This morning as I glanced out my window, I noticed a big yellow school bus, slowly making its way down my narrow street. This normal routine has been out of sight for almost two years, and the vision of this ordinary and regular routine made me smile. I transitioned into a place of happiness and excitement as I remembered the eager enthusiasm I had as a child when it was time to go back to school. Don’t get me wrong, I loved summer breaks, but each year I could not wait to get back to my school, my friends, and my teachers. I had several favorite teachers and one of the most memorable was my high school botany teacher, Mr. Vanneman. He opened a whole new world of science for me and sparked a curiosity and interest in something that I didn’t even know that I liked.
Accepting the title of educator or teacher carries significant responsibilities. As a person that has devoted my entire professional career to education, I have such respect and admiration for teachers and educators around the world who choose year after year to continue in their craft. Educators help all of us discover, dream, and believe in ourselves, and ultimately help cultivate and develop the potential of our nation’s promise. Educators help students realize the best versions of themselves so our nation can become the best version of itself.
Research demonstrates that teachers are the most important within-school factor for student achievement. Studies find that students who are assigned to effective teachers are more likely to graduate high school, attend college, and earn higher salaries. In addition, evidence suggests that by assigning disadvantaged students to effective teachers, the income and racial achievement gap can close within five years. Strong evidence exists suggesting that low-income students, students of color, English language learners, and students with disabilities are more likely to be assigned to unqualified, inexperienced, and ineffective teachers. As a nation we have more to do to help ensure that teachers have the support and resources they need to be effective in the classroom.
Since its founding, education has been at the core of the Smithsonian’s identity, as James Smithson founded the Institution “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Today, the Smithsonian Institution is committed to playing a role as one of the foremost education organizations in the country. Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch, III has articulated a clear vision that repositions education at the core of the Smithsonian’s purpose and focuses on engaging with educational systems nationwide to build and enrich a national culture of learning. I am honored to serve as the Under Secretary for Education for the Smithsonian, as this role provides an opportunity for me work with talented educators, curators, researchers, and subject matter experts across our 21 museums, outreach programs, libraries, 14 research centers, and National Zoo to provide innovative programming and resources for teachers across the nation with the ultimate goal of supporting a high quality, well-rounded education for all students.
On September 17, 2021, the Smithsonian will bring educators from across the nation together for the first annual Educator’s Day Conference. This is a free full-day virtual event with over 30 breakout sessions, which is guaranteed to provide something for everyone. Presenters will cover topics related to innovative inquiry-based learning and discuss promising practices in literacy, science, history, and art. Participants will have the opportunity to interact directly with educators and other experts from across the Smithsonian and hear from teachers across the nation including several Teachers of the Year from Alaska, New Mexico, Ohio, Michigan, Louisiana, and New York. The day includes programs in five categories:
Spotlight on Educators programs will offer PreK–12 teachers an opportunity to share innovations in classrooms around the nation with fellow educators.
Big Issues programs highlight Smithsonian initiatives tackling complex contemporary global topics, such as equity and inclusion, cross-cultural dialogue, and environmental conservation.
Sneak Peek programs offer educators a first look at concepts and topics being explored in upcoming exhibitions.
Behind the Scenes programs pull back the curtains on Smithsonian processes that are not usually visible to the public. Educators can learn about topics like museum conservation and the Smithsonian’s archives.
People at the Smithsonian programs highlight the roles of a variety of experts at the Smithsonian.
In addition to the breakout sessions, I am particularly excited about the afternoon plenary with Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III and the National Teacher of the Year Juliana Urtubey from Nevada, who for some is better known as “Ms. Earth.” The conference structure is unique as there is an opportunity to engage in serious thinking and conversations about how to teach difficult history, structure courageous conversations with students, and turn the narrative of “learning loss” it into one of “learning opportunity”. In addition, there is an opportunity to tap into the talent and wisdom of Smithsonian educators who work hard to enlighten, inspire, and engage people of all ages with programs that are characterized by excellence, breadth, and diversity.
As we return to school this year, we bring with us refocused and new knowledge, awareness, and understanding about the world in general and educational access and opportunity in particular. If as a nation we are going to rise and meet the call to ensure a high-quality education for all students, it will require a collective solution focused on collaboration across multiple sectors. As the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex, the Smithsonian stands ready to embrace its responsibility and pledges to work with educators across the nation to continuously open new worlds of wonder, spark curiosity, and connect to interests that students do not even know they have yet.
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