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NEA News

National Teacher of the Year Advocates for Immigrant Students and their Families

Missy Testerman, an English as a Second Language Teacher in rural Tennessee, has been named the 2024 National Teacher of the Year.
Missy Testerman Tennessee State Department of Education
"Classrooms across the country are led by passionate and talented teachers who have the power to use their voices to speak for the voiceless - our students," says Missy Testerman, 2024 National Teacher of the Year.
Published: April 3, 2024
This article originally appeared on

The rural Appalachia town in Tennessee where Missy Testerman teaches is home to families who have been there for generations. But a growing number of students are from families who are newer to the area, representing diverse cultures from around the world.  

Many in the community view these newcomers with suspicion, but Testerman has dedicated herself to building bridges and ensuring that every student, no matter their background or circumstances, has a chance to succeed.  

For this tireless dedication to all her students and her support of new immigrant families, the Council of Chief State School Officers on April 3 named Testerman the 2024 National Teacher of the Year. The announcement was made on CBS Mornings.

“Missy’s message of advocating for inclusivity and success for all students meets the moment we’re in as a country,” the selecting committee said in a statement. “We believe her knowledge of both the issues and the people involved in education policy and practice will lead to better outcomes for students.” 

In a surprise appearance on CBS Mornings, First Lady Jill Biden joined Testerman to congratulate her and announce the first ever Teacher of the Year State Dinner to be held on May 1.  

Every student in every public school in this country deserves a teacher like Testerman, said National Education Association President Becky Pringle. 

“She stands up for those students who feel unseen, unheard, unappreciated, and undervalued in America. On behalf of the NEA’s more than three million members, we congratulate Missy for creating an inclusive environment where every student feels welcome, no matter their race, background, or ability,” Pringle said. 

Teacher and Advocate  

A Tennessee native and first-generation college graduate, Testerman has been teaching for 31 years. At Rogersville Elementary in Rogersville, Testerman prioritizes instruction that ensures her students have the skills and knowledge necessary to achieve.  

“There is often a misconception in education that we can love kids into achievement,” she said. “Make no mistake: loving and caring for our students is important, but it is not enough. If we love them, we must teach them in a way that gives them the skills they need and allows them to meet high expectations and have a future.” 

In a small town like Rogersville, with a poverty rate well above the national average, a good education can be the foundation for a brighter future. “Our schools enabled us to help students change the trajectories of their lives,” Testerman said. 

During her appearance on CBS Mornings, Testerman said there was no such things as a “bad student.”

“There may be kids who are having a bad day. There are kids who are struggling with the circumstances they are in, but there is no such thing as  a bad kid... Learning takes place when they have someone who believes in them.”

In 2022, as she approached her third decade teaching, Testerman added an English as a Second Language (ESL) licensure to her credentials (acquired through her state’s Grow Your Own initiative). Testerman currently serves as the district ESL specialist and ESL program director. 

She works with 21 children who hail from five different countries on four continents and speak five different languages. Wanting to ensure that immigrant students and families had an advocate in their small town, Testerman is determined to see everyone succeed in school. 

Testerman loves Rogersville but concedes that the town square has seen its share of, as she calls them, “anti-anything different” rallies. That conflict and division can seep into the classroom. 

To help build bridges between families in the town, Testerman designed a curriculum that incorporated a study of Americans from diverse backgrounds, allowing students to better understand that people are inherently more alike than different and that everyone belongs.  

From this curriculum came the Rogersville Elementary Second Grade American History Wax Museum, which began in 2017. Students pick and research an important historical figure from a list Testerman draws up. They then write a one-page biography. At an annual event, students dress up as their character and station themselves across Rogersville Elementary’s front lawn.   

Testerman wrote in her application that incorporating other cultures and backgrounds in the assignment was “a calculated, yet risky move that I was willing to take because of my deep-rooted teaching belief that exposure to new experiences and people outside of our own culture leads to growth and acceptance.”

A resounding success, the American History Wax Museum is still a marquee event at the school seven years later. 

Educators Are Experts

Testerman also develops close ties with the families of her newcomer students, who she says can lead very sheltered lives. Day after day, students arrive at school every morning and then return home in the afternoon or to their parents’ workplace—without interacting or leveraging the resources and attractions in the community. 

Testerman enjoys taking students to the post office, a bank, a coffee shop for the first time, and teaches them the local library system.  

Sometimes simple gestures can mean the most. Testerman makes it a point to sit with the families at major school events, such as graduation ceremonies or student performances. “I have belonged to this community for decades and others trust my lead. I take this role as ambassador seriously, and I am thankful for the opportunity to connect these groups,” she wrote. 

As the 2024 National Teacher of the Year, Testerman will spend the next year representing educators and serving as an ambassador for students and teachers across the nation. Testerman says teachers are the true education experts (as opposed to many lawmakers, she adds, who shape education policy).  

As president of the Rogersville Education Association. Testerman believes unions are critical in elevating educator voices in advocating for schools and students. “Union” is another one of those dirty words in her rural community, but the positive changes educator advocacy has brought to the learning conditions in their schools have not gone unnoticed.    

“The students in my school now have the benefit of hot water to wash hands and clean, remodeled restrooms that were free of sewer odors,” she reports. “Instead of people being negative or resentful, they were appreciative that we cared enough about our students’ well-being to become tireless advocates for change.” 

The finalists for the 2024 National Teacher of the Year included Catherine Walker (Alaska), Christy Todd (Georgia) and Joe Nappi (New Jersey.) Read more about the finalists here


Your Voice. Our Power. Their Future.

The SCEA is an affiliate of the largest professional association of educators in the country. As the leading advocate for the schools South Carolina students deserve, The SCEA works to promote quality public education and to support public school employees.