I never could predict what might happen in Mr. O’Neil’s art classes; I just knew I couldn’t wait for the next assignment. Back then I didn’t realize all the ways this dynamic educator, a rare man of color leading our diverse classroom of second graders, was serving as a pioneer and role model for me and my peers in John Barry Elementary School. But I’ll never forget how his teaching made me feel. As a second grader, I remember looking up — watching him encourage, challenge and guide us – and thinking: “I want to be like him.”
In the years since embracing that calling and starting my career as a classroom teacher, I’ve kept that sense of purpose and wonder. And my goal in all the administrative roles I’ve held is to facilitate great teaching and learning: to support and expand the transformative impact that skilled, caring classroom teachers have for students, schools, and communities.
Every day America’s teachers change lives, and every day those lives change the world.
Now, this truth can seem to recede as you rush to keep up with the day’s intense pace, and your students’ needs and opportunities. Yet, from the first bell on the first day of the school year, you build a relationship with each of them. You learn their strengths and struggles, laugh with them, cry with them, worry over them, cheer for them – and at the end of the school year, help them transition to their next grade level adventure. You know all those experiences – both the academic and life lessons – have changed both you and them for the better. You empower them to grow in skill and character — expand their understanding of the world and how to shape it — explore their interests and decide where to make their mark.
Teaching is not a job anyone just falls into. It is mastery of a craft: in fact, the craft that enables all the others. In my experience, great teachers are also quintessential lifelong learners. You use your command of learning science, your insights into your students’ unique needs and aptitudes, as well as the lessons of the past, the realities of the present and the inspiration, innovation and ingenuity of the future to help each new generation become leaders for today and tomorrow. Throughout the year you support your fellow educators, add to your tools through professional development, provide feedback on assignments, sponsor sports, service learning, clubs and other extracurricular activities, collaborate with parents — in addition to everything you pour into your students during class.
Even in this unprecedented year, you rallied, finding new ways to engage with students. In the face of tragedy, you learned new technologies and built virtual classroom communities, all while caring for yourselves and your own families. As we heal, recover, and rebuild, this pandemic presents a chance to forge opportunity from crisis and reimagine education on every level. We will use this time to address inequities in our education system, and your contributions will be invaluable. The work won’t be easy, but the impact of your success will be profound, for students and communities. I urge state, local, and elected officials to make sure classroom teachers have a voice in your plans and efforts to reimagine education; second to parents, they know our students best.
I look forward to learning and listening from you in the days ahead. And, from all of us at the Department of Education: Happy Teacher Appreciation Week. There’s a reason teacher like Mr. O’Neil – and all of you – are memorable. There’s a reason student in America’s classrooms watch you share your curiosity, energy and passion for ideas and think, “I want to be like them.”
You are embodiments of possibility, champions of your students’ potential and stewards of their success.
Dr. Miguel A. Cardona, U.S. Secretary of Education