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What the National Teacher of the Year wants you to understand about schools

Missy Testerman, 2024 National Teacher of the Year, reacts as first lady Jill Biden looks on during the "Teachers of the Year" State Dinner. (Kent Nishimura/Getty Images)
Missy Testerman, 2024 National Teacher of the Year, reacts as first lady Jill Biden looks on during the "Teachers of the Year" State Dinner. (Kent Nishimura/Getty Images)

Missy Testerman is this year’s National Teacher of the Year. She’s been an educator for more than 30 years and currently teaches English as a second language in the small town of Rogersville, Tennessee.

Testerman spent the first few decades of her career teaching first and second graders and recently picked up ESL as a specialty. She says she knew she wanted to be a teacher from the moment she met her own Kindergarten teacher as a child.

“I had so many good teachers along the way and that just cemented the deal for me,” Testerman says.

5 questions with Missy Testerman

How did you come to teach ESL?

“The little’s just learning the language will always be my favorite. I did come into the ESL world after teaching for three decades, but I had been the teacher in the classroom who had always had the ESL students.

“I had a lot of relationships built with families over the years, and I was vested in these families. So when our teacher — our ESL teacher left — I figured out a way to become an ESL teacher and it is the absolute joy of my life.”

What’s it like to see students master a language?

“It is the most amazing feeling to go from, especially a child who is a newcomer who comes in with no English skills, maybe one or two words like ‘no,’ or sometimes they’ll come in knowing the word ‘toilet,’ because that is the word for bathroom. That’s pretty universal.

“But just hearing them be able to put sentences together, it starts with a couple of words. One word, and then it progresses to two words. And then before you know it, they’re able to do sentences. And it’s just wonderful.”

Why is it important for you to have relationships with your students’ parents too?

“I think in my situation, this is so important that I maintain open communication with my families because they see me not only as their child’s teacher, but also as a resource for their family.

“A lot of times they’re not familiar with how to do things in our community and I can kind of be the bridge into helping the entire family figure out things like how do we get a car tag? Where do we go to pay our taxes in person like our land tax?

“That part of the job really helps me bond with my families.”

If you could get lawmakers to focus on one issue facing schools, what would it be?

“We are in a mental health crisis right now. Anything from seeing disturbing levels of anxiety and depression in our middle school and high school students, and we’re getting a lot of young students who are coming into us and they’re unable to regulate their behavior in an appropriate way.

“I think that you’d be hard-pressed to find a teacher in America who does not point to mental health of students as the most pressing issue right now.”

What is a misunderstanding that people have about schools?

“There’s a misconception a lot of times about what goes on in schools, and that’s an across the country thing. And a lot of it is born out of the opinions of people who are not spending time in schools, particularly around subjects that are taught in the way that they are taught.

“My advice is, to anyone who’s concerned about that would be to number one, talk to your child. Your child’s at school. He or she knows how the day goes.

“Secondly, if you’re concerned, go to your child’s teacher, because they are the expert. They know what is going on in the school and people in internet chat rooms and things like that, they are not experts on what goes on in your child’s school.

“Open a line of communication with your child’s teacher and also with your child if you have concerns about things that are going on.”

Gabrielle Healy produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Micaela Rodriguez. Grace Griffin adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on

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