A conversation with the best teachers in the country


Social studies and science teachers have found themselves at the center of controversy over the past year. How do they teach about race and racism? How are they talking about COVID-19 vaccines or climate change? How can they have difficult conversations in class when the public is so interested in their curriculum and teaching?

The four finalists for the National Teacher of the Year Award all teach either history or science. They told Education Week how they handle external controversies about their subjects and the importance of being honest with students.

The national award, which honors teachers for their work inside and outside the classroom, is sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers. The finalists are: Whitney Aragaki, high school science teacher in Hilo, Hawaii; Autumn Rivera, a 6th grade science teacher in Glenwood Springs, Colorado; Kurt Russell, high school history teacher in Oberlin, Ohio; and Joseph Welch, an 8th-grade United States history teacher in Pittsburgh. A winner will be announced in the spring.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What do you think of the politicization of your subjects and how do you balance these external debates with teaching what you consider important?

Rivera: It is not our job to teach our students [what] thinking is giving them the tools to make their own decisions. Giving our students the ability to assess the evidence and really look at the claims and see what evidence supports them, whether it’s science or social studies, is really important, especially these days with so many different pieces of information. [We have to] help students know where credible sources are and how to consult them.

Aragaki: I teach biology. At the beginning of the year, … I just wanted to get into content because it had been so long since I had students right next to me. Then I asked them, what are you interested in? What do you have in mind right now? And the conversations continued to revolve around the pandemic. “Why is this happening to us? Where do we go from here? So I took the lessons that I had created and abandoned them. I was like, we’re not gonna do this [in] quarter one. We’re going to focus on COVID, we’re going to focus on social inequalities with COVID, and how [they are] lit up with different racial groups, health care and different things like that.

Especially in Hawaii, we focus on our history of pandemics and the history of epidemics. The native Hawaiian population was nearly decimated by the measles crisis when Western colonizers first arrived. We had lost so much of our culture, so much of our language because we lost so many people because of it. When my students really investigated the numbers and investigated what happened, they felt a call to protect our community from COVID-19. They felt they would choose to wear masks, get vaccinated, prevent this [virus] to spread through social distancing. I ask my students now in this semester, what are you worrying about now? He turned [out to be] climate change.

So it’s not that I politicize my class, it’s that the students have that directly in their heads, and I’m here to remedy it, I’m here to focus on what they want to learn and what they want to talk talk and discuss.

Welche: From a historical perspective, I like to think: this is the soul of education, and it focuses on honesty, humanity, belonging and truth. As long as we examine these conversations through [the lens of], “What is our evidence? What are the facts ? What is truthful? I think that’s the lens that will guide our students so they can have these conversations, not just now, but in the future. That’s what we want. We want students to be able to understand us and our past.

I tell my students all the time that we learn history, we don’t learn nostalgia. I teach history, and I don’t teach nostalgia. By stepping into that framework and looking at what the evidence says from a historical perspective and using that as a guide – even though it’s more of a conversation right now in 2022 than it was in 1997, it’s always the same conversation, as long as we’re looking through the lens of truth. And as long as we’re willing to have those conversations and be honest, I think students can largely see that we’re not defined by the past. How we learn from it and how we progress is our legacy.

Russell: I believe I have a responsibility to tell the truth. Students are seekers of truth. It is my responsibility to ensure that my students have a framework of knowledge to work with. I teach several courses that could be considered controversial. I teach a course on race, gender and oppression. I teach another African American studies course. And within these particular classes, students are ready to engage in conversations that many people consider controversial. But it’s not “a lot of people”, it’s adults, right? Adults make these decisions. Adults feel that our students are unable to have these difficult conversations. Students don’t feel that way in my experience. Students are voluntary and this makes them more engaged in the learning process. Teaching some subjects that might be uncomfortable is a great way to set a standard for our students.

Are you worried that national debates will create a chilling effect in the classroom where teachers won’t feel as comfortable having some of the discussions you all talk about with students?

Russell: I’m sure many teachers might feel uncomfortable. But my advice to teachers is that we must do what is right. And students deserve our best. Students deserve a quality education. A quality education is not banishing certain books. Quality education is not [refusing to have] difficult conversations. Sometimes you have to feel uncomfortable to grow. What’s best for students, from my perspective, is to have those conversations and those kinds of discussions in the classrooms.

Welche: Teachers need to be at the policy table. Now more than ever, as teachers, we need to realize that we have a powerful collective voice and we need to make sure we stand up for ourselves. It’s scary, and there’s a lot of pressure right now, but whether it’s getting involved in our local office, sharing our stories and the stories of our students with local officials, or writing editorials, we are fortunate to share these stories of great conversations that can take place in our classrooms. Being able to use this voice is essential. I really think this could be considered one of the most crucial points of our education system of this generation.

Rivera: There is such an opportunity for us to really take advantage, as Joe said, of finding ways to really support our students – yes, by raising the voice of our teachers, but also raising the voice of our students and by listening to our students and hearing what they’re interested in and what excites them. We don’t need our students to wait for the future to get involved, [we should be] encouraging students to really have a say now, … and encouraging them to get involved and have those difficult conversations. If we don’t practice having these difficult conversations in a classroom, when we become adults, we’ve never had this practice. And then this skill was not developed.

Aragaki: When we have these conversations about what’s uncomfortable or who’s going to feel certain ways, let’s remember that our students come from diverse backgrounds. I may not have experienced every student in my class or their cultural upbringing. But quite honestly, I knew I was a person of color very early in my life. I knew I was different. And if we don’t have those conversations with students early on – people have different experiences, people feel different things – then we’re doing our students a disservice. We do a disservice by saying that only certain people’s stories matter.


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