WASHINGTON – President Obama honored over 50 teachers from each state and several U.S. territories last week for the National Teacher of the Year ceremony at the White House Rose Garden.
During his speech, Obama highlighted educators who did more than just the basics of “filling blackboards with numbers and diagrams,” but taught children virtues and values to cooperate and overcome obstacles.
“Today, we honor the dedicated professionals that help guide that critical development,” said Obama, who included the six Newtown, Conn. teachers as examples of compassionate teachers.
“In those moments, those brave teachers showed the world what they do is more than just educate kids. They embrace them and they nurture them and they love them. And we know that the men and women behind me do the same,” the president continued.
Among the selected men and women behind Obama was English teacher I'Asha Warfield of Oakland’s Frick Middle School, who was one of five other honorees from the statewide level to represent California. Warfield said her mother was more excited about the trip than she was.
“She’s beaming, the one running around saying, ‘My daughter is the California Teacher of the Year!’” Warfield said. “But, I’d say her reaction to seeing the Lincoln Memorial at night was the biggest thing of this whole trip.”
Despite her national success, Warfield wasn’t always clear about her path. The Los Angeles riots of 1992 invoked her to bring change.
“The LA riots happened on my 15th birthday. I was completely overwhelmed,” she said. “You’re 15, it’s your birthday and you’re on the floor looking at LA on fire.”
From there, the Moreno Valley (Riverside) native majored in sociology to learn about more issues and said she found herself even more overwhelmed. She knew she couldn’t solve all the world’s problems by herself, so she got her start in 2000 with Teach for America after college.
“If you teach, then you can inspire one kid to clean the environment. You can inspire another kid to fight against injustice,” she said. “You can have 150 kids a year and then you’re able to then ignite different things.”
She went on to describe how a visit from a former student, now in her twenties, reminded her why her biggest successes in teaching come from small examples.
“’Ms. Warfield, you gave me an award one day because I stood up for another kid.’ And on it, it says, ‘For defending those who can’t defend themselves’. And she remembered that,” said Warfield about the student. “You’re a middle school teacher who tells kids to spit out their gum, do this and that. So of all the things, those things matter. That young lady knows it’s right to defend those who can’t defend themselves. The small, little things like that have the biggest impact.”
Warfield, who did her Master’s in building curriculum around death and mourning, said her community also fueled her passion to stay at the same school where she was first placed.
“Almost every weekend, someone gets shot. It’s Oakland. It’s East Oakland,” she said about how her students’ well being affected their academic success.
The president also used the ceremony to push some of his initiatives with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, like preparing over 100,000 math and science teachers over the next decade.
“Teaching is a profession and it should be treated like one. And that means we're going to have to recruit and prepare and reward our next generation of great educators more effectively,” said Obama.
While Obama’s focus on education has mostly been about investing in science, technology, engineering and mathematics recently, the president acknowledged the need to maintain strong commitments to English, arts, and social studies, which represented the majority of the honored teachers’ fields.
Though the national award surprised her, Warfield said her lessons go beyond meeting testing standards.
“I think the biggest thing is that I’m a writing-driven teacher and a reflection-driven teacher,” she said. “They’re accountable for their learning. I’m the facilitator in my classroom.”
The California State Teacher of the Year said she’ll remain in education, even though there are pushes for her to go into administration.
“I do have ambitions. I mean, I’m standing at the White House and I rubbed elbows with Arne Duncan. But, I want to be in the classroom,” said Warfield. “The further you get from the child, then the further you get disconnected from the work and they become a number.”
Editor's Note: Written in collaboration with The California News Service, a journalism project of the University of California Washington Center. E-mail the California News Service at [email protected]