Thanks for Teaching Me Out of My Comfort Zone

Last year, the week after Teacher Appreciation Week, Moe Liss, the teacher who had the greatest influence on my life of any teacher, was being honored near Paterson, New Jersey, my home town. I decided that no matter how many late night buses I had to take to get there and back, I had to attend — it was worth it to honor a great teacher. In celebration of this year’s Teacher Appreciation Week, I want to share my feelings about honoring the teacher who influenced me the most.    

The author in his office at the U.S. Department of Education. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

The author in his office at the U.S. Department of Education. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

It was great to be back in my home territory of Northern New Jersey with several hundred people of various ages that I recognized from my childhood. They were there to celebrate the contributions of Moe Liss, my high school teacher in economics, who went on to support many community causes and train many teachers at a local teacher’s college — a role he still plays in his youthful eighties.

My memories of Mr. Liss (I still cannot call him Moe) were not all pleasant. In his class, he challenged his students to think and learn and use the full range of their abilities. It was not always a happy or comfortable experience, but he always made me learn, and I always was improved by the experience, even though I may have not realized it then. He pushed me and other students way out of our comfort zones and taught me to be inquisitive and to think critically — skills that drive my thinking today and every day in my work at the Department. What he taught me then still serves me very well today — to be a lifelong learner and to use that learning to solve problems. He still drives me to think creatively, solve problems, and continually strive to improve.

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The Importance of Learning from Other Teacher Leaders


This year during Teacher Appreciation Week, I would like to express my gratitude for several organizations that appreciate teachers who want to grow as professionals while remaining in the classroom.

In recent years, I found that my greatest passion was to elevate our profession by focusing on the classroom teacher as a leader. This was a natural fit for me since I served for over 20 years in the U.S. Coast Guard, where I developed as a leader with formal leadership training. Much of my success as a teacher has been grounded in the leadership competencies I learned during my military career. I wanted to create similar leadership development opportunities for my colleagues.

So, how does a middle school science teacher from a small district in Massachusetts follow her passion to create leadership development opportunities for teachers? She takes advantages of national level leadership opportunities!

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What the Department Has Said About Teachers – It’s Worth a Listen

Much like America’s teachers, the U.S. Department of Education sometimes gets a bad rap.

You know the drill. So many times, the stories of frustrated teachers or bad apples get bigger play on social media and in the news than the stories of the millions of American teachers who, like my friends and colleagues, change lives every day. Meanwhile, federal policymakers get blamed for not being omnipotent, as many think they should be, or for not talking to real teachers. However, since the start of this school year, my Teaching Ambassador Fellow colleagues and I have spoken with literally thousands of teachers around the country and brought back to ED what we’ve heard.

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Listening to Teachers: Why It’s Important We Hear Your Voices

“Teachers have made a huge difference in my life. Among my key priorities this year is lifting up our nation’s teachers and the education profession. The Teaching Ambassador Fellowship and Teach to Lead are great steps in this direction. I am eager to work with the Fellows to do even more to support educators as they work to expand educational equity and excellence each day.” – Secretary (and high school social studies teacher) John King on the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship website.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Teaching Ambassador Fellows (TAF) are expected to learn about federal education policy, reach out to teachers and schools and reflect with Department of Education staff what they hear. As a Washington-based TAF, on leave from my school for the year, I have had the unique honor of bringing the voices of teachers I meet across the country directly into discussions at the Department of Education. One way we have done this recently is through monthly meetings we call Tea with Teachers.

Secretary King engages with teachers during a Tea with Teachers session in February. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Secretary King engages with teachers during a Tea with Teachers session in February. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

During Tea with Teachers, educators from across the United States are invited to come share their unique experiences with Secretary King and other staff members on key topics like teacher retention, challenges faced by Native American youth, meeting the needs of students who are refugees, creating safe learning spaces free from discrimination, and the unique problems faced by students who are undocumented.

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Enlisting Educators’ Wisdom to Implement the Every Student Succeeds Act

ED has held several listening sessions about the ESSA this year. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

ED has held several listening sessions about the ESSA this year. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Since President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law, I have seen Department of Education staff have to work quickly through minute details to figure out how to help make this new law work best for 50 million students in 100,000 schools around the country. It has been gratifying however, to also see these staff members pause to take the time it requires to go directly to hear from those who will implement the law. In doing so, our leaders turned to the Department’s resident educators – Teaching and Principal Ambassador and Leadership for Educational Equity Fellows – to organize listening sessions and school visits for them with nearly 1,000 teachers, principals, superintendents and administrators, parents, and community representatives from all manner of rural, suburban and urban settings in 16 states thus far and more sessions still to come.

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Everything You Need to Know About Financial Aid Resources for Teachers


We know that preparing to become a teacher can be expensive. Sometimes it’s tough to pay all of the bills on time, including student loans. But there are resources and programs out there that teachers can take advantage of and we’ve gathered them all here in one place just for you.

Under certain circumstances, you can get your federal student loans forgiven or even canceled.

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Our Most Popular Resources for Educators


Here at ED, one of our top priorities this year is to support teachers and elevate the teaching profession. To do so, we are working to make sure that the right information reaches teachers all across the country. Here are a few of our most popular resources to help support you in your classroom:

If You’re Currently in the Classroom

Check out our Teacher’s Edition newsletter. We’d love for you to sign up — and tell your friends! This weekly bulletin gathers the latest news and info for educators – and includes resources for teachers, by teachers. We’d also invite you to learn more about the Teach to Lead initiative and our Teaching Ambassador Fellowships and Principal Ambassador Fellowships.

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Heroic Hearts, Humble Outlooks During Teacher Appreciation Week

Last week, across the country, educators were celebrated during Teacher Appreciation Week. For our own part here at ED, we carried out a number of activities with the sole intention of expressing gratitude for those who’ve chosen this unsung profession. A lucky few of us listened in when Secretary Duncan called classroom teachers across several disciplines and in various parts of the country.

Although my interactions with educators here at ED remind me daily of the intelligence and genuine passion it takes to work as an educator, during our calls, I was struck by a humility that is unmatched in any other profession. In a day and age where tweets, social media posts and news stories are dominated by a celebrity’s dress or public figure’s snarky comment, truly remarkable acts of teachers’ kindness, support, and heroism are just part of what’s lost in the cyberspace of minute-to-minute broadcasts.

This week, that humility was so apparent in a three-word phrase that my Education Department colleagues and I heard time and time again: just a teacher. “I can’t believe you called me, I’m just a teacher.” “I never aspired to be anything other than just a teacher.” I’m not sure what to say, Mr. Secretary, I’m just a teacher.

Each of them, in turn, describing themselves in this way: I’m just a teacher.

From the young Albuquerque teacher who inspires her seniors to a college-attendance rate five times higher than the national average for Native students. To the Baltimore art teacher who wouldn’t allow riots just blocks from her campus to come between her students and their community beautification project on the morning after the worst of the city’s violence. To the true teacher leaders—who’d never think to apply that term to themselves—who decided to leave stable classroom assignments to work in disadvantaged schools with high-needs, struggling students to try and make a difference.

There’s a lesson here, for all of us, but it’s not one to be taught or explained. It’s demonstrated, in all those kind, supportive and heroic actions in classrooms and schools, humbly performed by individuals grateful for the opportunity to have a positive impact on the life of a child.

For teachers, everywhere, actions they do selflessly, every single day—Thank you!

Karen Stratman is the Director for National Public Engagement at the U.S. Department of Education.

#ThankATeacher During Teacher Appreciation Week!

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week!

Great teaching can inspire and affect the lives of students — and we wanted to share a few of those sentiments with you!

We asked students of all ages to give us their thoughts about their favorite teachers:








While we all agree teachers deserve a special day and week, the U.S. Department of Education wants to honor educators year-round.

Download your own graphic and tell us why you want to thank a teacher! Then share on social media using #ThankATeacher and help us spotlight great teachers across the country. Follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook for more. And get more inspiring info about teachers who are leading from the classroom through Teach to Lead.

Dorothy Amatucci is a Digital Engagement Strategist at the U.S. Department of Education.

How Teacher Shadowing Benefits ED Employees


Diana Schneider, an education program specialist at ED, engages with a student at H.D. Cooke Elementary in Washington D.C. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

I recently had the privilege to visit H. D. Cooke Elementary School in Washington, D.C.  The school has a population of 398 students with 44% English Language Learners (ELLs). I was shadowing Flora Lerenman, a 3rd grade English as Second Language (ESL) teacher.

Our morning started off with meeting with the instructional coach for literacy. The teachers shared their schedules to make sure the coach has the opportunity to watch and support all the teachers during the coming weeks. It was incredible to see the support and the resources available to the teachers that help them ensure the academic success of their students.

Furthermore, the success of any teacher comes from ongoing professional development, as well as the support and mentoring from the administrators. In the National Professional Development program within Office of English Language Acquisition, one of our goals is to improve instruction to ELLs and assist educational personnel working with these students to reach high professional standards. The team collaboration, support, and mentoring at H. D. Cooke Elementary was an example of supportive implementation as a team.

Without skipping a beat, Flora moved on to co-teaching writing with another 3rd grade teacher. They were focusing on synthesizing students’ biography research into original pieces. I was able to work with students in a small group.  The teacher, Ms. Rytter, was very welcoming and it was very encouraging to see that Flora is considered part of the class when it came to working with the students.

Next, Flora took some 3rd grader ESL students to the ESL classroom to provide guided reading instruction in small groups. She had three different reading level groups, comprised of students from different 3rd grade classrooms. This coordination was done on Flora’s own time, without any breaks.

The most memorable experience of the day was with one of the groups, which was reading the book I Hate English by Ellen Levine. This book was perfect in a class where English is the majority of the students’ second language, and the students could connect and relate to the story.

Having been through the acculturation process myself as a 6th grader, I found that I really related to the character in the story, as well as the students reading the book. I saw myself in those students and hoped my presence provided an encouragement.  Not only was I able to share my own stories with the students as an ELL, I was able to share and show students the Chinese language. It was wonderful to see the excitement in the students’ faces.  Even during lunch duty with Flora students were still asking how to say things in Chinese.

As a federal employee at the U.S. Department of Education, I often think about how we can support our teachers and allow them to maintain their passion and commitment to inspiring future generations. Teachers delight in the success of their students and I know that for so many their internal motivation is to help and grow each student that enters into the classroom.  We need to have more open dialogue and opportunities, such as this experience, in order for us to better support and provide resources to the educators to do the job that they are passionate about and committed to.

Diana Schneider is an education program specialist at the U.S. Department of Education.

Learning from Teachers Across the Country During Teacher Appreciation Week

One-hundred percent of Middle College High School’s graduating class is college-bound – and that’s no small feat, considering that a significant number of the students at the San Pablo, Calif., school are the first in their families to pursue higher education. Students there told our own Tayyaba Shafique that they credit this achievement to MCHS educators like social studies teacher Stephen Hoffman for building a family-like culture and providing one-on-one nurturing.


Students of pre-kindergarten teacher Anthony Bennett learn Spanish at the Elaine P. Drager Model Teaching Center in Atlanta, Ga. during a visit from ED’s Jonava Johnson. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Shafique, who works at our San Francisco office, was among nearly 70 Department of Education communicators from nine regional offices across the U.S. and Washington, D.C., to “shadow” educators in celebration of Teacher Appreciation Week May 5 – 9.   While regional team members routinely visit schools, this was a unique annual opportunity to see firsthand how some teachers are facing day-to-day challenges within their classrooms, which ranged from preschool to college in urban, rural, and suburban settings.

Martin Richburg, who works out of our Atlanta office, knows that gaining consensus among 4th grade boys is no easy task; however, he learned that math teacher Sharif Muhammad’s students consider him “their second father,” when he visited Hickory Flatt Charter Elementary School in McDonough, Ga. last week. Muhammad’s class is among the highest-achieving in the state, which Richburg credits to the teacher’s “no excuses” style.

With middle school achievement considered a vital link to adult success, several of our staffers observed innovative ways that teachers across the country are engaging pre-teens in learning:

  • Patrick Kerr, who works in our Kansas City office, went to Summit Lakes Middle School in Lees Summit, Mo., and observed science teacher Jenna Nelson’s class. Kerr watched the students describe weather phenomena while dancing to music, which is one of the many fun and interactive approaches Nelson uses to encourage her students to consider STEM careers.
  • A portrait of an ideal spouse was among many poignant stories presented by 7th graders in Rachel Rydzewski’s English class at Waunakee Middle School in Waunakee, Wis. Their performances showed Julie Ewart, who works in our Chicago office, how Rydzewski — 2010 Wisconsin Teacher of the Year — helps students understand why their stories matter and how they can become more confident writers.
  • Small teams of sixth-graders in award-winning math teacher Tangelia King’s class created models while learning to add and subtract integers in teams and impressed ED’s Malissa Coleman of Atlanta with their concentration at Carrie D. Kendrick Middle School in Riverdale, Ga.

While teachers’ ability to inspire students is key, Department of Education regional staffers also heard how educators are renewed by pupils’ energy and growth:

  • Jamison Chandler, director of jazz studies at KIPP AMP Middle School in Brooklyn, N.Y., told our own Jacquelyn Pitta that, “watching students grow from their first time picking-up instruments  to developing the competencies to perform gigs as artisans drives me to be the best educator I can be each and every day.”
  • Elaine Venard, an employee at our Kansas City office , observed New Mark Middle School teacher Jeremy Schneider talking to 8th grade choir students. During the visit, Schneider told the students that their singing put, “goose bumps on top of goose bumps”.
  • As she approaches the end of her teaching career, 7th grade math teacher Ellen Eckman of E.T. Richardson Middle School in Springfield, Pa. told Department of Education employee Elizabeth Williamson of Philadelphia that the most rewarding thing for her is seeing her students, “mature and achieve.”

Teachers are also finding fulfillment from school models that enable them to be leaders while they continue to teach.


Teacher Joan Maurer explains an exercise to a student in her 8th-grade English class at Roots International Academy, in Oakland, Calif., during a visit from ED’s Joe Barison. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Helen Littlejohn of our Denver office learned first-hand about the inspiring impact that the teacher-led structure at the Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy has had on bilingual kindergarten teacher Kim Ursetta. Ursetta participated in a roundtable discussion with Secretary Duncan and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock regarding the Teach to Lead initiative.

“We hold each other accountable for what we do every day,” Ursetta told the leaders and her colleagues during the discussion.

Julie Ewart is the director of communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education’s Chicago Regional Office.

Staff from the Office of Innovation and Improvement also shadowed teachers in the D.C. area for ED Goes Back to School. Learn more about their experiences.

Teachers’ Favorite Moments During Teacher Appreciation Week

What a week!

All year long, we at the U.S. Department of Education seek to bring teachers’ perspectives to our work and to understand, as much as possible, their classroom realities. Just last week, we hosted conversations with National Hall of Fame Teachers and State Teachers of the Year, and  every week of the year we talk with teachers about their work and what they need from us.

Still, Teacher Appreciation Week is different. During Teacher Appreciation Week we honor our nation’s educators in special ways.

The current and former teachers at ED compiled some of our favorite moments in a short list of memories that resonate with us.


Secretary Duncan chats with teachers during Marie Reed Elementary School’s Teacher Appreciation Breakfast (Photo credit: Leslie Williams/Dept. of Education)

ED Goes Back to School: Department staff working in Washington, D.C. and at the nine regional offices shadowed more than 70 teachers around the country. They prepped for their school visits by attending a pre-shadowing workshop hosted by teachers at ED, who offered insights into lesson planning. Through the extended visits, ED officials experienced slivers of insight into the complex and fast-paced world of teaching. At the end of the day, ED hosted a debriefing session and reception in which ED staff honored the teachers they shadowed, along with Secretary Duncan.

  • At J.A. Rogers Elementary in Kansas City, Mo., ED’s Jeanne Ackerson met Library Media Specialist Paula York’s unique co-worker: a live-in dog (a boxer) who helps to calm fears, relieve anxieties and teach skills to inner-city children. York said she gets great satisfaction when students leave her classroom with a love for reading. 
  • ED’s Jamila Smith, who observed third grade and kindergarten teachers Laura Arkus and Nicole Entwisle at Hyattsville Elementary School (Hyattsville, Md.), was the first to speak at the end-of-day debriefing. “These two teachers handled 21+ kids all day long and they never stopped,” she said. “Yet each kid was touched, each child was heard, and everyone was reached.”
  • After the day of shadowing Kalpana Kumar Sharma at Brightwood Education Campus (Washington, D.C.), ED’s Joy Silvern told the teachers who visited the Department, “We will only get the right answers [to address education challenges] if we stay grounded in your experience and knowledge.”
  • Shannon Schwallenberg teaches 3-year-olds at who are at a 6-month developmental level at Frances Fuchs Early Childhood Center (Beltsville, Md.). She explained to staff why teachers spend so much of their own money on school supplies. Though she receives six butterflies with her class butterfly kit, Schwallenberg said she buys more because, “I want each child to have the authentic experience of releasing their own butterflies.”

Teacher Social at the White House: Twenty-two enthusiastic teachers from around the country participated in a White House social with honorary “First Teacher of the United States” Dr. Jill Biden and Secretary Duncan.

  • Teachers’ tweets from the event were inspirational and fun. One (@TheMathLady) wrote, “Ya know, just another day of hanging out on the South Lawn of the White House.” Meanwhile, Teaching Ambassador Fellow Joiselle Cunningham got a little disoriented on the property and temporarily lost Secretary Duncan.  
  • Teaching Ambassador Fellow Lisa Clarke reported that while talking with the teachers, she heard Secretary Duncan repeat at least three lessons he had learned from listening to teachers who were shadowed by ED staff. “The teachers really were heard,” said Clarke, “and he learned from them.

Leadership Calls: Each day of the week, Arne Duncan called a teacher to thank them for their work and talk about their leadership. Here are highlights from two of the calls:

  • After failed attempts to reach him through a cell phone, Arne connected via landline with Mark Garner, a high school teacher at Camas High School (Camas, Wa.). The call, caught on video at the school, shows interesting interactions among Duncan, Garner and Garner’s ninth grade English class.
  • Prior to talking with Marca Whitten, who teaches at the Studio School in the Glassell Park community of Los Angeles, Calif., Duncan spoke with her principal, Leah Raphael. Raphael was a 2010 Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the Department, and when former boss Arne Duncan asked how she liked starting a school, she said, “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” Later, Whitten explained to Duncan how the school community chose Raphael as its principal. “We met and I knew within 30 seconds,” she said. “How did I know? Well, she speaks from the heart, she listens from the heart, and she’s smart, smart, smart.”

Marie Reed Elementary’s Teacher Appreciation Breakfast: Teachers were a little overcome by a surprise visit from Dr. Jill Biden and Arne Duncan during the Washington, D.C. school’s Teacher Appreciation Breakfast.

  • One fourth-year teacher with tears in her eyes said, “Jill Biden is a rock star… I only got to speak to her for a moment, mostly because I couldn’t even get words to come out of my mouth when she came to my table.”
  • Veteran teacher Maggie Davis talked with Duncan about retiring from the profession after 36 years of accomplished teaching. She said she feels good about the direction of the profession and how the vision of the principal has sharpened. She also said she believes that there is more good to come.

#ThankATeacher: ED added to the national #ThankATeacher conversation via social media by providing signs for folks to use to record why they are thankful for teachers and asking them to share pictures of them and their signs.

  • Teacher appreciation was contagious. The #ThankATeacher tweet with card from @usedgov reached potentially about half a million users, and the hashtag #ThankATeacher was used in over 42,000 Tweets during the last seven days.
  • The tweets from students, parents and teachers—including the State Teachers of the Year—reminded us all why we do this work. The simple student pictures thanking teachers for “being nice” and “teaching me division” really tug at our hearts.
  • Around the building, staff posted on doors and cubicle walls all manner of messages to teachers they have loved, thanking them for: “believing in me”; “not giving up, no matter what”; and “introducing me to bow ties.”

During Teacher Appreciation Week, it is nice to bring teachers cards and doughnuts. But it’s also a little bit strange because we wouldn’t take our doctor a cupcake or drop by an architect’s office to pass out cookies. At ED, we seek to appreciate teachers by actively trying to understand what they do.

Laurie Calvert is a 14-year National Board Certified Teacher from Asheville, North Carolina, and the Department’s Teacher Liaison.