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National Teacher of the Year finalist: “Lean into those parts that you’re excited about”

High-school math teacher Rebecka Peterson, a finalist for the 2023 National Teacher of the Year, is Oklahoma's 2023 Teacher of the Year.

14 min read

EducationVoice of the Educator

NTOY finalists 2023 logo

Council of Chief State School Officers

The Council of Chief State School Officers has selected five finalists for National Teacher of the Year from a cohort of 55 educators. The winner will be announced in the coming weeks.

Rebecka Peterson, a 10th- through 12th-grade math teacher at Union High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has been teaching for 14 years. She is the state’s 2023 Teacher of the Year and has been touted for an 87% pass rate in her Advanced Placement calculus class and her passion for making math exciting and accessible for all students.

SmartBrief recently asked Peterson about the importance of learning students’ stories, collaborating with other teachers and learning how to find one good thing every day, among other topics. 

This Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity and space. 


SmartBrief: A lot is asked of teachers in the US, often without getting a lot in return (whether pay, recognition or support). What can school districts and/or principals do to help teachers who are tapped out, retain educators and recruit new ones when the job can sometimes seem so overwhelming? 

headshot of Rebecka Peterson for article on National Teacher of the Year finalists 2023

Peterson: So as I’ve been traveling around Oklahoma, the second question I asked every single teacher was “How do we recruit and retain highly effective educators?” Pay does come up, and I can tell you it does play into it. But unequivocally, every single teacher I’ve asked says it comes down to respect and appreciation. 

I think there are creative ways to show our respect as communities. Let’s talk about districts offering child care to staff and faculty. Let’s talk about paid paternity and maternity leave. Let’s have conversations regarding robust mentorship programs so that our young or our new teachers feel supported and our veteran and our career teachers can move up without moving out of the classroom.

Let’s have conversations about creating comprehensive wellness programs for our teachers because they carry so much secondary trauma, and then let’s be intentional about providing trauma-informed practices and curriculum — social-emotional learning curriculum for our teachers —  because our students’ cry for mental health care is piercing our hearts. Let’s find science-based curriculum that we can offer to our teachers. There is so much healing that we need to do post-pandemic.

I would just really encourage those who are not in the classroom to sit with teachers and learn their stories. I’m a strong believer that opinions don’t change us, so I could talk to you about facts all day long [and nothing would change]. But stories often change [people], right? So we take the time to get to know a teacher and have that connection and better advocate for one another. I think it’s time that we sit with teachers.

SmartBrief: We hear so much about teachers who want to make all students feel valued and gifted and capable of great things, and the importance of connecting with them — learning about a student’s home life, going to their sports or extracurricular activities. Do you have tips for ways to do this that won’t encroach into a teacher’s personal time or have some out-of-the-ordinary ways to connect?

Peterson: I think the vast majority of teachers lean into those pieces that heal us. When I go to a [student] football game, I bring the whole family. It’s a family event. It’s not encroaching on our personal time. It’s not in our job description, nor is it a “duty.” It’s something we get to do. 

I think that is what is so beautiful about this profession: I get to come home and feel like I connected on a deep level. Being in this profession means I’m able to offer that connection to others, to be able to feel that connection myself. I have so much autonomy and creativity to choose how I get to support my students both in and out of the classroom. 

It is such a responsibility that we hold as teachers, but it’s such a privilege to get to be a part of their lives like this. As I tell new teachers all the time: “Can you think about the impactful teachers that were in your life? Now, understand that students are going to be picturing you as one of their impactful teachers years, decades down the road.” I don’t know of any other profession that’s like this, where people years down the road remember us not just for teaching calculus but more because we showed up to that baseball game or choir concert where we were their number one fan. 

So I tell teachers: Be yourself. Lean into those parts that you’re excited about and share that excitement with your students. It is a privilege. 

Binary thinking can get us into such trouble, to say, “It is work and can never be a work of the heart.” Maybe we need both.

SmartBrief: Behavior problems seem to have increased among students since the beginning of the pandemic, but this issue has always existed. What are your classroom management strategies for dealing with disruptive behavior and regaining control of the room? Is it different now than in the past?

Peterson: It all comes down to knowing our students’ stories. I do this maybe a little bit unconventionally: At the beginning of each year, I sit with each of my students one-on-one to learn their stories during noninstructional time. I’ve learned to lean in and learn how they learn or learn about their background. And they can tell me as little or as much as they want. It takes 10 weeks to learn all their stories, and those are heavy weeks. 

I come from a district where we have 62 languages represented. Oh my gosh, we have a lot of diversity! A lot of beauty, a lot of complex and rich stories. But when we are intentional about listening to these stories, then the space shifts, and there’s more room for empathy, and there’s more room for hope. There’s this atmospheric shift after these techniques, and that’s just a sense that we belong to each other. Then, because of that, in general, the students want to be in class, and they want to be together, and they want to learn and want to deal with each other. So that is how I do it. Every teacher is different. 

So when it comes to behavior, my go-to is to just gently pull the child aside and say, “Have I done something wrong? Are you and I OK?” And it just immediately reconnects us. Always assume the best intentions, and always protect that connection. I don’t want to ever give something that might hinder that connection. I always want to try to reestablish the connection. So just making sure that the student always knows I am in their corner, [and] that, to me, our relationship is more important than solving quadratic equations today. 

Does that mean we’re going to make excuses? Connection doesn’t make excuses; connection makes room. The right connection allows us to hear that full story. It empowers us to elevate student voice. 

What I feel very strongly about right now is a new study out of Stanford that suggests that adolescent brains are scanning [during] this post-pandemic the same way that only brains pre-pandemic that have undergone trauma pre-pandemic have. That’s very sobering, because it suggests we may be teaching a whole generation of trauma-filled students. 

We have to be very aware of that, because that means strategies need to shift a bit. I think we need to really lean into the work of community schools and alt-ed schools because they have been opening their arms wide to students of trauma for decades. So it’s important now more than ever that we listen very carefully to the people who have been practicing trauma-informed instruction for decades.

SmartBrief: Collaboration with teachers and administrators seems like a thread that ties together all the National Teacher of the Year finalists. What does successful collaboration look like? What are your favorite collaboration tools to engage and learn with other teachers, whether in your school or district or beyond? 

Peterson: I’ve gotten to travel so much in Oklahoma this year. It’s been so interesting to talk to people who have stayed in their building for 10, 15 years. They’re validated, they’re supported, they get say in choice-building decisions. There’s this very profound sense that they’re held by their administration. 

I would not be sitting in front of you right now if it weren’t for a principal, Lisa Witcher, I had when I started at Union High School who was just, and still is, a fierce advocate and ally. She pushed me. She challenged me. But she also searched for spaces where I could grow. She is just such a champion. Principals, I find, ask teachers to build relationships, build relationships, build relationships. My principal models that. So, to me, a strong collaboration with my principal means we have that connection, that I feel safe, that I get to take ownership on learning, just like I expect my students to take ownership of their learning, that I have autonomy in my pathway just as my students have autonomy in their pathways. That, to me, is essential. 

The other piece I see [when traveling as Oklahoma Teacher of the Year] is principals who really just fill my cup. When I come in, they greet me. They are ready to show me every single classroom and tell me about every single teacher in that building. I knew they just own their building and they celebrate their buildings. And I was, like, “That’s the kind of school I would want our son to go to.”

When principals celebrate their teachers and celebrate our students and celebrate each other — when we see our principals working hard — it makes us want to work hard. So just that mutual respect and collaboration is crucial. 

In terms of collaborating with my peers, my favorite way was pre-pandemic [professional learning communities]. Every single Friday, our students came about 45 minutes late, and we got to just sit in our content areas and talk about what we’re going to go through the next week. We can say, “My class struggled on radical functions. How did you teach it?” And we could share an assessment or look at common assessments. And so, when I was a new teacher, this was just incredibly safe for me because I felt like my team’s got me. I have a calendar I can go by if I want to know what I’m going to teach next week. But  I don’t have to reinvent the wheel [because the teachers shared so generously], or I can do up pieces myself anyway. 

[My peers created] a foundation there. They were huge for me as a new teacher. And then as a career teacher, it’s been such a joy to be able to watch new teachers blossom together and to give teachers voice and validate their ideas and make our ideas even more powerful together. That was just such a gift. I’m very sad to say this never came back post-pandemic.

Another thing is we created a digital calendar, and any time anyone was doing a cool activity or project or lesson — something that maybe you’d want to come watch during your planning period — you could go pop in for five minutes, 10 minutes, a whole hour. It’s not tied to an evaluation; it’s just, “I want to learn from you.” It was so powerful because it was totally organic: peers and colleagues saying, “Let’s learn from each other.” … I feel like when teachers see teachers, they change our trajectory in a positive way. It empowers teachers to celebrate each other. 

I also have my Twitter and blog friends. There’s a really strong community of math teachers, and we have this thing called Twitter Math Camp. We’re just a bunch of people that met a bunch of math teachers on Twitter, and then every summer we would get together at different cities. It was just such a joy to meet my professional learning community that was virtual. They’ve been a really big part of my professional development.

SmartBrief: I love that you blog on “One Good Thing.” It sounds a little like a spin on a gratitude journal. How has that activity changed your teaching (and your outlook)? How have your classroom’s Free Write Fridays changed your students? Do you see more respect, graciousness and kindness? 

Peterson: I started my teaching career at the college level. After three years there, I decided to teach at the high-school level.  I was so naive! How hard could it be? How different can it be?  In college, I was in a classroom where students were paying to hear what I had to say. The next semester, I go to the classroom where students were basically forced by the government to hear what I have to say.  It was really hard, and I did not think I had what it took. I thought, “I can’t do this. I can’t teach how to graph a line one more time.”

And then serendipitously, I stumbled upon this blog called “One Good Thing.” The teachers there have committed to writing about good things in their classrooms. We live by this mantra that says every day may not be good, but there’s one good thing in every day. The simplicity, but also the honesty, of that quote hit me so viscerally.  

At first, I’d have to mentally go through my day and try to remember something good. And then, entering into my second year, there was at some point a shift where I would start seeing the good throughout my day, and I feel I’ll write about that. 

Then I learned about the brain science behind it. It is so clear that when we’re intentional about finding the good, it shows us out of that downward spiral and allows us to start seeing beauty all around us. I didn’t know how hard this job was going to be, but I also didn’t know how good it’s going to be. 

So then somewhere along the line, there was yet another shift. I went from actively seeing the good to then proactively wanting to create the good and wanting to bring good into my classroom every day. Instead of being why that was good, it was like, “What am I going to write about tonight? What’s going to be good?” I wanted to bring that good. … So it was transformative for me on both a professional and a personal level.  It didn’t ignore the fact that my job was difficult, but it had me take ownership of my day. Eventually, I just saw that I love who I am when my students bring out the best in me.

I don’t remember when I started this with the students. They have math notebooks where they take notes and where they work their problems.  On the very last page of that journal on the first day of school, I asked them to title it One Good Thing, and then every Friday, I play music and they take a couple minutes to just kind of stream-of-consciousness-like write about something good. And I always say, “If it wasn’t a good week, I’m sorry; I’ve been there too. But even if it wasn’t a good week, find one good thing.” 

Kids would be like, “Yeah, that was the best part of your class.” But then, eventually, I started getting messages on social media like, “Yeah, I kept up that journaling habit,” “I just jot something good in my phone every day,” or “I keep a bulleted journal, and I just got my thousandth good thing today. I thought you’d want to know.”

It’s just such a powerful thing — and a little bit terrifying — that you as a teacher have the power to instill habits that could last your students a lifetime.

Diane Benson Harrington is an education writer at SmartBrief. Reach out to her via email, Twitter or LinkedIn

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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