Kentwood — Rebecka Peterson, the 2023 National Teacher of the Year, discovered a connection with senior Kamaria Stewart while meeting with the East Kentwood High School Student Advisory Committee: Both of them know what it’s like to feel underrepresented.
Kamaria, who is interested in computer science, talked about her computer programming class.
“In my class there’s a lot more guys there. There are roughly five or six girls in our class,” Kamaria said.
“You are right; we are incredibly underrepresented in STEM,” responded Peterson, who has two degrees in mathematics with an emphasis in advanced calculus. “I was often the only girl in the class.”
Peterson spent Wednesday making those kinds of connections in Kentwood Public Schools with students and teachers. Along with the student group, she led a roundtable discussion with teachers, sharing her story as a high school math teacher at Union High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Peterson is traveling the United States for about 250 engagements this year, bringing attention to the importance of excellence in teaching. Her focus is on elevating teachers’ stories about the good happening in the classroom as a way to support students, educators and the teaching profession.
“Rebecka’s values and the values of our district are in close alignment,” said Superintendent Kevin Polston. “She puts relationships at the core of what she does, and that’s who we are at KPS. Anytime we can bring leaders at the national level to our district, it’s always a great opportunity for our kids.”
Last year, as Oklahoma Teacher of the Year, she created the Teachers of Oklahoma campaign to share the stories of teachers across Oklahoma.
“We are in this profession where people will hold us in their hearts for years and decades to come,” she told Kentwood teachers. “We became educators because the world deserves people who will take care of each other.”
Seeing the Good
Peterson, an immigrant of Swedish-Iranian descent, became a high school teacher 11 years ago after teaching for three years at a collegiate level. She said the transition was so difficult she considered quitting.
Her mindset began to shift after she stumbled upon a blog called One Good Thing, on which teachers write about good things in their classrooms. The idea is that “every day may not be good, but there is one good thing in every day,” she said.
She started blogging daily, at first searching for something “kind of” good each day. After a while, she began noticing good things everywhere.
“It is such an intentional practice of gratitude which then morphs into joy and it builds this resilience in you,” she said. “I didn’t know how hard this job was going to be; I also didn’t know how good it was going to be.”
She’s noticed how that kind of intentionality can help other teachers as well. Those with the “ability to tuck those beautiful moments away” use them to get through the hard times.
It’s important to share the positive, she said, challenging teachers as a collective to “be the one good thing” and stand together in owning their stories. She encouraged them to find a way to document the good through video, voice diaries, blogs or other ways they might prefer.
“We have such powers as educators. We know we are in a teacher crisis no matter if we are in Michigan or Oklahoma,” she said. “If we don’t own our collective story and our personal story, I’m afraid of who’s going to take charge of that narrative. It’s our responsibility to share about how beautiful this profession is.”
More Ways to Empower Each Other
Kentwood teachers shared their thoughts on creating belonging in their classrooms, another major focus of Peterson’s. They discussed focusing on the whole child instead of test scores and supporting young teachers.
John Conlon, a fifth-grade teacher at Endeavor Elementary, said Peterson’s message should be spread even more.
“Everything she said was super positive and she was focused on empowering kids.” Conlon said. “That’s what drives her every day. I think our young teachers need to hear that, because I think when you start teaching you get bogged down with all the other stuff and you don’t see the forest for the trees.”
During the high school session, students discussed the culture of their school, diversity, opportunities, individual accomplishments and what they would like Peterson to share on a national platform.
‘We became educators because the world deserves people who will take care of each other.’– 2023 National Teacher of the Year Rebecka Peterson
Junior Alayna Godfrey said she wants to spread the word that educators should try new things.
“There’s not one right way to do something … there are so many different ways to educate people. There are so many different ways to teach and go about it, so I definitely think (experimenting) is something that we shouldn’t be afraid of.”
As for Kamaria, she was glad she got to talk to Peterson about her interest in STEM.
“It gave me more of a voice,” she said. “I normally don’t talk at these kinds of meetings; now someone more well-known has the same thinking I have as a person in STEM. It gives me a way to open up more.”