It’s Teacher Appreciation Week—a time for our communities to celebrate the vital roles that teachers play in the lives of people young and old. Though First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt insisted that Congress establish an annual day dedicated to teacher recognition in 1953, it was not until 1980 that the first Teacher Appreciation Day was held and 1984 when it was expanded into the Teacher Appreciation Week we have come to know.
Here at Facing History, we see awareness months as opportunities to deepen our knowledge of and attention to the histories and contemporary experiences of historically marginalized communities. However, the focus on celebrating these communities over one particular month can further marginalize the very experiences we are hoping to elevate. With this in mind, what follows is an invitation to engage with important themes raised by Women’s History Month this March and throughout all of the months of the year.
As Women’s History Month draws to a close, we have an opportunity to reflect upon the wide array of women who have shaped the educational landscape for the better in the United States and around the world. Though there are countless figures one might highlight, the three below are among those that we can learn from and whose legacies continue to shape the contemporary educational landscape.
Have you ever looked around your school community and asked “where are all of the Black teachers?” The National Center for Education Statistics indicates that more than 50% of public school children are students of color, but less than 20% of their teachers are also people of color. This might not seem immediately problematic but data suggests otherwise. Research shows that Black students are 13% more likely to complete high school and begin college if they have had one Black teacher in elementary school and 32% more likely if they have had more than one. Further, this research notes that the impact of access to Black teachers is even more profound for Black boys, in particular. Fueled by a desire to transform this status quo, there is a vibrant movement afoot to revolutionize schools and the lives of Black students by increasing the number of Black teachers.
In the week since an extremist mob stormed the U.S. Capitol and staged a chaotic insurrection that shocked the nation, outrage, concern, and confusion have continued to make headlines. But amid the upheaval, students and teachers have continued to come together in classrooms and virtual learning spaces for daily lessons and instruction. Of course, this isn’t the first time in our history when teachers and students have had to grapple with conflict and fear. If anything, we must acknowledge and underscore that education is often a constant. That fact doesn’t make the events of last week any less serious or any easier to comprehend, but it does illustrate just how foundational our schools are to a functioning society. In the face of civil turmoil, it is critical that classrooms provide safe, responsive spaces for their students to explore the events, gain understanding, and ask questions about what happened and what might come next.
This past September, I had the privilege to speak with Dr. Dena Simmons during a Facing History webinar about how social-emotional learning can help us realize an anti-racist future. It was on the day that the grand jury in Louisville, KY made the decision not to charge anyone for the murder of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old unarmed African-American woman fatally shot in her apartment. Both Dr. Simmons and I felt the heaviness of this verdict, and the need to have an honest conversation about the times we are living in as Black women educators. Dr. Simmons has since written an article for ASCD in which she notes that Black women educators always “show up...because we know our work is critical to Black youth in white-dominated school systems...even if it comes at a cost. But we are exhausted.”
Amid the upheavals of this year, the status of teachers as workers has come into focus as never before. After a great many decades in which teaching has been a devalued form of labor and associated with childrearing, the events of 2020 have begun to flip the script. We’ve been hearing many stories this year of teachers being lauded as superheroes as parents become aware of the rigors of full-time teaching for the very first time. Yet these positive appraisals are a double-edged sword. We’ve also been hearing stories of teachers being asked to sacrifice their own health with near-martyrlike dedication, in part, so that other workers with children can resume their professional lives. How quickly we forget that teachers are also professionals, and many are parents themselves.
In a recent interview, I spoke with Dr. Karlos Hill concerning the life and legacy of educator-activist Clara Luper. Dr. Hill is Associate Professor and Chair of the Clara Luper Department of African and African American Studies at the University of Oklahoma where he teaches the history of racial violence in the U.S. He serves on the Facing History and Ourselves Board of Scholars. He is the author of Beyond the Rope: The Impact of Lynching on Black Culture and Memory, The Murder of Emmett Till: A Graphic History, as well as a forthcoming book entitled The Tulsa Race Massacre: A Photographic History. In 2023, Dr. Hill plans to publish a new edition of Clara Luper’s memoir Behold the Walls that chronicles the Oklahoma City Sit-In Movement. In this interview, we discuss the history of the Oklahoma City Sit-Ins and Clara Luper’s approach to teaching as an educator-activist. Luper was a history teacher at Dunjee High School in 1957 when she became an adviser to the Oklahoma City NAACP’s Youth Council. In that role, she helped to spark a desegregation movement that would sweep the country.
Since 2010, January 11th has marked National Human Trafficking Awareness Day—and is part of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Awareness Month which runs throughout January in the United States. In a recent interview, I spoke with Danny Papa—a New Jersey-based educator who inspired his middle school students to take leading roles in the movement to end human trafficking from the schoolhouse to the state house. In addition to serving as a K-12 Supervisor for Jefferson Township Public Schools, Papa serves as President of the Board of Trustees and Education Committee Chair for the NJ Coalition Against Human Trafficking.
As teachers and students return to the classroom this fall, a number of Facing History teachers are hitting the books themselves. One of them is Daniel Warner, a history teacher in Memphis, Tennessee and recipient of the prestigious James Madison Graduate Fellowship for advanced study in constitutional history and government. In this interview, we discuss his path as an educator, how Facing History has shaped his approach to civic education, and how he uses primary sources to design transformative learning experiences.
For teachers who don’t hold additional jobs, summer vacation offers an opportunity for a hard reset—a time to recharge from the madness of the academic year and prepare for the rigors of the next one. But it’s hard to find solace in the slowed pace of summer when it’s only a matter of time before we will, again, feel the stressors of the classroom. The chronic stress at the heart of teacher burnout follows us all year long, and the consequences may be more far-reaching than we think. Though declines in teachers’ health and students’ academic performance are among the major consequences of teacher burnout, the emotional intelligence of our students is also at stake.