Podcast: The Intersection of Culture and Curriculum with Rachel Guilfoyle—at a U.S. Military Base on Teachers in America

27 Min Read
Rachel Guilfoyle

Photo: Fifth-grade teacher Rachel Guilfoyle

Welcome back to Teachers in America, where we celebrate teachers and their lasting impact on students' learning journeys and lives.

In this episode, we hear from Rachel Guilfoyle, 2022 Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) Teacher of the Year, who teaches fifth grade at Daegu Elementary School, at a U.S. military base in South Korea.

A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.

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Noelle Morris:

Welcome to Teachers in America, a production of HMH, where we celebrate teachers and recognize their triumphs, challenges, sacrifices, and dedication to students. We see you. We want our listeners to feel not only inspired by the practice, but to also have a renewed sense of community. I'm the senior director of community engagement, Noelle Morris. Each episode, I meet a new teacher friend and learn about the latest lessons and innovations from the classroom.

Today we are joined by Rachel Guilfoyle, 2022 Department of Defense Education Activity Teacher of the Year. Rachel is currently representing DoDEA educators, students, and military-connected families at the national level. A 13-year teaching veteran, Rachel is a fifth-grade teacher at Daegu Elementary School, at a U.S. military base in South Korea. Rachel's teaching philosophy focuses on equity and students' experiences as pathways to student connection, and as a vehicle to deliver culturally responsive, standards-based education.

Her experiences living in England, Japan, Germany, and other locations as a military child, surviving military spouse, and parent to military children—and her perspectives as a first generation American—inspired Rachel to become a DoDEA educator in support of the mantra: Military Families Also Serve. Now, let's get to a special international episode with an American teacher, not technically in America, but an important part of the global teaching community.

Hey Rachel, I'm Noelle. I'm so glad to have you as a guest today on our podcast, Teachers in America. I know it's morning for me, but it's not morning for you. Share with our audience why we are, I think, 12 or 14 hours apart.

Rachel Guilfoyle: Yes. So it's 9:45 p.m. for me, and the reason why there's a huge time difference is because I am currently on the other side of our beautiful planet. I am here in Daegu, South Korea.

Noelle: I mean, it's just thrilling how technology lets us connect with each other. I was reading the notes to prepare, and I heard the exciting news that you are named 2022 DoDEA Teacher of the Year. What does that feel like? What was the process?

Rachel: Yes. I am the 2022 DoDEA Teacher of the Year. The acronym “DoDEA” stands for the Department of Defense Education Activity, and we are a federal agency that falls directly under the Department of Defense. The mission of our agency is to educate military-connected students all over the world. We have schools in the United States. We have schools in the Caribbean, the Middle East, and Asia, where I am.

What it feels like to be the 2022 DoDEA Teacher of the Year representing military-connected students and their families and teachers all around the world: It's very humbling. It's very exciting to be able to have an opportunity to speak on platforms like this to talk about what it means to be a teacher in the school system, and what it means to serve the students who serve with their families in the United States and abroad.

The process to be selected by the agency, as the DoDEA Teacher of the Year, was that we have districts. So we have an Americas district with schools in the United States and the Caribbean. We have a European district and we have a Pacific district, where I'm stationed. The teachers are nominated in their respective districts. Then you go up to the district level and, once you're at the district level, the teachers throughout the districts around the world go off on another level of selection, and there's a panel and an interview. So I went through that process and then I was selected as 2022 DoDEA Teacher of the Year.

DoDEA Teacher of the Year Rachel Guilfoyle

Guilfoyle's experiences as a military child, surviving military spouse, and parent to military children (shown here with her son) inspired her to become a DoDEA educator. She was selected as the 2022 DoDEA Teacher of the Year.

Noelle: Well, congratulations. Such a pinnacle award for teachers. But every Teacher of the Year whom I've had the privilege of interviewing and talking about always brings back this is humbling. It is fantastic. I'm so glad to have a platform, but the focus is still on my students. So you teach fifth grade at Daegu Elementary School in South Korea?

Rachel: Yes, that's correct. I do.

Noelle: So describe a day in the life of fifth grade for you and your students.

Rachel: It's always an exciting and dynamic day. No two days are ever the same. We have the added unique twist, or benefit, I suppose, of being U.S. citizens, military-connected students being stationed here in Asia, specifically in South Korea. So our school is an American school with an American curriculum, and yet we are here in the beautiful country of South Korea. So we come into school very early in the morning; the students come from different parts of the city. They're riding on their school buses.

We come in and we have many bilingual students, students who are English speaking and Korean speaking or English and other languages. So that always makes for an interesting time. We come in the morning. I speak some French, so sometimes I'll greet the students in French. Sometimes the students will greet me or each other in Korean. We come in and we begin our day and we always ground our day, or I like to ground their day when they come in. I like to say "good morning" to everybody, talk to them about how their day was, how their evening was the day before. That kind of gets our day going and it creates a sense of community as soon as the day starts.

Noelle: You have bilingual students. So if a student is speaking English and Korean, is it because their parents or their families have always been stationed in South Korea?

Rachel: Sometimes. So, many times, many of our bilingual students are Korean and English speaking students. Most often, one parent is American, usually an active duty service member or a DoD civilian, and the other parent is a Korean citizen. It's often the case that they were stationed in Korea before, returned to the United States or went overseas to Europe, and came back to Korea. But I've had some students who have been back and forth between Korea and the United States. I have some students who've never lived in the United States. Their family has always been stationed here in Korea. So they've been brought up here in Korea. Daegu, or South Korea, is the only place that they've lived.

Noelle: I'm listening to this, just embracing it. I was a child who moved a lot in the states, but definitely not military connected. I knew some of the trauma that I felt moving, especially when I moved when I was in fourth grade. I moved from my small town in Florida to a little bit of a bigger town. Leaving my friends, leaving everything that I had known, was traumatic. You talk about it so fluidly and so comfortably. I was reading some of your background; did you grow up in the DoDEA schools?

Rachel: Yes, I did, actually. So both of my parents are immigrants to the United States. When they came to the United States, they joined the U.S. Air Force. They both served 30 years each in the United States Air Force. So myself, being a military kid and having two parents in active duty...sometimes they were deployed at the same time. So we did move around to different parts of the United States and we were stationed overseas. I grew up mostly in Asia, in Okinawa, Japan. Then later, I was a military spouse and we were stationed in England and in Germany. Then I was a parent; I am a parent to military-connected children. My own children also were students in the system. I still have a son in middle school.

I can definitely understand this feeling that you mentioned about uprooting and perhaps it being a little bit traumatic to leave your familiar surroundings. So for me, coming into it as a teacher, as an adult, I have been where my students are. I understand what that feels like. The way that I approach it is that I come with a sense of empathy for my students. For many of my students, as I said, I teach fifth grade, and for some of them this is their third or fourth move and they're only in the fifth grade.

So it depends on the branch of service. Each branch of service has their own sort of rhythm and timings of moving. Where I am stationed in South Korea, the tour of duty tends to be 24 months. So about every two years, the students will rotate out of Korea. The military tries to time it during the summertime. It's called PCS season, or “permanent change of station” season, when families move in the summertime. But that isn't always the case because when the military needs you to go, you have to go. I've had students come three weeks before school gets out. I've had students come two days before winter break. I just had a student leave a week ago, last week, and go to Germany.

We have students in and out all the time, and that is actually part of the military culture. So I wouldn't go so far as to say the students are used to it, but I would say that it is part of their life and they understand that. So for me as a teacher, having been in their situation, we have a ritual. We welcome students. When I welcome the students to my class, I of course ask, "Where were they stationed? Where do they come from?"

9 out of 10 times, I will have at least one student in my class who has been there. And so, that creates this instant connection, "Oh, I was at this base, I was stationed at this place." And there's been a few times that students have been places where I've been stationed, and so we talk about that. And even on the first day, that makes a huge difference to students coming in, to know that someone has been where I'm going or someone was where I was. And it really creates, I think, this sense of ease for students coming in. And because all of the students are military-connected students and 99% of them have moved at some point, every student in my class, at one point, has been the new kid. So, they all understand what that feels like.

Noelle: I'm curious, do you know ahead of time, like a couple of days ahead of time, that you're going to be getting a new student?

Rachel: Yes, we're notified a couple days ahead of time, when the parents come in and register, that we will be getting a new student. We don't always know where they're coming from, what duty location, if it's in the United States or in Europe or somewhere else in Asia. But yes, we are notified. And so, as soon as I know, then I will prepare the students in the class. I will say, "We have a new student coming. I don't know yet maybe exactly what country or what state they're coming from." And so the students know that part of the ritual is they prepare a little intro. They usually may say something in Korean. Or if they know another language—I have some Spanish speakers as well in the class. And then we talk about one thing that is interesting about living here in Daegu.

Then we also pair up with a lunch buddy or recess buddy—different students for the week or even the following week. And the students take ownership of it. They know the routine by now, and they take ownership of that. They volunteer. And they all know that once we get in this routine and we have a new student, they all say, "Welcome." They say “annyeonghaseyo,” which is Korean for “hello.” And then they go around the room and they say something. They say their name, they say how long they've been in Korea, they say maybe what other duty locations they've been to. And then they say, "Today, I'll be your lunch buddy." So it's a really grounding experience, and I'm really proud that the students have taken ownership of that and they've run with it.

Guilfoyle Welcomes Her Students

Guilfoyle welcomes her diverse military-connected students every morning in English, Korean, and French.

Noelle: Hey, teacher friends, I want to tell you about the Teacher's Corner, a community of teachers, learning experts, and coaches gathered in one place to support you with a new kind of professional learning: Bite-sized, teacher-selected, and teacher-driven. We include this digital experience with every HMH program on Ed. With on-demand sessions, lesson demonstrations, program support, and practical resources, Teacher's Corner lets you choose how you interact with our content. I like to think about it as inspiration on demand.

And because we like extending our connections to wherever teachers are, we also have a Teacher's Corner from HMH Facebook group that is growing every day. So don't hesitate: Join me and the rest of the community at HMH. We are always in your corner.

Noelle: Now, back to the episode.

So you mentioned about a 24-month timeframe that the student would be in South Korea. What curriculum do you use? And how do you communicate across different schools just to know about the students’ reading and their history and how they're doing so that you can continue with where they are when they get to you?

Rachel: Yeah, that's a great question. We're not a state, per se, but obviously we are accredited just like any other American school is accredited. And our standards are called CCRS standards (Career and College Ready Standards). We keep track of students across the different countries and schools...so even though we're international, we are a school system. And the schools communicate with each other, the school registrars communicate with each other.

Also, we have an intranet system, an internet system that we can speak on. We have a global system of educators, so if I'm here in South Korea and I need to talk to a student's teacher in Germany, I can just email. There's a global email system. Also, the students have a global email system. So the student that I just mentioned who moved to Germany last week, that student still has their same email address, still has their same digital footprint. So they can email me, can email their friends here in South Korea, and vice versa.

Noelle: It just seems so sweet. How many years have you been teaching? Is it 13?

Rachel: Yes. Yes.

Noelle: So in your 13 years, have you heard from any of your first students or does anybody still communicate with you?

Rachel: Yes. Because, as I said, the email address, that digital footprint, is the same throughout the agency, so yes. I used to teach fourth grade for about 10 years before I taught fifth grade. And I had students in fourth grade who are now in college, they're in university. And I've gotten random emails before and they said, "I just wanted to know if this email address still worked. Ms. Guilfoyle, are you still there in South Korea?" I'm like, "Yes, I am." I've gotten quite a few students who've done that.

And I had a student reach out to me just this past school year, who's now in his second year at Stanford. And he reached out to me to say that it was because of a science lesson that I taught that he was inspired to go into environmental engineering and sciences. And he wanted to reach out and let me know that he wrote about me in his college application to Stanford. So I was very, very touched, as you can imagine.

Noelle: Yes. I would hold that story in my heart forever. University for students in the DoDEA system…do they look abroad? Do they also look back into the states? What is the norm?

Rachel: Yeah, so in terms of university, it's a mixed bag. It just depends if the family is still stationed overseas in the junior or senior year. So I've had students, previous students of mine or students that I know that have stayed at college here in South Korea. Some have gone to Japan, some have gone to schools in England or in Germany. And then, of course, some have gone back to the United States. I think the students tend to look everywhere because they have this sort of international lens from their upbringing and their education. So, I think it just depends on the student.

Noelle: So I've been reading many of your previous interviews, and when I looked I saw that representation and culturally responsive instruction is important to you. I can tell you have that, based on your welcome ritual. But talk to me more about the importance of that to you and how you ensure that it's a foundation of your classroom.

Rachel: For me, it's always been part of my instruction because it's always been part of me. And so I would imagine that any educator brings a little bit of yourself to your students, to your classroom, to make those connections. And for me, growing up, as I said, first generation American, daughter of immigrants, and then having to understand about culture in the United States and then, at the same time, living overseas as a military family. So there was always this balance. In my upbringing, culture was very important, because culture, in part, defines who you are and gives you a perspective and a lens to look at the world and how you process things in the world. And so, for me, that was always very important.

As for my own military experiences: As a military student, when I was in the fifth grade, I had a teacher when we were living in Okinawa, Japan. And she was of Japanese Hawaiian descent. And I can remember, we had first moved there and we'd never lived in Asia before. And all around in her classroom—I just remember this distinctly—there were elements of Japanese Hawaiian culture. And she talked about all these different things. And we learned about all these ancient Japanese fairy tales and things about Hawaii.

And then, she said why it was important to her; it's because it made her who she was. And then, she pulled that out of each of us, and she got us to really think about who we were. And then, in turn, once we understood who we were, how could we then interact with others and create this spaces in these rooms, in our classrooms, so that we could see each other and learn from each other and understand each other? And that was when I was in fifth grade. And that really stuck with me. And I just always carried that forward. And she inspired me to just sort of be in the world that way and to understand people in that way.

So when I became a DoDEA teacher, I wrote a piece about “Who inspired you? Did you have an educator who inspired you?" And I mentioned my fifth grade teacher. And then, I found out about three weeks ago that her husband is still teaching in Okinawa, after 53 years. I wasn't a student 53 years ago, but he's been teaching for 53 years. And so, I sent him a message and he said he would pass it on to her.

So, to answer your question, yes, it's always been something that I've carried forward as a person, as a human. And it was something that I felt would be important because we all have a story, we all have experiences, and those experiences lend themselves to help us process the world. Those things also impact how we communicate with ourselves, how we communicate with others, and even how we learn. The learning styles, how we learn best. I think as an educator and as a human, understanding those pieces goes a long way to creating these transformative educational spaces for my students.

Culture defines who you are

Noelle: I love the story of continuing to reach out. I'm glad you got that reach out from one of your students, and I'm sure you made your teacher's day passing that email along.

In college, one of my best friends, her parents were DoDEA teachers in Okinawa, Japan. So I think it's cool, this connection.

Rachel: Oh, wow.

Noelle: If I recall correctly, her father was a principal and her mother was a teacher. And we would all anticipate when it would be winter break and she'd be going home to Okinawa to spend time with her family, and then what she would bring back. We would just be fascinated about her care packages or what she'd bring back to us after the holiday.

How do you bridge into a new culture, a new country, and does the school support with helping a student learn about the culture where their family is stationed?

Rachel: Yes. The DoDEA agency, depending on where the school is located overseas, has a program at the elementary school level, K through five or PreK through five, called Host Nation. It's presented to students, I guess, as a special, so PE, art, music, Host Nation. And we are in South Korea, so our Host Nation is Korean. So the students go to Korean class taught by a Korean teacher. And in this class they learn language, culture, heritage, customs, different things about living in South Korea, and the history of South Korea.

Students who are stationed in Germany have the same thing, but it's about Germany. Students who are stationed in England have the same thing. Host Nation is learning about British culture, about Italy, Bahrain, Turkey, and so on. That is one way that the agency has implemented a structure to help students transition to their location, wherever that location may be.

And then, of course, each individual school and the administration of the school, they're very supportive. Here in South Korea we have national holidays such as Chuseok, where our students are off just as the Korean students are off in the nation. It's similar to Thanksgiving. And so our students are off as well. And then on the following day when the students come back, the national traditional dress of Korea is called hanbok, so we have Hanbok Day. So the students come to school wearing their Korean hanboks.

I know in Bahrain they do similar things; they learn Arabic and they learn about the different customs. And the schools in Bahrain follow the Islamic calendar, so they go to school on Sunday through Thursday and learn Arabic as their Host Nation.

Our agency tries to expose the students as much as possible to the culture, the history, and the language of the host nation, wherever our military bases are stationed—as we are guests, of course, and partners in these countries. So while the military families are there and our students are here in our schools, it's really an opportunity to enrich their education and enrich their experiences living overseas.

Noelle: I wanted to ask you about the different subjects. I know as a fifth-grade teacher, you're teaching all subjects. And for your former student who's in Stanford, there was a science lesson. Is there a discipline that you gravitate to more than another?

Rachel: I do love science, but I would say the one that I gravitate to the most is social studies. I guess that would be like history. I think I gravitate towards that the most. But what I try to do is to connect all of the subjects together because that is how the world is. The world is interconnected. And so, even though I'm teaching science, I'll throw things in there about history. And if I'm teaching history, I'll throw things in there about science. I like to make that connection in doing that.

And I actually was selected earlier this year as a Fulbright Scholar based on this proposal, this notion, that I would like to create or continue to create this intersection, this nexus of curriculum and culture and having that be transformative in the classroom.

Noelle: Wow. Now, did you seek that out yourself or were you recognized for that opportunity?

Rachel: For the Fulbright, I looked into it myself. I had heard about the program and I read about what the requirements were, so I applied. It's a competitive selection process, and I was selected. I will be representing the agency and representing my school and just trying to see what skills I can bring back to take my teaching to another level.

Students study sea creatures

Guilfoyle's students study crustaceans and sea stars, and take notes in science class.

Noelle: Kudos to you.

Rachel: Thank you.

Noelle: What's your favorite historical time period to teach?

Rachel: Oh, my goodness.

Noelle: I always have to ask that question and people are like, "What? I wasn't prepared for that.”

Rachel: Oh, okay. I will say it, I wasn't prepared for that. I just love history. All the eras, all the time periods. I just love it. This month is Native American Heritage Month, so we have been talking about the Colonial period in the Americas. We have been talking about the contributions of Native Americans in our modern times, and we've talked about Ancient Egypt. I told the students about when I went to Egypt and I showed them pictures. I love it all. I love all the time periods. I just love history.

Noelle: You can tell, and thank you for persevering through the question. Rachel, describe to us: If you're following the American calendar next week, your students would also have off for the Thanksgiving holiday?

Rachel: Yes. DoDEA students, most of us. I believe in Bahrain, there's a slightly different calendar, and I think maybe there are one or two schools in Europe that may have a different calendar. But most schools, yes. Students will have Thursday and Friday off and then they will come back to school on the following week.

Noelle: Is there a special dish? Is there a family dish that you continue to make and that you've also introduced your students to as some of your Caribbean culture?

Rachel: Oh, okay. My favorite dish. Another great question I wasn't expecting, but I love it. My family is from Trinidad, and so I think my favorite dish would have to be roti and pelao. Roti, it's a dish of Indian origin, and it's like a paratha bread with curry and potatoes. And pelao is a type of rice. I think for me, that's probably my favorite. And yes, I have introduced students to Caribbean music and Caribbean food, and I have some students of Caribbean descent. I have a couple of students from Puerto Rico.

We talk about bomba [a traditional musical style of Puerto Rico]. We talk about different things in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean Islands. And yes, it's always great. And before COVID (we had some COVID restrictions, especially here in South Korea), we would have parents bring in dishes for Thanksgiving and the students could partake in the classroom. So we had all kinds of things. We had Korean food, we had food from Puerto Rico, we had food from Mexico, we had traditional ham, we had turkey, we had all kinds of great things. I even had a student one year, her parents were from the Ivory Coast, so we had things from the African continent. So it was very tasty and delicious, as you can imagine.

Noelle: I can imagine. I can also imagine because I love when we would have those moments in my classroom. What I loved the most is just watching the sparkle in my students' eyes when they were sharing those parts of their lives and their food and we'd all connect.

What's your advice to new teachers in general and especially for new teachers coming into a DoDEA school?

Bring a piece of yourself into the classroom

Rachel: I think for new teachers in general, a piece of advice that I would give (that was given to me and was very helpful) would be to take a deep breath. It'll be okay, because it can be overwhelming at first. And I think I would partner up with a mentor teacher and collaborate. You have to bring a piece of yourself into the classroom. Of course, that's what makes you you, and that's what your students love and that's what your students appreciate. And at the same time, lean into the expertise and lean into the advice of teachers who have been teaching a while to help you through this process as a new educator. And for anyone just coming into the DoDEA system or thinking about coming into the DoDEA system, the advice that I would share is to do a little research about, of course, the country that you will be stationed in, the customs and history, and do some research and learn a little bit more about the military mission of the families that you serve.

Because that will help you get some insight into the rhythms of the family life. If parents will be deployed more often, or if they're going to be there for a shorter period of time or a longer period of time. And just understanding how the military structure is and that branch of service that you are serving. The Navy has its own unique way of doing things. Its own acronyms, its own language, its own culture. The Army has a different way of doing things, the Air Force has a different way of doing things, and so on. And so I would really encourage teachers coming into the military system to just lean into that and to learn about the military culture, because that is a culture within itself. And I think that would ease the transition into becoming a DoD educator.

Noelle: I love the advice of be ready to share a little bit about yourself and make that connection. I ask every guest this. I don't know if you were prepared for this question. So this might be the one episode where I have three questions where the guest is like, “What?” So I ask everyone…because Rachel, part of my mission and the platform that I have is for every teacher to own their swag, and understand how awesome you are. So athletes who have walkup songs, whether it's LeBron James going on the court or if you follow the World Series. Even a 10-year-old little leaguer has a walkup song. And so I ask every teacher, "What is your walkup song?" When you're walking into the building in the morning before class, and you're walking in, what song is playing on your playlist or would be playing when you open the classroom door to start your day?

Rachel: Okay, so I was not expecting that question, but I have an answer.

Noelle: This is on record. I'm glad you have an answer.

Rachel: I have an answer. So I don't know if people know this song, but Curtis Mayfield, “Move On Up.” That is the song I hear in my head because it's a positive song, it's got a good rhythm, it's got a good beat. And whenever I hear that song, or even if I'm playing it sometimes and the kids hear that song, we know it's going to be a good day.

Noelle: So you do play music in your classroom?

Rachel: I do. I play music in the classroom to get the kids to transition because I teach all the subjects, but it's in the same classroom. So sometimes I play music to transition. I also go on YouTube. YouTube has a lot of great teacher resources where other educators have made musical parodies for certain subjects and topics. And so I play those all the time. And the kids know the lyrics by heart. They usually like rap songs or hiphop songs or modern songs. Taylor Swift: The kids know it. So we have done hiphop songs to the Missouri Compromise to Dred Scott to the Supreme Court. We've even done hiphop songs to the Silk Trade with Marco Polo. The kids know all the lyrics, and I sing and dance with them. And the kids are always surprised. So it's fun. I love music and I think that is another modality for learning. And the kids remember—they remember the things—especially if they know the original song. So it's always fun to compare the original song to the parody song. Music is great.

Noelle: You just came alive in that whole conversation. I should have led with that. I'm now so curious. I'm just like, I want to know more about your use of music. I love music, too. It was always in my classroom. I taught middle school and when I first would introduce music I would say it's going to be a big part of our classroom, it's going to be a big part of our transitions, and everybody's going to get a chance to share their songs. I love how it connects generations and I love, Rachel, how you connect.

I want to thank your parents for their service. I want to thank you for what you do every day to find those intersects and make those connections, whether it's discipline, culture, students to students, and teacher to teacher. You are amazing. Congratulations. And just like with every guest, I hate that we have to say goodbye. I want to continue, but you will always have a friend. And if you need anything, you know how to reach out and find me.

Rachel: Oh, thank you. This was awesome. I appreciate the conversation and the laughs. It was great. Thank you so much.

Noelle: If you or someone you know would like to be a guest on the Teachers in America podcast, please email us at shaped@hmhco.com. If you enjoyed today's show, please rate, review, and share it with your network. Teachers in America is produced by HMH. Thanks again for listening.


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