Kathy Peters always knew she wanted to be a teacher. John Thomas, on the other hand, came to education as a second career after working in business management and marketing.
Despite their different paths, both Peters, a special educator at Fuller Elementary School in Keene, and Thomas, a teacher at Wells Memorial School in Harrisville, are among the 28 nominees for the 2022 N.H. Teacher of the Year.
The N.H. Department of Education, which administers the award, announced the nominations earlier this month, though both Peters and Thomas said they learned they were up for the award in February. They had to submit a lengthy application before being added to the publicly announced list of nominees.
“I thought it was really amazing and cool, and I’m so honored to be even just nominated,” said Peters, 32, of Keene. She was nominated for the award by Lori Stumpfol, a fellow special-education teacher at Fuller, where Peters has spent her entire nine-year career.
Thomas typically teaches 1st and 2nd grades at Wells Memorial but this year teaches a cohort of students in grades 1-6 learning fully remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He said he doesn’t know who nominated him, but regardless, he views the nomination as an opportunity to support educators statewide.
“The educational system was stressed before the pandemic, and it’s only become more stressed in a lot of ways in the demands and in the workloads for educators,” Thomas, 53, of Keene, said. “So making sure that educators are taking care of themselves and getting the supports they need and focusing on the most important skills and strategies with their students is exciting to me to think about.”
Teachers can be nominated by peers, administrators, students, parents or other community members, according to the state education department. Teachers are selected for their exemplary service, dedication to their students and commitment to improving education, and the teacher of the year is meant to honor one person who represents the best of New Hampshire’s educators.
Robert Malay, superintendent of N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 — which covers Keene and Harrisville along with five other nearby towns — said Peters and Thomas are both worthy of that recognition.
“We’re very excited that both John and Kathy have advanced this far,” Malay said. “It is a really good representation of the quality teaching that we have. Those two are outstanding ambassadors of the teachers we have in the schools and districts of SAU 29.”
For Thomas, a Kansas City, Kan., native who moved to the Monadnock Region in 2001, the nomination marks the next step on the journey that led him to education in the first place. He said his father always made time to help the people in his life, and ultimately inspired him to seek ways to give back, leading him to leave a business career, earn a master’s in education from Antioch University New England in Keene, and begin teaching.
“I myself had a really rough time in K-12 education. I had several disabilities myself that were unidentified, and school didn’t sit well with me,” Thomas said. “... Trying to be the teacher that I needed as a child, and that I know a lot of kids need, has really inspired me to not only make the leap to education, but continue with it and try to gain a bigger voice, which I’m really excited about this opportunity to have a larger, broader voice.”
Peters, who grew up in Cheshire, Conn., and was a student teacher at Keene’s Symonds and Wheelock schools during her time at Keene State College, said being nominated for teacher of the year validates her career choice and her dedication to teaching.
“I’ve always been learning from veteran teachers and always thought of myself as the new kid on the block, and I’m still learning how to do this job and things like that,” she said. “And this really put into my mind that I am in the right career, and I am a good leader, and I can also share my ideas.”
According to the state education department, a committee including former teachers of the year, a state board of education member and several state education officials will narrow the field of nominees to a list of semifinalists, who will deliver a speech to the committee. After the semifinalist presentations, the state selection committee will choose finalists, whose schools the committee will visit later this year before selecting a winner.
Regardless of the outcome, Peters said the process has already provided a valuable opportunity to reflect on the past year of teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Everyone has said how the last year has been such a challenge, but it also made me think a lot about the positives of the last year, and the positives of my job in general, and how much resilience that I have, as well as my students and my families and my colleagues, especially Fuller School,” she said.
Thomas also said he appreciates that the nomination has presented him with a chance to think more deliberately about his role as a teacher and share his views on the profession with a wide audience.
“We really work on creating a supportive learning environment where kids can be open and honest and willing to take academic risks in a safe way,” he said. “... Once you have that solid foundation, you can build anything on top of that.”