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Feature Article

Meet 2023 National Teacher of the Year Rebecka Peterson

Peterson, a high school math teacher in Oklahoma, has been selected as the 2023 National Teacher of the Year. Her focus? Student relationships and finding the good in every day.
rebecka peterson teacher of the year Oklahoma State Department of Education
2023 National Teacher of the Year Rebecka Peterson with one of her students.

Key Takeaways

  1. Oklahoma's Rebecka Peterson focuses on getting to know her students as people, meeting individually with them to hear their stories.
  2. She also focuses on finding the good in every day. When you practice finding the good, the good gets even better, she says.
  3. As an immigrant to the U.S., Peterson also celebrates our nation's diversity—and the role that teachers have in celebrating and protecting it.

As National Teacher of the Year, Rebecka Peterson has a simple message for her colleagues around the nation: Thank you.

Those were the first two words in English that Peterson learned, as a child, when her Iranian-Swedish missionary parents immigrated to the United States. As a child, Peterson was deeply grateful to the teachers who taught her to read, who protected her from bullies that laughed at her unpronounceable last name, who whispered to her, “Rebecca, math is your superpower!”

As a child, I learned from you. I believed in you. I walked alongside you. And I still do,” Peterson said, in a direct message to her fellow teachers, on CBS Mornings on Wednesday.

Today, she is thankful for her colleagues—both as a teacher and a parent herself—for reminding her “that there is no such thing as somebody else’s child,” she wrote in her teacher of the year application.

“What a gift you are to our country,” she wrote. “You lead our students to become the best version of themselves… You illuminate that ever-important lesson: the future belongs to the curious.”

Especially today, as it is clear how equal rights are not guaranteed to women in the U.S., nor to immigrants, People of Color, and LGBTQ+ people, Peterson appreciates how her peers “carry our mission that everyone belongs and is worthy of a high-quality education... Our diversity is our strength. All are welcome. Every voice gets equal representation. That is the heartbeat of our country and we, as teachers, safeguard that every day.”

Tapping Joy and Forming Bonds

Peterson has taught math—from algebra to Advanced Placement calculus—at Union High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for 11 years. Today, at least 11 of her former math students are teachers themselves.

She models vulnerability and openness, focusing on authentic student relationships and finding joy in the classroom. “The best teachers understand how their roles are not just about contributing to an excellent education, but also to their community. And Rebecka is certainly one of those teachers,” said NEA President Becky Pringle. “Her ability to tap into students’ joy and form authentic bonds and her dedication to making learning truly accessible embodies what it means to be an outstanding educator.”

Her efforts to get to know her students are intentional. On the first day of school, Peterson tells students about her experience as an immigrant to the U.S., how she had lived in four countries by the age of 16, and how she felt like she “was on the outside, looking in.” Then, she schedules appointments with every student so that she can get to know them too. These conversations can be as long as two hours long, she recounted in her application. “Their stories brought me to my knees—nearly every student had gone through some form of adversity or trauma, often more monumental than anybody had realized.”

Trust is built. Kindness is generated. When Peterson revealed herself to her students and took the time to know them, “Class began to flow differently,” she said. “Peace, calm, and trust permeated the room. We belonged to each other.”

One Good Thing

When Peterson was just starting out as a teacher, she “truly didn’t think she’d make it,” she writes. Her students’ needs were so great. And she didn’t feel adequate to the challenge of meeting them. Then she discovered the collaborative One Good Thing blog, where teachers post about “one good thing” that happened in their classrooms or careers. Maybe it was a lesson that soared. Or maybe it was just great snacks at the department meeting. The idea of the blog is that “every day may not be good, but every day there is (at least) one good thing worth sharing.”

I credit this blog to saving my career,” Peterson says. One day, she decided to go from reader to writer, and she created a post. “The next day I did the same. And then the again the third day. And eventually, I got to 1,400 days of posting good things,” she wrote on the blog recently. “More importantly, eventually my brain started shifting to notice the good all around me—to celebrate the beauty even in the middle of pain.

By focusing on the good, her perspective changed, she says. “I started viewing myself as a teacher different, and my students differently,” she says. “When we are intentional about finding the good, we practice our joy. And when we practice our joy, we build our strength.”

Writing about the good that happens in her classroom every day has been one of the two practices that define her as a teacher, says Peterson. (The other? Making time to get to know her students.)

Looking Ahead

As the 2022 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year, Peterson has traveled around the state, meeting with other teachers, finding their good things, and posting them to her social media accounts as part of the Teachers of Oklahoma project.

 “I believe we’re not in a teacher shortage. I believe we’re in a teacher crisis in this state,” she says. “Certainly, we need to increase teacher pay and support staff pay. We also need to work in our communities to make sure teachers feel valued and loved… for me that begins by celebrating the important work that our teachers do for our students, our families, and our communities every day. We are what we celebrate.”

Now, as National Teacher of the Year, an award granted by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), Peterson will have a national platform to showcase the work of teachers—with the goal of encouraging current teachers and attracting new teachers to the profession. “Despite the challenges of the past few years, joyful, innovative learning is taking place in classrooms across the country every day. I look forward to the new ways Rebecka will help shine a light on the stories of good things happening in our schools,” said CCSSO Chief Executive Officer Carissa Moffat Miller.

On Wednesday, Peterson described the power of her profession. “I can’t think of any profession where the people literally hold you in their hearts!”

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