school-level operations along the way. In this new position, she came to more deeply value relationships with students’ parents and families, and in May was recognized as Beginning Teacher of the Year at her school.
By the end of the 2021-2022 school year, Daeja fulfilled her corps member commitment. As for her future plans, she’s chosen to remain in her placement school and will move into chair of her department.
“No matter what I choose later,” Daeja says, “I know that, at the start of my career, my goal was to make a difference. That’s what I am going to continue to do.”
Meghan Collins: Quail Hollow Middle School Teacher of the Year
Meghan has been a middle school STEM educator in Charlotte for four years, and in that time she has gained a reputation for her classroom’s engaging science labs.
“‘Fun-Lab Fridays’ are days all my students look forward to, and they’re some of my favorite memories from this year,” Meghan says. “For many students it was their ‘aha moment,’ connecting all the work we did throughout the week to something tangible and real.”
“A specific lab we did was creating edible cells, where students would model a cell out of food items. The students worked with partners to create incredible pieces to demonstrate their understanding. And yes … they did get to eat it all!”
Meghan was recognized as Teacher of the Year in January, but continued to demonstrate resilience throughout the school year by embracing change. “There were so many times the course of the year changed, from COVID procedures to grading standards,” she says. “When I was able to take a step back, look at the bigger picture, and follow those changes, I found more success. It led to more collaboration and communication with my team and deeper connections with students.”
Robert B. Oechslin, Jr.: Burton Magnet Elementary School Teacher of the Year
Since graduating from UNC-Wilmington and joining Teach For America in 2017, Robert has been an elementary school teacher — primarily third and fourth grade — in Guilford and Durham counties. When asked, he names the greatest reward of being a teacher is seeing the community of a classroom come together, “where each student can let their ‘freak flag fly’ and be themselves.”
He attributes his success this year to the joint effort of his team while serving as a grade-level chair.
“It was my first time in this position and it proved to be a sink or swim moment. My new teammates had greater experience, and perhaps better reason, to be in the leadership position,” Robert says. “However, I’m proud of myself for building a team that was centered in honesty and collaboration. Every step of the way, every success and failure, we were in it together. By the end of the year, it became clear that not only was third grade the most fun team, but we were the most connected.”
Robert intends to continue teaching and expanding his service to his school community. “I really enjoy my current role, and I can’t think of a greater honor than being a public school teacher,” Robert says. “It remains the professional joy of my life, and I can’t wait to continue the work.”
Rubí J. Parra: Marie G. Davis IB Teacher of the Year
Rubí has been a middle school English/language arts teacher in Charlotte for five years, and is currently pursuing her master’s of education in literacy. As a proud Latina leader in a school district with few other Latinx educators, she also plans to pursue National Board certification and eventually a position in school administration. “I rarely ever see Latinx educators in this role, so representation is needed. I have also always thought about becoming a principal, but we will see!”
Rubí’s love for her students is evident in her generous spirit and indefatigable effort. Not only did her classroom have the highest proficiency growth in her school for the past two years, but she has taken special care to tutor students falling behind in their literacy. She cites being proud of her students for their growth in skill and confidence.
Her favorite moment from her classroom this year was an assignment based on “Summer of the Mariposas,” in which students were charged to write their own Mexican folklore narrative and create a website on which to publish them.
“When I first presented them with this assignment, they looked at me like I was crazy for assigning this task,” says Rubí. “There was some pushback and hesitation from them, and me because I was nervous about how to deliver this lesson but I was trusting the process. The websites they submitted left me speechless. As their teacher, I had the privilege to witness the incredible creativity that came from my students in that lesson.”
Going beyond celebration
In our organization’s conversations with diverse leaders across the state, the consensus remains that teachers deserve more than a one-time celebration for all of their efforts day to day, semester to semester, year to year. They deserve sustained action and support, to ensure that they have access to improved benefits and compensation as well as relevant development and fewer financial barriers to advancement.
Teach For America is committed to supporting educators not only during their first two years in the classroom, but also for the remainder of their career in education by investing in professional programming that advances alumni of our program toward their goals. This is a critical component of our program if we are to reach our mission of achieving excellent and equitable education for all students.
Teachers like Daeja, Meghan, Robert, and Rubí are the reason that, through all of the challenges of our current education landscape, we should remain hopeful about our future and be emboldened to partner with them in ensuring that all children can thrive.