National

National Teacher of the Year helps diverse students and their families thrive in rural Tennessee

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — (AP) — When Ali Aglan joined Missy Testerman's second grade class, his family had just moved from Egypt to rural east Tennessee, where his parents now run an Italian restaurant. Coming home from school one day in the town of Rogersville, he told his mother that no one would talk to him. "He said, ‘I have no friends there.’ He was crying. It broke my heart," Rabab Aglan said.

So she called the teacher. “I don't know what she did, but a few days later he came home and said, ‘Now I have a lot of friends.'”

Officials announced Wednesday that Testerman has been named the 2024 National Teacher of the Year. Those who know Testerman say that's no wonder, having become familiar with the magic she works in the classroom each day.

Testerman has a special affinity for children from other cultures who comprise just a fraction of the 650 students at the pre-K-8 Rogersville City School. That is why, after 30 years of teaching first and second grade, Testerman got an endorsement to teach English as a second language in 2022.

Ali Aglan is now a senior in high school sorting through college offers, but Testerman is still helping the family. His sister Jasmen is now Testerman’s ESL student.

On Wednesday, the Council of Chief State School Officers announced that Testerman was chosen to receive the national title from among the state teachers of the year. First lady Jill Biden surprised Testerman during a nationally televised appearance Wednesday morning with a bouquet of flowers and the news that she and the nation's other top teachers will be treated to a state dinner at the White House.

“I’m a teacher, as you well know, and I’ve been teaching over 30 years, just like Missy has, and I always say teachers are our heroes," Biden said.

As Teacher of the Year, Testerman will spend a year traveling the country as an ambassador, urging other teachers to become strong advocates for their students and fellow educators.

Testerman said in her finalist application that it seems at times that state legislatures across the country are passing laws that do not address actual problems in education.

“Schools had to hire someone to scan every book in the building under the guise that pornography is lurking in a kindergarten classroom, yet we do not have funding to hire a behaviorist to help with the kindergarteners who are disrupting classrooms every day," she wrote. "Part of this dilemma is our fault. It is time that we educate those who make policies that affect our students.”

Over decades of teaching, Testerman developed a knack for celebrating differences while emphasizing the shared humanity of all those she works with.

As a second grade teacher, she created a curriculum using a diverse array of famous Americans that blends literacy and social studies. Today she works with 21 children whose first language is not English. She said her students speak five different languages, with their families hailing from five countries on four continents. Among them are children just beginning to learn English and older children close to mastery of English.

Watching a child acquire another language is “an amazing, magical transformation,” Testerman said. “There’s a level of excitement in a learner when they realize they are able to understand the language they are hearing around them.”

ESL instruction for those with little or no English begins with using pictures and hand gestures to teach words for simple, everyday objects such as books and pencils. Then she moves to simple sentences like “I have a pencil. I have a computer. I have a black computer,” Testerman said.

The first full sentence she teaches students with no English is, “May I please use the bathroom.” It may sound trivial, but it's vitally important for her students, along with basic phrases like, “I need some water, please,” or, “I need a pencil, please,” she said.

“Just to see how they light up at being able to give themselves a voice is just incredible,” she said.

Testerman also develops close ties with the families of her students. She goes out of her way to help them navigate American culture and integrate into the community. That includes things like teaching them about the local library system or the post office. She also takes steps to help her longtime neighbors in this Appalachian town of about 4,500 people to accept the newcomers.

“Simple gestures such as sitting with my students’ families at high school graduation or a school play goes a long way in helping them find acceptance in our rural area, since I have belonged to this community for decades and others trust my lead,” Testerman wrote in her finalist application.

“Her kindness shows. Her compassion is really deep," said sophomore Nadeen Aglan, who is the sister of Ali and Jasmen and had Testerman as a second grade teacher.

Testerman said she primarily uses a translation app to communicate with her students' parents. It works well, although it's not perfect. After she was announced as a finalist, she got “a really sweet note from a mama about all the things I had done for her child,” she said, but with one language gaffe. The opening line? “Congratulations for nothing!”

mobile apps

Everything you love about 960theref.com and more! Tap on any of the buttons below to download our app.

amazon alexa

Enable our Skill today to listen live at home on your Alexa Devices!