The 2022 State Teachers of the Year were celebrated in Washington this week alongside National Teacher of the Year winner Kurt Russell — but some of the nation’s top teachers say that despite the accolades, their profession is facing greater challenges than ever.
“This is hard, hard, hard, hard work that we are doing and it is a thankless — it is often a thankless job, even when you are the teacher of the year,” Maryland’s honoree Brianna Ross told CBS News. The pandemic has made it all even harder.
The 50+ honorees are meeting largely for the first time in person this week. On Wednesday, the Biden administration held an emotional event in the East Room of the White House, where a teary-eyed Dr. Jill Biden, a career educator herself, told the teachers, “The lives you change go on to change the world.”
Several of the teachers of the year tell CBS News that there is more work to be done. According to Ross, who serves as the social studies chair at Deer Park Middle Magnet School in Randallstown, she and other Baltimore-area educators are battling fatigue and burnout.
“What I’m seeing from teachers in my school in particular, and in my state, is that teachers are really, really tired,” Ross said. “One of the things I’ve been talking a lot about with teachers is it’s not about this idea of self-care but self-preservation, and what can we do to preserve ourselves, because the work that we’re doing is so important, and it’s so valuable, but it’s also really exhausting.”
Ross’ frustrations are mirrored in a recent survey finding teachers’ job satisfaction rates appear to have hit an all-time low.The Merrimack College Teacher Survey also found 51% of teachers believe their salary is unfair for the work they do.
Nebraska’s Lee Perez is a proponent for raising teacher pay. An English as a Second Language (ESL) instructor, Perez told CBS News he suffered from depression and anxiety during the pandemic because of how it disproportionately affected marginalized minority communities.
He is the Cornhusker State’s first Latinx and ESL teacher of the year, and he hopes to use his platform to help solve these problems in the system.
“As a society, we make it harder than it has to be,” Perez said, adding, “We are trained professionals, we are educated professionals, we are meticulously skilled at our craft.”
Perez is working with the state’s teachers union to try to pass a bill to provide $2,000 retention bonuses for Nebraska teachers beginning next fall because he feels educators, unlike other highly regarded professions, aren’t making what they’re worth.
“Pay us, then and treat us like you would treat lawyers and doctors and even politicians that go into work that are experts,” he said.
Other problems are on the mind of Kentucky’s teacher of the year, Willie Carver. In a tweet last weekend, the veteran teacher suggested he had been pushed to the edge and might leave teaching.
He wrote: “I’m a proud gay man, I am the 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year, and I’m afraid to return to the classroom. I want kids to see me and feel hope, but I am tired. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and things are getting worse. This is painful and I am sorry.”
The tweet received an outpouring of support, with many urging Carver to stay.
Carver teaches English and French at Montgomery County High School. The state’s conservative policies, he says, are forcing him to speak out and reconsider his career. Carver is the faculty lead for his school’s Gender Sexuality Alliance group, Open Light, and he said he doesn’t see an immediate future in the school system if he can’t show up as himself.
“It occurred to me, I have to close this way of teaching, at least for a while,” Carver said. “I’ve never hidden who I am. I’ve been an advocate for all students, including students who are LGBTQ, but it has been such an immensely difficult road. And this year has been the single most difficult year for LGBTQ teachers in the United States.”
In fact, over 300 bills targeting the LGBTQ+ community are being proposed nationwide, according to the Human Rights Campaign. More than 140 such bills specifically single out trans youth, including Kentucky’s Fairness In Women’s Sports Act, which passed earlier this month after the Republican majority overrode Democratic Governor Andy Beshear’s veto.
Perez says Carver is like a brother to him and the two have grown close through the Teacher of the Year cohort.
“When I read Willie’s tweet, it’s like telling him not to be who he is. And that’s, that’s wrong,” Perez said. “Any marginalized population like LGBTQ and kids of color, should not have to feel scared to do something because of who they are.”
The sentiment was echoed by Maine Teacher of the Year Kelsey Stoyanova.
“Right now the most targeted group of people that I’ve experienced are those from the LGBTQ community,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that there’s even a question that someone’s identity doesn’t belong in a classroom, and that’s a lot to grapple with.”
Stoyanova, an eighth grade language arts teacher, struggles with the public debates about school texts with LGBTQ+ topics. She says the discourse has made teaching more difficult.
“A book that might be right for one child might not be right for the next, but that doesn’t mean we take the book off the shelf,” Stoyanova said. “That’s like saying, you know, let’s put it real simple: We have kids that are allergic to peanut butter in our schools. Do we take peanut butter out of the whole entire school? No, we don’t.”
Stoyanova said she’s an ally to her students, and her school district in Maine has not attempted to cancel books or restrict teaching on certain LGBTQ+ topics. But she believes this year’s culture wars attempt to reduce safe spaces for kids.
“It’s the days that I’m thinking about what’s beyond my classroom and the world that we live in that are difficult,” she said. “One of the hardest parts for me and all of this is it’s so easy to create a safe and supportive environment for our kids. And I can’t believe that in many places we are going backwards in that.”
Natalia Benjamin, the first person of Latin American heritage to win Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year award, says the ongoing pandemic forced more than two years of disrupted learning, and she believes that bringing student needs to the forefront will in turn address educators’ concerns.
“If we do what’s good for students, we’re going to do what’s good for educators,” Benjamin, who teaches in Rochester, told CBS News. “So as we find our support for our students, I know that we will find our support for our staff as well, because we normalize those conversations of mental health, we normalize self-care, we normalize processing the things that we’re all going through, because we go through this together, right? The same issues that our students are dealing with are the same issues that we’re dealing with as as educators in the buildings.”
For Ross, there’s an urgent need to take teachers’ concerns seriously.
“How can we turn our ears to them and really listen,” she said. “Listen to what it is that they’re asking for and what they need so that they can be — they’re able to stay in the classroom in a way that allows them to support their students but also to preserve themselves.”