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NEA Press Release

Remarks as prepared for delivery by Rebecka Peterson, 2023 Teacher of the Year, to the 102nd Representative Assembly

Peterson addressed more than 6,000 NEA delegates meeting in Orlando July 3-6, 2023
2023 National Teacher of the Year Rebecka Peterson addresses the 2023 NEA Representative Assembly
2023 National Teacher of the Year Rebecka Peterson addresses the 2023 NEA Representative Assembly.
Published: 07/05/2023
This article originally appeared on NEA.org

"I know these are trying times to be in public education. So now, more than ever, I’m humbled by and grateful for our cumulative potential."

Hello!

What a joy to be with you today to celebrate and honor the power of public education.

As I look out at a crowd this size, I’m reminded of our collective power. I’m reminded how crucial each and every member of our school community is. I know these are trying times to be in public education. So now, more than ever, I’m humbled by and grateful for our cumulative potential.

I’m grateful for our bus drivers, whose “Good morning!” might be a child’s first positive interaction of the day. I'm thankful for our child nutrition workers who know students can’t learn when they’re hungry so they work tirelessly to make sure they’re always fed. I’m wonderstruck by our custodians, who keep our buildings beautiful because they know beautiful schools tell our students that they are worthy. And—I’m infinitely grateful to belong to the vocation of teaching. This profession that allows us to invoke that innate, intrinsic curiosity within a child, and in so doing, hold the future.

Last school year, I had the honor of traveling all over my home state of Oklahoma, documenting the stories of teachers there. Every time I drove home from visiting a school, I thought: “If only everyone could see what I get to see. If only everyone knew how relentlessly committed teachers are to our students’ wellbeing.”

I’ve learned from teachers across the hall, across the state, and—soon—across the country. And I continue to be inspired and challenged by what you teach me.

I see the way you delight in decorating your classroom, even though it’s often on your own dime and your own time. You do it with joy, because to you, this isn’t just a room with four walls; this is where dreams are birthed.

I notice the way you embrace the student who came to school with clean clothes just as genuinely as you embrace the one unable to.”

I recognize the way you ask a student how to say something in their native language, and in that moment help our newcomer trade shame for dignity, just like you did with me decades ago.

I watch the way you know when to praise the smallest of victories…and when to push for better work.

I know the way you write and re-write letters to parents and guardians, ensuring you do right by them.

I remember the way you whisper, “Have you ever thought about being a teacher?” And with one sentence, forever change a trajectory.

And I stand witness to the way you make your class a place of welcome. You don’t know this, but there’s a student who isn’t sure if life is worth living…but he keeps living because of your class.

I see you. I–and others–see you tending to some of the greatest needs of our communities. 

Here’s what I know:

Every day, as we unlock the doors of our classrooms… we swing wide the doors of opportunity.

Each time we open a book, we open a space to grow.

We pick up pieces of broken pencils in one moment…and pieces of broken hearts in the next.

We show how to add proper place value…as we add and place value.

We teach on the battles fought for freedom…and we hope this thing we’re a part of…this thing called public education…will indeed free them…

From marginalization, from systemic inequities, from generational poverty.

This is why we teach.

Because public education is for all of us.

Teachers, you hold our democracy, a kind of freedom not available to every child on this earth. And regardless of our governing structure, we know: education is liberation. As an Iranian-American woman, I stand acutely aware that liberty for us all is no guarantee. Rather, it’s a product of a nation’s people insisting: we belong to each other. Teachers, you are the ones carrying that banner. Thank you for carrying our mission that every single child is in. No matter the color of their skin, zip code or gender. No matter their socioeconomic background, religious affiliation, immigration status, or sexual orientation. All are welcome. These doors are wide open for everyone. Everyone belongs. Everyone has a seat at the table. That’s the heartbeat of our country, and we as educators safeguard it every day.

May we keep showing up for our students. May we reflect on the impact of our work. May we continue to stand with one foot grounded in reality, while the other stands in the promise of what can be.

And may lean into what our students have always taught us: we…belong…to…each…other.

 

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