What do we need to hear from our teachers right now? A conversation with the National Teacher of the Year Finalists

The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) recently announced the four exemplary educators from across the country named finalists for the 2022 National Teacher of the Year. Among them are:

  • Autumn Rivera, the 2022 Colorado Teacher of the Year, is a sixth-grade science teacher who encourages students to make a difference now, rather than waiting until they are adults. Her students raised funds to help save a local lake from development and conserve it as a state park.
  • Whitney Aragaki, the 2022 Hawai‘i Teacher of the Year, teaches high school science using cultural and place-based activities to engage students. She also works to provide equitable access to environmental science and computer science courses statewide.
  • Kurt Russell, the 2022 Ohio Teacher of the Year, teaches high school history and emphasizes cultural relevance and diverse representation in the curriculum. He co-founded a Black Student Union at his school, leading to positive impacts for both students of color and white students.
  • Joseph Welch, the 2022 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year, and 2019 AMLE Educator of the Year, teaches eighth grade U.S. history. He worked to integrate technology at his middle school, shifting from a curriculum that emphasized rote memorization to a class culture that emphasizes student creation.

As a participant representing AMLE in the selection process, I jumped at the opportunity to sit down with the finalists and pick their brains on some of the most pressing issues facing middle school communities today. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

We’re thinking a lot about the national educator shortage and I hear frequently from teachers who are burnt out and considering leaving the classroom. What can AMLE, and other organizations that advocate for educators, do to help keep educators in our schools?

Kurt Russell: I think one of the most important things is to give teachers a voice….To empower teachers…To make sure that teachers feel valued. That could be done by ensuring those in administrative roles and those that have the ability to change policy do so. I believe that teachers are the experts, that teachers deserve that respect, and it would be wonderful if those who are in higher authority would give teachers that authority to do what they are trained to do.

Joseph Welch: I agree with Kurt, there are certainly policy solutions. But I think the big elephant in the room and the big non-policy solution comes down to this whole idea that teachers are professionals and we need to largely “re-professionalize” the profession. Teachers want what’s best for our students, we want what’s best for our communities. We want to do what’s best in our society in general. So the best thing that we can do, whether it is as an educational organization, as an administrator, or as a community, is to listen to our teachers. We often hear the question, “What do teachers need to hear right now?” But I think instead the question should be, “What do we need to hear from our teachers right now?” Let’s listen to our teachers. Any avenue of support, whether its showing up at your local school board meeting and voicing your support of your teachers, or writing an op-ed about how teachers are making a difference in your community, let’s share that good news. Now there are policy solutions in terms of supporting teachers in the classroom, but I think it’s that big idea of society trusting our teachers in general.

Autumn Rivera: It’s also important for us as a community to name the fact that this has been a really hard year. So often people call us superheroes. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a superhero. I’m a human being that needs time to go to the bathroom and to be able to take a moment for myself. We need to name that situation and identify it and then, I agree, celebrate teachers.

We also need advocates. We are doing so much already to then also add that piece of advocating for ourselves. We’re trying, but there are a lot of different balls in the air so it’s important to have people who appreciate what we do there to advocate for us. Giving me a cool coffee mug is no longer enough (though I do have my awesome mug here that I got from a student). I need to be treated as a professional. I need to be trusted. I need enough money in my paycheck so that I can take care of my family.

I do think we’re at an exciting point in our community in that we can decide how we move forward. We’re hopefully on our way out of a situation that really shook things up and we can find areas where we can learn from the past and areas where we can change for the future and create a new normal that supports our teachers and our students.

Whitney Aragaki: And I would add that we can make all of these meetings and all of these conversations about teachers accessible to teachers. Whether it’s giving them a seat at the table in conversations with administration, districts, school boards, and other stakeholders, or even just making the meeting times accessible. I know that my own board of education meets at 1:00 pm on Thursdays and there’s no way that I can go to those meetings and participate. If we are truly invested in honoring that teacher voice and ensuring that teachers feel a sense of belonging, then we create avenues for teachers to participate when decisions are being made. And, just to add in, we should cancel student debt, we should be providing stipends for student teacher programs, and we should be offering affordable housing to all teachers.

Those are powerful words from each of you about ways we can support our teachers. Now let’s shift focus to our students. For Joe and Autumn specifically, as middle school teachers you know what a developmentally important time this is for kids. And we’ve seen our students struggling socially, emotionally, and physically this year. What can we do to support students? What do you need to support them in your classrooms right now?

Joseph Welch: I can’t imagine being a middle school student in 2020-2022, experiencing trauma, experiencing all of the loss of control over the past couple of year, and the loss of relationships. Those vital, physical relationships where you’re seeing faces and you’re able to interact with people daily. What it largely comes down to I think is how are we as educators are going to do two things. First, how can we give that control back to students. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean letting students do whatever they want. It’s how we allow students the opportunity to share and tell us what they need. I know in my own classes it’s been extremely successful to give students those sharing opportunities, whether its through an anonymous survey, a one-on-one conversation, or by other means. It’s giving that element of control back so they can say, “Mr. Walsh, here’s what I need from you today. Here’s how things are going and here’s how we could make things better.”

Then we can look further at what we can do to continue to support our students. I don’t think this is isolated to our middle schools. I think it largely is a mental health – let’s just call it what it is – it’s a crisis. We need to make sure that we’re supplying all schools with the funding they need to ensure there are trusted adults that go beyond just educators in the classroom. We need to address how we can support students from the mental health side and help them develop healthy relationships as much as possible.

Autumn Rivera: First, I want to say that I love that there’s a group that focuses on middle school. They’re my favorite people. Adding to what Joe said, the thing about middle school is that it is the time when it is most important to be around your peers. That’s when you learn different skills through many, many hard lessons but you learn them by being around other people. When those students weren’t around other students for a while it made coming back to school more difficult. Students may be older, but that maturity level that you see develop when they are around peers is delayed. And some are delayed more than others, so the range of maturity levels we’re seeing is more extreme. But, to borrow from something Kurt says all the time, you need to put your students first and put that relationship first. I think especially in middle school that is more important than ever. We need to get to know them and to stop when you notice a student having a situation at home or at school and having those conversations.

Also, don’t forget to have fun with your students. We have the stresses of the curriculum and tests, but sometimes we need to stop and have fun with our kids. In terms of how to move forward, I really don’t want to say that there’s been a loss of learning. I say that there has been a shift in what our students have learned. And so we can celebrate what our middle school students have been able to do during this time. Recently I had my students do some tech work that 4 years ago probably would have taken the entire class period. It took 10 minutes because they really know how to use technology now. Finally, I would add that we need to help students understand that they don’t need to wait to get to high school or college or beyond to make a change or to advocate for themselves. They can empower themselves now.

I appreciate what you both said about ways we can empower our students. And, of course, we want them to feel empowered before they head to high school. So, Kurt and Whitney, as high school teachers are there things you wish we were doing more of at the middle school level before they get to your classrooms?

Kurt Russell: From my experience, one of the things that I notice about incoming first year students is that sometimes they have a sense of loss, and what I mean by that is a sense of loss in terms of their standing in a school setting. Some of our kids are trying to find their way, which all of us do. It’s not necessarily a negative thing, but I wish students could really connect with the high school earlier.

Whitney Aragaki: To add to that idea, I have seen a positive change in our students coming up from the middle school to the high school in the past few years. Whether that’s due to better vertical articulation between elementary middle and high schools, or it’s that focus on social and emotional learning, at all levels I think that our students are coming in ready to engage in high school. In Hawaii, we have invested deeply in career academies, so when our middle schools (and even our elementary schools) focus in on what it means to be at a career academy high school we’re seeing our students excited to come to class and excited to prepare themselves for that experience when they’re in middle school. And then we do the same cycling up in high school to prepare students for college and careers.

Personally, my own child is in 6th grade and he’s really into middle school and he loves it so much. He shares all of these stories about how he enjoys seeing different teachers every day and the conversations that they’re having. And while I feel he’s learning a lot of content that not even I can discuss with him on a daily basis, he’s also learning these skills of how to work with other students and his teachers are really putting in the time to teach the practices of group work. I see him learning the foundational skills of, yes, you have your elementary friends but now you are going to work with anyone in the classroom. Now you’re going to be able to have a conversation with an adult at a little bit higher level. Those soft skills and 21st century skills that we need. Those are just going to amplify how they engage in high school and beyond.

About the National Teacher of the Year Program

Each year, states, the District of Columbia, U.S. extra-state territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity select exemplary educators to serve as State Teachers of the Year. The 2022 cohort includes 56 educators. From that group, the National Teacher of the Year selection committee, which includes representatives from 16 education organizations, selects four finalists based on a robust application process.

From among these four finalists, the 2022 National Teacher of the Year will be announced later this spring. The 2022 National Teacher of the Year will spend the next year serving as an ambassador for education and an advocate for all teachers and students.

CCSSO’s National Teacher of the Year Program identifies exceptional educators across the country, celebrates their work in and outside the classroom, and, through a one-of-a-kind professional development opportunity helps them amplify their voices and empowers them to engage in conversations around teaching and learning, communication and advocacy and education policy and leadership.

Stephanie Simpson is the CEO of the Association for Middle Level Education.


  1. I completely agree with Kurt Russel. Teachers need to feel valued and heard because they do so much for their students. They work so hard to make learning a wonderful experience for their students, yet receive little recognition 95% of the time. It should be time to change that.

  2. Recently online I have seen many horror stories of teachers not being respected, understood, and valued and it is really discouraging as a person in college who is going to be a middle school educator soon. This article covers topics that are really needed right now in 2022, especially because schools are in person after time online. There is a gap in student knowledge and classroom expectations since students were away from the physical classroom for so long. The answers by the teachers are really great, Kurt is exactly right, teachers need a voice! Administration can make or break a teacher’s career, we need administrators that support us.