All Articles Education Events The remarkable impact of teachers who recommit to the teaching profession each school year

The remarkable impact of teachers who recommit to the teaching profession each school year

How the Smithsonian educators embrace the role of teachers, celebrate the impact of teachers, and help with educational ideas and resources.

6 min read


2023 National Teacher of the Year Rebecka Peterson delivered an inspiring keynote presentation at the Smithsonian National Education Summit.

Norwood Photography. 2023 National Teacher of the Year Rebecka Peterson delivered an inspiring keynote presentation at the Smithsonian National Education Summit in July.

“Because one teacher made a seat for me, I found my passion,” shared 2023 National Teacher of the Year, Rebecka Peterson, as she took the stage at the Smithsonian National Education Summit in July.

Teacher/student relationships matter

headshot of Ashley Naranjo for Smithsonian educators article

When you think about this quote, it’s quite remarkable that one teacher made such a lasting impact on a now nationally recognized educator. It’s not uncommon though. I’d bet if you take a moment to think about your favorite teacher, librarian, school leader or coach and what made them special, someone will come to mind that made a lasting impact on your life, career and the person you are today. Maybe it was how they made you feel — empowered, inspired or capable. Or maybe it was how they expanded your knowledge base — your appreciation for cultural traditions, your ability to imagine and create, or even your understanding of how math shows up in real-world applications.

Research tells us that if a student can connect with just one teacher who they feel has truly invested in them, it greatly increases their chances of long-term success. Students are more likely to be engaged at school and more motivated to succeed academically. As psychiatrist, author and thought leader Pamela Cantor shared during a keynote at the 2023 Smithsonian National Education Summit: Human connection is the primary energy source for the brain, a key to unlocking the potential in each and every learner.

Impact of teachers: The exponential impact of one

For Rebecka Peterson, that educator was her middle-school math and science teacher, Mrs. West, who told her that math was her “superpower,” allowing her to see herself in a new light. In addition to Peterson’s primary role as an educator, she also helps manage an online community of teachers who share their classroom stories on the “One Good Thing” community blog. The power of writing and supporting this community is in celebrating the successes of each school day and intentionally noticing and naming them.

Kalewa Correa (front) and Conrad Lihilihi (back) facilitate a workshop for the “Our Stories” program at Kanu o ka Aina Public Charter School.
Kalewa Correa (front) and Conrad Lihilihi (back) facilitate a workshop for the “Our Stories” program at Kanu o ka Aina Public Charter School. (Andrea Kim Neighbors)

Kalewa Correa, the curator of Hawaii and the Pacific with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, fondly recalls the mentorship he has received from Uncle Calvin Hoe, who illustrated the impact of teachers with his unwavering dedication to multigenerational learning, preservation of Native Hawaiian traditions and stewardship of the aina (land). In his role at the Smithsonian, Correa has led young storytellers in a digital storytelling initiative that uses a combination of traditional knowledge, native epistemologies and digital methodologies to capture traditional and contemporary narratives.

Jermar Rountree, the 2023 D.C. Teacher of the Year and the first Black health and physical education National Teacher of the Year finalist since at least 2005, shared the impact of teachers by talking about Mr. Parker, a substitute teacher from his middle-school through high-school years. Rountree credits him as the first teacher that not only looked like him as an African American male, but also who seemed like he truly wanted a better future for Jermar as a student, pushing him to succeed and seeing something in him that he didn’t see in himself at the time. Rountree now teaches health and physical education at Center City PCS-Brightwood Campus in Washington, D.C., where he is known for developing healthy minds and bodies among his young learners as well as for also building strong relationships with students and their families across all grade levels.

NASA astronaut Anne McClain says, “My heroes are absolutely teachers.” In a program with the National Air and Space Museum, McClain shared that she wouldn’t be where she is today without the impact of teachers who believed in her at the right times. She urges all of us to pick up the phone, open an email and thank a teacher. McClain most recently served as flight engineer on the International Space Station for expedition 58 and 59 and serves as an instructor astronaut for robotics, extravehicular activity and capsule communication.

As you head back to school this year, I hope you, too, will share your memories across generations and make personal connections with those around you about what has made learning most joyful for you. Think back to the impact of teachers who had an impact on your path, a project or assignment that you’ll never forget, or maybe a favorite field trip you took, games you played during recess or P.E., or even historical milestones that happened while you were in school. Turn these informal conversations or even first assignments of the school year to record and preserve these oral histories.

Smithsonian stamp
Smithsonian Institution Centennial stamp with the Smithsonian’s purpose as written by James Smithson in his will, which led to the founding of the Institution. (National Postal Museum)

The Smithsonian’s commitment to education

At the Smithsonian, our mission for over 175 years has been “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”  As National Museum of American History educator Carrie Kotcho notes, “…The Smithsonian has always been about learning since its inception. Education is grounded in the Institution’s history, its mission, vision and values, plus our scholarship. As a trusted source of information and educational resources, the Smithsonian is committed to supporting educators across the nation.”

Our free education resources span art and design, history and culture, and science and conservation for young learners to teens. These resources often take the form of online lessons and activities, professional learning opportunities for educators, field trips, interactive simulations and games, and events. If there’s an upcoming topic you’re teaching that could benefit from our support, drop us a note to discuss what resources our Smithsonian educators have available.

Our collections also document the impact of teachers through the stories of great educators, such as:

Ruth Asawa, who was a sculptor, teacher and fierce advocate for arts education in San Francisco.

Antonia Pantoja, who founded a nonprofit organization called Aspira (“to strive” in Spanish) that brought bilingual education to New York City public schools.

Alma Thomas, who taught visual art in Washington, D.C., and organized art galleries and activities at her school including puppet shows with student-created props and field trips to the Smithsonian.

Jaime Escalante, who taught math in East Los Angeles and worked tirelessly to provide Advanced Placement classes and academic opportunities for his students.

As Smithsonian Undersecretary for Education Monique Chism, shares, “At the Smithsonian, we have the utmost respect and admiration for teachers and educators who recommit to the profession each school year. Educators help students realize the best versions of themselves so our nation can become the best version of itself.”


Ashley Naranjo, education and outreach strategist, Smithsonian Office of the Undersecretary for Education

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 



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