The National Teacher of the Year Award: A ‘Call to Service’ or a ‘Popularity Contest’?

This year’s announcement of the five finalists for National Teacher of the Year brought with it the usual excitement, anticipation, and pride—as well as some concerns from other educators.

The national contest, which began in 1952, is meant to be one that celebrates and honors inspiring teachers and recognizes the importance of teaching. But some Education Week readers wrote on Facebook that they worried that the competition pitted teachers against each other and that the requirements to enter were a barrier for teachers who have responsibilities outside of school.

One educator wrote, “All teachers are teachers of the year.” Another said that in her experience, “the best teachers never get nominated.”

Past finalists and honorees have said the process of being considered for National Teacher of the Year was a humbling experience that allowed them to advocate for the profession they love. It’s not meant to elevate some teachers at the expense of others, they said, but rather allow them to represent the needs of teachers and students on a national level.

“This award isn’t about being the best teacher, it’s about being chosen to represent teachers by building relationships and connections, gently but firmly holding others accountable, correcting the record when needed, and pulling up your own seat to the table,” Linda Rost, the 2020 Montana Teacher of the Year and a finalist for the national award, wrote in an email. “It also takes a lot of bravery, but so does teaching.”

The road to becoming National Teacher of the Year is lengthy. Teachers are nominated for their state’s teacher of the year program by their school, district, or other community members, including students and parents. (In some states, they can nominate themselves.) Then, the state teachers of the year apply for the national honor, which is organized by the Council of Chief State School Officers.

A selection committee of representatives from more than a dozen education organizations combs through the applications and picks four finalists—or five this year, for the first time in more than three decades—for the top prize. The finalists go through a series of interviews, and the national winner is named in the spring.

The National Teacher of the Year is released from classroom duties for a year to “shine a light on the vital role of teachers in this country,” according to CCSSO’s website. The teacher typically speaks at more than 150 events across the country to advocate for students and the profession. Many past winners have focused on an issue of choice during their yearlong sabbatical.

“State teachers of the year, and the National Teacher of the Year, take seriously the responsibility to represent the educators in their states and the United States, respectively,” Carolyn Phenicie, CCSSO’s spokesperson, wrote in an email. “We are grateful for those who work on State Teacher of the Year programs and the members of the National Teacher of the Year Selection Committee for making the difficult decision in choosing state teachers of the year, finalists and the National Teacher of the Year from among many outstanding candidates.”

Here’s what EdWeek’s social media followers had to say about the award.

There’s an unfair barrier to entry for some

I wonder how many of the nominees have children and/or aging parents they have to care for. It oftentimes seems to me that nominees tend to skew young and relatively unencumbered with familial demands. It would be interesting to do a study of the last few decades’ worths of nominees (and the winners) to see if this is a real trend or if I’m just imagining it. I honestly don’t know.

Jessica L.

Totally see it too. Since you have to write an essay about yourself and collect multiple letters once nominated, it’s very time-consuming at the state and national levels. I’d rather spend my free time with family and friends.

Kelly O.

It pits teachers against each other

When did teaching become a competition?

Ramona G.

Popularity contest.

Jennifer R.

All teachers deserve the distinction

Most teachers are “teacher of the year”, working their hearts out. I hate these awards whether local or national.

Jeff V.

All teachers are teachers of the year. You’re lucky to have them. They all work very hard and do things not many can handle. Doing competitions like these are stupid and an offense to the career.

Chris T.

Past finalists say the award can have a big impact

Chris Dier, the 2020 Louisiana Teacher of the Year and a finalist for the national honor that year, said he understood some of those concerns.

“Some of the best teachers I’ve ever [met] in my life are not getting recognized,” he said.

The award isn’t meant to signal that anyone is a better teacher than others, he said. Instead, finalists and honorees should view it as a “call to service” that comes with a “responsibility and obligation” to elevate not just their own students, but all students.

“We have a moral obligation to be responsible with that platform and use it in a way to elevate others as opposed to ourselves,” he said. “[The honor] is not the end-all-be-all; now your advocacy work is just beginning, and on a wider scale than what you were doing in your own community.”

The finalists for the 2023 National Teacher of the Year are Harlee Harvey, a 1st-grade teacher in Point Hope, Alaska; Carolyn Kielma, a high school science teacher in Bristol, Conn.; Jermar Rountree, a preschool-8th grade physical education and health teacher in the District of Columbia; Kimberly Radostits, an 8th-12th grade Spanish teacher in Oregon, Ill.; and Rebecka Peterson, a high school math teacher in Tulsa, Okla.

Rost, the 2020 finalist, said that each has a unique perspective to bring to the table.

“This honor can also profoundly impact the public, and I think the finalists can optimize their impact by just being real when they talk with the public about the joys and challenges they face in teaching. This can also empower other teachers to speak up about their experiences,” Rost wrote, adding that the general public too often doesn’t understand the real work of teaching. “The finalists now have a chance to ‘teach’ the world what it is actually like to be a teacher, and also inspire and encourage other teachers to stay in the work.”

She added: “My hope for the finalists is that they can bask in the honor of being called to represent such an incredible profession. … It is also an incredible honor for their state, and they are making history. This can and does affect the way the general public sees education in their state, which is a big deal.”