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Pelham Examiner

National Teacher of the Year tells Pelham faculty how ‘One Good Thing’ changes everything

Rebecka Peterson, the 2023 National Teacher of the Year, speaks to the Pelham school district faculty.

To kick off the superintendent’s conference day Friday with an uplifting address, Superintendent Dr. Cheryl Champ welcomed Rebecka Peterson, the 2023 National Teacher of the Year, to speak to the district’s faculty.

Champ, Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Dr. Alice Bowman and Colonial Principal Rachael Garcia first met Peterson in Washington, D.C., when they were accepting Colonial School’s National Blue Ribbon Award. Champ took that opportunity to invite Peterson to Pelham, a visit made possible through a Pelham Education Foundation grant.

Since being named National Teacher of the Year, Peterson, an 11-year veteran at Union High School in Tulsa, Okla., has been spreading her message of “One Good Thing” on a speaking tour.

Peterson began her speech in the high auditorium by asking each Pelham teacher to think of an educator who made an impact on their life. She then told the teachers they are that impactful educator to countless students.

“People hold us in their hearts, years, decades, down the road,” Peterson said.

Growing up in several countries and coming to the U.S. as an immigrant, Peterson said she only knew how to say “thank you” in English. For years, she struggled to find her place, her “seat at the table.” But through her journey as a student, there were teachers along the way who made room for her.

In middle school, Peterson’s math teacher told her that “math was her superpower,” and she said she knew from that point on that teaching was what she wanted to do. After instructing for a few years at the college level, Peterson decided to switch to high school. But she said she was not prepared for the difficulties that she faced. After her first year, she seriously considered quitting.

That was until Peterson found the math teacher community blog called “One Good Thing,” where teachers posted every day about one good thing that happened, big or small. Peterson said she connected with the blog’s philosophy and eventually took to writing her own good things—short stories ranging from heartfelt to hilarious.

Peterson read a few of her blog posts to the Pelham faculty, describing moments of her teenage students connecting, helping one another without a second thought and even admitting to eating eight corndogs, which drew plenty of laughter from the crowd.

These good things shifted the way that Peterson looked at herself and her students. She said she began to invite students into her classroom one-on-one to hear their stories, their good or bad things. In hearing student stories, Peterson created a sense of belonging that was missing in her classroom. Her students then trusted her to push them academically.

This deeper connection with her students did not always mean happy endings. She has students who are in prison as well as those at Ivy Leagues schools.

But Peterson said, Joy is not binary. When we learn students’ stories, grace permeates.”

Peterson rounded out her address by asking the assembled teachers to take out their phones or a piece of paper. She had them write down one student that they can inspire, one colleague that they can partner with and one student that they can raise to a new power.

“Light can’t be captured or contained. It must be reflected,” Peterson said. 

Joanne Ragosta, a teacher at Hutchinson Elementary School for 27 years, was gratified by Peterson’s “amazing” message. “She captured her audience,” said Ragosta. “She provided us with an opportunity to reflect upon our own practices and the change we make in a lot of our students’ lives.”

Guidance counselor Luis Barcelo said he loved Peterson’s conversation about connection and joy in small moments: “The importance of gratitude even in a time of turmoil. It’s a very important message that’s true for 50-year-old adults and 15-year-old students.”

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About the Contributor
Kira Findikyan, Business Editor
Kira is a junior at Pelham Memorial High School and this will be her sixth year on the Pelham Examiner. She loves reading and writing, and wrote previously for the Colonial Times and The News of Pelham. Kira enjoys playing soccer and is a self-proclaimed mac and cheese connoisseur.

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