In her 7th grade classroom, Nashville teacher Alesha Harmon’s goal is to give students “the tools and confidence they need to live inspired and purposeful lives.” Juan Vaca, a 12th grade teacher in Chicago, aims to create “a space for students to feel valued and supported as they learn.”
As the new school year begins, the Walton Family Foundation is celebrating the great work that Alesha and Juan, and all of our country’s teachers, do every day to prepare their students for a lifetime of opportunity.
“Every child deserves a teacher who recognizes their unique potential and unlocks a passion for lifelong learning,” says foundation board chair Carrie Walton Penner.
We asked Alesha and Juan what inspires them, what challenges them and what impact they hope to have on their students.
Alesha is a 7th grade math teacher at Valor Voyager Academy in Nashville, Tennessee, the proud parent of a Valor Flagship student, a passionate Zumba instructor and a former cheerleading coach.
What is your greatest responsibility as a teacher?
I am not the holder of all knowledge. Being a teacher means I am a facilitator for student learning and human development. Yes, as a math teacher, I want my students to be able to add and subtract. But more than that, I want them to be unafraid to share their perspectives and be willing to learn from their mistakes inside and outside of the classroom. My goal is to provide students with the tools and confidence they need to live inspired and purposeful lives.
What brings you the most joy from teaching?
The joy of teaching is helping my students find their voice. To help them see that the world is in their hands and that they can do anything. I get great satisfaction from ensuring kids understand there are many ways to see the world and teaching them to use their moral compass to determine what aligns with who they are and – that while others might not agree with them – to be comfortable with their values and expressing themselves.
What are the biggest challenges to being a teacher?
We need to do better at keeping good talent in the classroom. Many teachers think they have to go into admin because that is what is next. That is not the case. We need to have an open mind and find creative ways to keep good teachers in the classroom. One way to think differently, for example, is to have teachers also be part-time coaches or leaders. Teachers are always going to take feedback better from fellow teachers. Why not let teachers also have leadership roles?
Juan is a Relay Graduate School Resident and 12th grade teacher at Southside Occupational Academy, part of Chicago Public schools, in Chicago, Illinois. It’s a transition high school for exceptional learners aged 16-22, which offers classes in daily living, social learning and vocations, including horticulture and carpentry. In his spare time, Juan likes to walk his 6-year-old German Shepherd, spend time with family and friends and travel.
What do you want your students to leave your classroom knowing or feeling?
As a vocational teacher, I want my students to feel prepared to embark on their careers and be contributing members of society. I want to give students the tools they need to succeed in their occupations. Equally important, I want my students to believe in themselves. As a teacher of exceptional learners, I want my students to be independent, confident and advocate for themselves. Our inclusive community offers a space for students to feel valued and supported as they learn and develop personally and professionally.
How would you like to see the teaching profession grow?
As teachers, we get to know our families and students on a personal level. Families and students rely on us to be committed to our profession. I have heard from parents that it is difficult for them when teachers leave because they have developed a great working relationship with them. Developing these relationships often takes time for both families and teachers. For that reason, I would like the teaching profession to be a career as opposed to a temporary job. We need more career teachers who will be committed to their communities. It is vital for all facets of government to understand the value teachers are as human resources within the educational system. We want to encourage highly qualified teachers to stay in the classroom longer to be a vital resource for the families and students they educate.
How can teachers make their voices heard beyond the classroom?
As teachers, we need our voices to be heard more at all levels of government. As professionals who work every day with our students, our perspective will inform bureaucrats and elected officials who may not have teaching experience as to what our students need to excel in the classroom. We need to participate in civic life and work with our elected and appointed officials to ensure that they put our students’ best interest at the forefront of legislation, especially for students with disabilities. We also need to help them understand the impact of educational policies in the long run by using data to inform their perspectives.