Gratitude in the Midst of Our Challenges

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January 14, 2022

Justin Johnson is the 2021 Illinois Teacher of the Year. He is the band director at Niles West High School in Niles Township High School District 219 in Skokie.

Dear teachers,

I write to you as we are immersed in the frenzied nature of the new year. I wanted to take a moment and thank teachers for all that you have done and will continue to do in the depths of what has arguably been one of the most difficult times in the history of public education.

Over the past few years, we have experienced attacks on teachers and the profession, all while trying to combat the current crisis associated with the teacher shortage and the fact that many amazing teachers are leaving the profession in near historic numbers. Board meetings have become increasingly polarizing as divisive discussion on matters such as culturally responsive teaching and social-emotional learning has and will continue to weigh heavily on teachers.

This, coupled with the push for anti-racist teachings, has moved us to this seminal moment and how we move forward in these difficult times will largely determine the future of public education as we know it.

Teachers are, and will continue to be, one of the most important components to truly realizing what it is that we as a society want and need in education. It is my hope that, moving forward, we will #humanize our teacher workforce by continuing to position teachers for excellence and that we will continue to strive for the proper resources to meet the needs of the profession and the communities we serve.

We must do these things while also giving teachers a seat at the table when decisions concerning education are made and continue to recruit, retain and sustain a diverse teaching corps (because our students need it). These are all ways that we can support the overall well-being of our teachers, students and communities while centering healing and growth in schools and in policy.

As we move forward, I remind myself of both why I chose this profession and whom I serve in my role as an educator. In the midst of all of the significant challenges we face, I will remain thankful for teachers. I will remain thankful for the way we continue to care for our students even when our own needs aren’t being met.

Thank you for continuing to teach the truth and to be responsive in our approach to fulfilling the needs of ALL students. Thank you for continuing to give your voice even when your words are ignored. Thank you for working to prioritize caring for yourself even as the systems of education continue to pile on and refuse to relieve you of unnecessary tasks.

Most importantly, thank you for persevering because education does not work without amazing educators. Please remember to give yourselves the same grace that I know you extend to your students every day.

I remain grateful for every opportunity to do my part in helping as we, in the words of Juliana Urtubey, 2021 National Teacher of the Year, reimagine how we create a more joyous and just education for our students.