Teacher Appreciation Week: In a tough year, these educators stood out — and gave us hope.

It’s been a tough year in education for everyone.

Bizarre schedules, little in-class time for millions, and so many Zoom rooms.

Education reporters in the USA TODAY Network had a front seat to the highs and lows of an extraordinary year of schooling. Those challenges took a toll on many, with 43% of teachers who recently quit citing stress — both before and during COVID-19 — as the chief reason for their departure.

But the industry could be on the verge of an infusion of cash and new blood, now that Joe Biden’s American Families Plan is proposing up to $9 billion in federal money to train more people for the profession.

For Teacher Appreciation Week, we’re highlighting the educators who stuck with us over the past year because of their tenacity or charm or dogged determination to help students or communities.

The professor piecing together stories of people in unmarked graves at Clemson University

Clemson University Professor Rhondda Thomas touches stone work inside Hardin Hall. The stones came from slave cabins on John C. Calhoun’s plantation, which now makes up the Clemson campus. (Photo: Heidi Heilbrunn / Staff)

For months, Rhondda Thomas, a historian at Clemson University in South Carolina, has been working to identify and tell the stories of the 604 people buried in unmarked graves at Woodland Cemetery, the on-campus graveyard.

The goal is to honor those buried among the white faculty and alumni at Woodland, which researchers believe include enslaved Africans, sharecroppers, convict laborers and domestic workers who lived and worked in Clemson up until the cemetery was formally dedicated in the 1920s.

“Those graves have been there for a long time. So we didn’t discover them,” Thomas said. “They were recovered.”

The university used ground-penetrating radar to determine the location of 604 graves, discoveries they announced in October 2020.

Thomas has formed a community outreach panel to identify the inhabitants and to connect their modern descendants and residents with the stories buried in the clay.

“I don’t see the cemetery project as the game-changer. It’s just something that we need to do.”

Full story: Clemson University seeks to identify people buried in unmarked graves

— Zoe Nicholson, Greenville News 

The teacher who made a ‘Hamilton’ star a drama club member

Jonathan Groff makes Zoom appearance at Milford High School (Photo: Cincinnati/Madeline Mitchell)

Sure, Bon Jovi can Zoom with kindergarteners — but King George impressed students at an Ohio high school thanks to a creative ask from teacher Katie Arber.

Arber, Milford High School’s theater teacher, convinced Jonathan Groff, the Tony-nominated actor who played King George in the hit musical, “Hamilton,” to Zoom with her class and talk about his career.

Arber had posted a photo to Facebook wearing a “Hamilton” face mask six months prior coupled with a suggestion that Groff Zoom with her students. A friend with a connection to Groff responded. Arber got her advanced acting class students to make a video invitation for the actor.

Groff started on Broadway in 2006 in “Spring Awakening” and then appeared as Jesse St. James in “Glee,” King George in “Hamilton” and as the voices of Kristoff in the “Frozen” movies. He was projected on the big screen in Milford’s auditorium in February for about 30 students in person and another 20 watching remotely.

Groff then accepted Arber’s invite to be an honorary member of the drama club.

Full story: Jonathan Groff, of ‘Hamilton’ fame, talks to Milford High School students

— Madeline Mitchell, Cincinnati Enquirer

The boomer professor and music buff who learned to rap on Zoom

Dr. Naison dancing (Photo: Jasper Colt, USA TODAY)

Remember March 2020, when nobody knew how to video conference?

Mark Naison, 73, a professor at Fordham University, has taught a history of music class for decades, but in the early days of the pandemic, he didn’t know how to show music videos as he always had in class.

What he could figure out was how to film himself and play that on Zoom. So to preserve the raucous spirit of the course, and to keep students’ spirits up as they struggled to adjust to in-person learning, he filmed himself rapping. His material included odes to social distancing, hand-washing and self-quarantining.

He was not the fastest rapper, but his rhymes mostly worked. And his students seemed to appreciate the lengths he went to for a laugh.

“I think that’s what we kind of all need right now with everything going on,” said Imani Del Valle, a senior at the university at the time.

Full story: Online college classes include rapping professor

— Chris Quintana, USA TODAY

The teacher near Minneapolis engaging students about Chauvin trial

Kara Cisco teaches civics at St. Louis Park High School, near Minneapolis (Photo: Courtesy of Kara Cisco)

Kara Cisco teaches at St. Louis Park High School, near Minneapolis. It’s a city where George Floyd, a Black man, lived and died and where last year’s wave of Black Lives Matter protests erupted in response to his death.

Students of color make up about half the school’s population. As a civics teacher, Cisco tries to incorporate current events into her class without traumatizing students, many of whom have had their own experiences with racism.

During the trial of Derek Chauvin, a white man and former Minneapolis police officer now convicted of murder in Floyd’s death, Cisco’s class was discussing the policies dictating when a Minneapolis officer can – and should – use force on a suspect.

They identified words and phrases that stuck out from the coverage – injustice, murder, democracy. They scrutinized the nuances of policing policies and their role in Floyd’s death.  

One student argued that, regardless of his actions or the drugs that were found in his system, Floyd was murdered. Another concluded Chauvin’s actions violated existing policies because “he wasn’t in any danger.”

Full story: Derek Chauvin’s trial was a teachable moment. Here’s how classes discussed it.

— Alia Wong, USA TODAY

They physics teacher who sought strength from her students

Joellen Persad, a ninth grade physics teacher at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Boston, says virtual education is surprisingly exhausting. (Photo: Joellen Persad)

USA TODAY interviewed more than 30 students and teachers around the country for Q&A-style piece about what they’d learned during the pandemic.

Joellen Persad, a young physics teacher at Madison Park High School in Boston, stood out for her energy, and for trying to connect to her students emotionally during the pandemic.

“The biggest source of strength is my students,” she said. “At one point, I went through a hard time and I was actively thinking, ‘OK, be happy, like, be happy. Don’t bring your sadness into the classroom.’ And I come into the classroom and I think I’m trying a little too hard to not be sad because one of my students was like, ‘You’re a little off. Are you OK?’”

Persad said the more she can share with her students the better.

“They truly have healed me and contribute to my healing all of the time, because I want to be my best self so that I can pour myself into them as much as possible.”

Full story: A year after COVID-19 shut schools, students and teachers say what they’ve learned

— Alia Wong, USA TODAY

A health teacher who mentors teachers, coaches two sports, runs the gym and inspires students, colleagues

West Mesa High School teacher Stephanie Davy at cheer team practice after school. (Photo: Jack Gruber, USA TODAY)

Some teachers loved the new concept of working from home. Stephanie Davy, a teacher in Albuquerque Public Schools, was not one of them. 

When Albuquerque reopened for all students to return to full-time instruction on April 5, Davy was thrilled — even if it meant a return to 12-hour days. We followed Davy from sunrise to sunset as she coached other teachers, counseled her health class, trained future teachers in a dual-credit class, and then coached the cheer team and oversaw basketball games.

It was a reminder of the importance of in-person energy and encouragement that teachers — and the other caring adults they work with — provide to students. Davy has already seen children arrive in her classroom who haven’t been present online all year.

Full story: A New Mexico school sent all kids back in one day. Here’s how it went

— Erin Richards, USA TODAY

The substitute teacher who helped seniors turn F grades into A’s and B’s

Patrice Pullen is a substitute teacher at Lake Nona High School in Orlando, Florida. (Photo: Courtesy of Patrice Pullen)

Patrice Pullen was building a real-estate business in Orlando, Florida when leaders from local Lake Nona High School called her. They had a crisis: Scores of students were getting F’s during distance learning — many of them seniors whose failing grades threatened to put graduation out of reach.

They weren’t alone. The percentage of students with failing grades skyrocketed in many communities this year.

Last fall, Lake Nona invited the at-risk seniors back to campus as part of a cohort that would learn online, together at school under a dedicated teacher. The school tapped Pullen as a cohort leader. She’s a substitute teacher and a mother of current and former Lake Nona students.

After weeks together in a portable trailer classroom, Pullen’s students turned their F’s into A’s and B’s. She made sure they logged in. She championed them. She gave them a shoulder to lean on.

“When you unlock a heart you transform a life,” she said.

— Alia Wong, USA TODAY

Full story: Scores of students are getting F’s: How schools are addressing it

The Florida teacher with a nonprofit theater to nurture young black actors

Rhonda Wilson, the owner and founder of The Star Center Theater, at the theater in Gainesville Fla. Feb. 18, 2021. Twenty years ago Wilson started The Star Center by staging performances at local churches, now Wilson has grown her production theater to a full theater. (Photo: Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun)

Rhonda Wilson is a pillar of the Gainesville, Florida, community as a Black thespian and middle school teacher. Through her nonprofit, the Star Center Theatre, she offers a hub for hundreds of children and adult students to have a place on stage.

In the ’90s, Wilson came to Gainesville to study community resource economics classes at the University of Florida. One summer, she helped a local summer program stage a production of “Oliver.” She then quit her job to start the Star Center nonprofit in 2000.

Wilson currently teaches at Kanapaha Middle School in Gainesville.

“This is a new face of what art’s going to look like: all kinds of people, not just older white men, and it’s a good thing,” she said. “That’s kind of where I think my role is in life, to encourage people and open up doors or share opportunities with them.”

Full story: Middle school teacher inspires arts with Star Center

— Danielle Ivanov, The Gainesville Sun

The former teacher turned online tutoring company CEO

Amanda DoAmaral, founder & CEO of Fiveable, at her office living space in Milwaukee. Fiveable is an online AP study startup that relocated to Milwaukee in 2019. It has skyrocketed because of COVID, and has gotten $3.5 million in new investments. (Photo: Mike De Sisti / The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Amanda DoAmaral, a former high school history teacher, spent 2018 holed up at her mom’s house livestreaming online tutorials for a few thousand students around the country taking advanced placement classes.

Today, DoAmaral, 30, is founder and CEO of a fledgling tech company in Milwaukee with 15 employees serving more than 100,000 students a week.

As the global coronavirus pandemic upended education and sent millions of students scrambling online for any available resources, many of them  — 1 million in April and May alone — landed on Fiveable.me, the AP tutoring and social media platform DoAmaral believes can reshape online learning. 

Fiveable offers live instruction and videos for replay, study guides, practice exams, feedback on essays, office hours and live events, some led by students. Most of the content is free and costs on the rest are kept low so all students can participate.

Full story: Former teacher’s online tutoring company draws $3.5M in investments

— Annysa Johnson, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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