Five Things to Know About Missy Testerman, the 2024 National Teacher of the Year

Longtime elementary school teacher earned ESL certification to advocate for immigrant students in her rural Tennessee school.

Misty Testerman, the new National Teacher of the Year, works with two students in her classroom. A former first- and second-grade teacher, she shifted to teaching ESL. (Tennessee Department of Education)

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Missy Testerman has enjoyed a teaching career that is decades longer than most, spending more than 30 years in first- and second-grade classrooms.

But when she saw that her K-8 school district in rural Appalachia was quietly becoming a refuge for families from Mexico, Central America and Asia, she shifted gears and became an English as a second language teacher, pushing to smooth her students’ — and their families’ — transition to life in the U.S.

Her students’ English acquisition is key because many become their family’s translators, not just in school but elsewhere. “So their exposure to the language and their learning the language actually opens up doors and possibilities for their families,” she said in an interview.

Testerman on Wednesday was named the 2024 National Teacher of the Year by the Council of Chief State School Officers.

As Teacher of the Year, she’ll spend a year traveling the U.S. as an ambassador to the teaching profession, telling The74 that she’ll urge other teachers to become advocates for their students — and for their fellow educators.

Testerman was selected from a field of three other finalists for the award: Alaska’s Catherine Walker, a high school science and career and technical education teacher; Georgia’s Christy Todd, a middle school music technology teacher; and New Jersey’s Joe Nappi, a high school history teacher who writes a blog on teaching about the Holocaust.   

All of the finalists, as well as the other state-level teachers of the year, on Wednesday learned from First Lady Jill Biden that when they visit the White House later this year, as is customary, they’ll also be the guests of honor at a state dinner, the first time that diplomatic nicety will be reserved for a group of educators, the Associated Press reported. Typically state dinners are used to woo foreign heads of state. 

Testerman, who earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a Master of Arts in reading education from East Tennessee State University, teaches in Rogersville City School, a K-8 school in a small farming town of about 4,500, located 250 miles east of Nashville. And she serves as the Rogersville district’s ESL specialist and ESL program director. She also coordinates the system’s summer programs and is a mentor teacher and member of the teacher leadership team.

She’s not the first ESL teacher to capture the top-teacher honor — in 2004, it went to Rhode Island’s Kathleen Mellor, who designed the ESL program for the North Kingstown, R.I., school district. And in 2018, the recipient was Mandy Manning, a Washington state ELA teacher who worked at a “newcomer school” for new immigrants. Other recipients have also worked with English language learners, even if the designation wasn’t in their formal title.

Here are five things to know about Testerman:

1. She has taught her entire career in a single school in rural east Tennessee.

The 53-year-old Testerman is a lifelong teacher, having put in 33 years in the classroom, all of it Rogersville. 

“It’s a beautiful place,” she said in an interview. “It looks like it’s a Hallmark postcard.”

She admits that her long career is “kind of unusual — teachers, as you know, tend to leave the field as soon as they’re able to do so. But I still find a lot of joy in teaching, and I feel like I’m as energized to keep teaching as I was years ago.”

2. Before working in ESL, she had a long career as a classroom teacher. 

Testerman spent most of her career, about 30 years, working as a first- and second-grade teacher before enrolling in Tennessee’s Grow Your Own program and adding an English as a second language (ESL) endorsement to her resume. She has said she wanted to ensure that immigrant students and families in Rogersville had an advocate. 

“I try to make sure that my children and their families are assimilated here, that they’re participating in sports and everything, because if they assimilate, people will accept them more easily,” Testerman told Chalkbeat Tennessee when she was named a finalist.

3. While Rogersville is isolated and rural, her students are from all over the world.

Testerman has a full-time case load of 21 students, a mix of Spanish, Arabic and Chinese speakers, as well as a few who speak Gujarati, a language from the western Indian state of Gujarat. It accounts for a large percentage of Indian immigrants to the U.S. 

“It’s a pretty interesting breakup of situations and languages,” she said. 

Her students are divided between first-generation Americans born here to immigrant parents, and newcomers — many of whom have arrived in the U.S. “within the past year or so,” she said.

Missy Testerman works with a small group of ESL students in her Rogersville, Tenn., classroom. “I still find a lot of joy in teaching, and I feel like I’m as energized to keep teaching as I was years ago,” she said. (Tennessee Department of Education)

Testerman said her students occasionally face “some unpleasant situations” around discrimination in the mostly white community of Rogersville, “but that’s basically the rarity. My school has embraced them, has embraced their families. I think that I have the luxury of being in the role to kind of be the ambassador, to make that happen.”

She said most people in the area also embrace the newcomer families once they get to know them “because they see that they’re just like every other family. They love their students. They want them to do well and achieve so that they can create a good future for themselves.”

In her application for the award, Testerman wrote, “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.”

Former student Nadeen Aglan told AP that Testerman goes out of her way to develop close ties with the families of her students. “Her kindness shows. Her compassion is really deep.”

4. She wants teachers to realize their own power — and fight for change.

Testerman said she is looking forward to advocating for teachers over the next year.

“There are 3.5 million dedicated teachers all over this country who invest time, energy and love into helping our students create the best possible future for themselves,” she said. “And I want to empower teachers by getting them to understand that they are their best advocates and their students’ best advocates. Teachers are the experts.”

Testerman said many times teachers must abide by policies that are “not made by people who spend a lot of time in classrooms. “It’s time for teachers to let their voices be heard.”

She wants teachers to advocate for students not just in their school building but, if needed, in their state legislature “when there is either an implemented policy or a suggested policy that you know is just not what’s best for kids.”  

5. She plans to return to the classroom after her year away.

National Teacher of the Year winners often leverage the honor to pursue big dreams outside of the classroom, including writing books and giving Ted Talks. Jahana Hayes, the 2016 honoree, is now a member of Congress representing Connecticut. 

Testerman on Wednesday said her plan after her year away from the classroom is to return. “I still find so much joy in teaching,” she said. “I can’t honestly imagine my life without being a teacher.” That may change, she said, but at the moment she plans to return to the classroom.

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

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