WE Teachers is a new, no-cost program for any teacher across America, providing free resources and training to support them in addressing critical social issues with their class. It will ensure that teachers have access to the tools they need to succeed in the classroom and help students become active, engaged citizens. As part of this free program, teachers become part of a powerful network working toward excellence in education and enriching students’ lives. Because when we support our teachers, we empower their students.
Access our free, online platform designed to provide teachers with resources to support their students and classrooms. From ready-made lesson plans to training sessions to a foundational module for creating caring classrooms, you can get incredible, no-cost tools to build your capacity in empowering your students.
Designed to be personalized, adaptable and highly accessible through virtual-learning opportunities, WE Teachers makes it easy for teachers to empower themselves and their students to lead change. The program’s unique offerings include an online teacher portal, curriculum and so much more. Plus, with exclusive teacher awards, it focuses on driving long-term sustainable impact by celebrating teachers and their incredible work in the classroom, the lives of their students and the world. Find out more about WE Teachers and download an overview of the program here.
According to one study, 94% of teachers spend more than $500 of their own money on school supplies per year. That’s why Walgreens and WE have developed the WE Teachers Award! To acknowledge the extraordinary teachers in our lives, there will be $250,000 awarded to teachers this academic year.
If you know a deserving teacher, nominate them for a WE Teachers Award and give them a chance to receive a $500 Walgreens gift card to buy the supplies they need to empower their students. Or if you're a teacher yourself, apply below!
The WE Teachers Award will only be awarded to an Educator who is a legal United States and Puerto Rico resident and at least 18 years of age at time of the nomination, who a) enters the Contest himself/herself or is nominated, and b) accepts the Prize if so selected. Click here for more details.
Walgreens knows that at the heart of every community are our unsung heroes—teachers. That’s why they’ve partnered with WE to develop a program that provides free tools and resources to teachers nationwide to help them address the changing needs of their classrooms, like funding and addressing critical social issues.
Teacher, Redmond, Washington Building students’ leadership skills by addressing poverty and inequalities in the community
If her two-year-old daughter’s car seat holds nine cans of soup and a jar of peanut butter (minus the child), how many cereal boxes can she fit into the trunk of her sedan?
This is just one of the puzzles educator Martina Voet had to solve in her first year as student government advisor for Rose Hill Middle School in Redmond, Washington. Other dilemmas were less straightforward. How do you convince middle schoolers to put aside popularity contests and work together on a food drive? How do you help them find the nerve to ask their friends to donate?
“It was a little overwhelming,” says Voet, who had been teaching Spanish until this point. “I tried to navigate through all the new information and do the best I could for my students.”
Her new role began in September 2018 and came with teaching a class on leadership. Though she hadn’t taught this subject before, Voet had specifically asked for the assignment. She wanted to do more to build a culture of kindness and empathy among students, to help counteract the influence of social media—where competition and judgment prevail.
“They see how many people follow those online influencers—who aren’t always nice to people—and they mimic that behavior,” she says, explaining her desire to help students realize that they need to support each other in order to thrive as a community.
Voet’s new leadership role also came with a WE service-learning resource with actions designed to spur thinking about local issues, from bullying to children’s rights.
To choose the class’s first campaign, she put it to a vote. The issue of poverty and hunger prevailed.
“We live in an area with extremes,” Voet says. “We have a lot of wealthy people in our community, but there are also a lot of homeless people.” She was excited to work on the issue, because it meant helping not only students who were struggling, but also adults trying to provide for their families.
An epic food drive was planned. By mid-November, every hallway at Rose Hill Middle School featured a food drive poster handmade in Voet’s leadership class. Morning announcements included a campaign plug authored by her students. But like many prompts one encounters daily, these reminders soon lost their impact. So Voet urged her students to make the issue personal by reaching out to their networks.
“It was through their immediate friends at first, then through acquaintances,” she says. “Some students aren’t as well off as others, so they knew there would be a lot of people who would benefit from getting the food.”
Within two weeks, the class had collected five times their goal of 100 food items, piled in front of the school secretary’s desk. Voet’s students were amazed at the steady growth of the stack. “They saw the generosity of the community,” she says.
While it took a school-wide campaign to raise the donations, there were only Voet, two students and her small silver sedan to deliver it all. Hundreds of cans and boxes had to be packed in, like puzzle pieces.
Her leadership students laughed as she recounted opening the car doors at the drop-off point and watching all the carefully stacked cans tumble out. They were thrilled with the impact, the results of their team effort.
“Even the kids known to be jokesters or class clowns had brought in donations. Feeding people was a big enough idea that they took it seriously,” Voet says. “Their leadership skills grew in leaps and bounds during this initiative. I just had to learn to let go.”
Voet learned that her students had the vision, fuel and innate compassion to support their community in a meaningful way. All they needed was a ride.
Teacher, Driggs, Idaho Inspiring his students to make the world a better place by addressing important social and mental health issues
After almost 20 years educating students in California and Idaho, Ted Meyer found himself in a rut.
“I was at a point in my career where I was robotic,” he says. “I felt the system in the U.S. didn’t empower kids the way I wanted to empower kids.”
But when he became the new fifth-grade teacher at Rendezvous Upper Elementary School in Driggs, Idaho—population 1,800—he discovered a new way to inspire his students to make a positive impact on their community.
The aha moment arrived in his inbox one morning in the form of an email about the WE program, which helps teachers challenge students to become leaders on issues they’re passionate about. Something instantly clicked for him.
“I thought I didn’t have time in my day to do student-centered learning,” says Meyer. “WE gave me an opportunity to make meaningful relationships with the kids—a space where kids could reflect on their community and the world and how to make things better.”
Meyer’s WE club met to brainstorm issues affecting their community. Mental health came up as a major topic, with health care costs in their Teton Valley region being high and treatment centers few and far between.
“It's one thing to have physical health, but mental health is that shadow topic no one wants to talk about,” says Meyer.
Meyer and educator Melissa Young, his WE club co-leader, were impressed with how the students opened up. They had created an atmosphere where students felt comfortable discussing their experiences with anxiety, dyslexia and mental illness.
The club threw around ideas for how they could help community members struggling with mental health issues. They settled on a unique idea: decorate potted plants with inspirational quotes and notes about positivity and recovery, and then distribute them to mental health and senior care centers.
One student offered hundreds of unused pots she had at home, and a local nursery donated a miniature forest of small succulents to fill them. A fleet of parents volunteered to drive around the sprawling Teton Valley with students to drop the plants off at centers where people were in care.
The reaction to the initiative they called “Pots4Thoughts” was incredible.
“People from the community were shocked. No one had ever done anything like this in the valley,” says Meyer. “Something so simple can mean something so big—seeing how a small succulent can grow can improve your mental health.”
Meyer is proud of how this act of kindness inspired his students. They’ve become more confident speaking up and sharing their experiences and problems. Two of his students who have struggled with anxiety have become comfortable reaching out to their peers.
“My favorite part is allowing students to find their voice and be comfortable with sharing,” says Meyer. “They feel like they can give their gift to the world and develop their own sense of passion—that has been really powerful.”
Meyer keeps an inspirational note stuck to his fridge at home to remind him of the impact he’s making. It was given to him by a fourth-grade student after a school trip to WE Day Seattle to celebrate the impact their WE club has made together.
“This was a LIFE-CHANGING experience,” it reads.
With his passion for empowering students rekindled, Meyer would agree.
Art Teacher, Port Angeles, WA Using art to address issues of diversity and inclusion with her students and community
It takes courage to fight injustice and introduce new ideas to a community.
But Washington State art teacher Shawne Johnson, who experienced homelessness as a child, has courage. Heaps of it. Johnson’s drive to help at-risk populations and address injustices stems from her childhood.
Her parents were transient, and the family was homeless for half of her upbringing. They lived in their car for a few months before it was repossessed and would periodically end up sharing other people’s homes. She remembers being scared all the time.
Johnson knows what it’s like to be the new kid that doesn’t fit in. She knows the pain of being singled out for your differences.
Originally from rural Washington, Johnson spent her twenties creating art and advocating for vulnerable groups. In order to make a living doing what she loves, she pursued a teaching degree. Now she uses art to help her students advocate for themselves.
Whether using art to teach her Port Angeles High School classes to take pride in their cultural inheritance or exploring diversity through service-learning, Johnson is not afraid to make an impact on her students and community.
Her struggles have helped her empathize with outcasts and outsiders, so often the kids that pass through her art classes. Her experiences make her less willing than her peers to back down when she sees inequality and discrimination.
Johnson uses her classroom to address the issues of diversity and inclusion that affect the community.
As the gateway to Olympic National Park, Port Angeles has a million breathtaking acres of protected wilderness in its backyard. It’s one of the most beautiful regions in the U.S., but one that Johnson says suffers from endemic drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and discrimination.
Many of Johnson’s own students live in foster homes. Some have never met their mother or don’t know who their father is.
In her introductory art course, she has students research their cultural heritage and create images that represent their backgrounds. She is careful to tell them that their cultural inheritance comes from the people who are caring for them—that’s their family.
Johnson’s goal is to help students value different cultures by exposing them to the diversity that exists around them. She also hopes that they will take pride in their own heritage.
Many of her students have been bullied for their race, sexual orientation or lower economic status, and don’t feel safe or accepted at the school. It’s why Johnson helped her students plan an assembly to examine critical issues that affect the school, such as diversity and inclusion.
The assembly featured presentations on the rights of women, Indigenous peoples and immigrants, as well as anti-racism movements. Each speaker, singer and poet that took part was a member of the marginalized community their performance highlighted.
Johnson says the assembly was one of the most impactful moments of her career. Despite a few setbacks that arose, her students persevered with their plans—seeing them proud of their work made every hurdle and headache worth it to Johnson.
“If we don’t actively say what we believe as often and as loudly as we possibly can, then somebody else is going to step in and take up that space,” says Johnson.
To help support her valuable work, Johnson received a $500 Walgreens WE Teachers award to purchase much-needed school supplies for her classroom. The grant will enable her to provide students with the resources they need to take on new creative projects.
Teacher, Chicago, Illinois Receives Walgreens WE Teachers Award for inspiring a new generation of change-makers to help the city’s homeless
Every child loves to let their imagination run wild and pretend to be a heroic knight, enchanting mermaid or sleuthing spy. Kimiko Cowley-Pettis spent her evenings after elementary school playing teacher. Lining up her teddy bears, she would teach the toys what she had learned in class. After weekend church services, the stuffed animals became her congregation and she the Sunday school teacher.
Today, she lives out that fantasy as an English Language Arts teacher at Chicago’s Avalon Park Elementary School.
“Teaching is something I was born to do. It has always been my passion,” says Cowley-Pettis.
Of all the joys that teaching brings her, the Chicago native feels she makes the greatest impact on student’s lives when she introduces them to service-learning and helps them take action on homelessness, an issue that—literally—hits home for some of them.
While always passionate about helping others, Cowley-Pettis’s drive to do good was amplified after her niece was murdered. Honor student Hadiya Pendleton, 15, was standing with a group of friends in the city’s Harsh Park in January 2013, when she was shot and killed by a man who mistook the group for a rival gang.
As Cowley-Pettis worked through that devastating loss, she became determined to make her niece proud by honoring her positive personality and giving back to her community. Cowley-Pettis’s motivation to help youth create change was also inspired by her niece’s classmates, who started a movement in her memory to raise awareness of gun violence.
Cowley-Pettis loves seeing her students realize that controversial issues, such as gun violence and poverty, are problems that directly impact all of us.
Chicago Public School students are provided with free breakfast and lunch each day. When Cowley-Pettis explained that those are the only meals some children get in a day because their parents can’t afford food, her students began volunteering at a local shelter.
It was then that some of her students divulged to her that they themselves had experienced homelessness and knew some of those they were helping to feed.
“They knew what it was like to be that person standing there waiting on that meal for a stranger with a nice heart and extra funds to provide for them,” she says.
According to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, 17,894 students enrolled in Chicago Public Schools were homeless during the 2017–2018 school year. Student homelessness is one of the tough issues teachers are faced with in their classrooms.
Cowley-Pettis has used WE resources to help students in Grades 6 to 8 make connections between what they learn in the classroom and real-world issues. They strengthen their understanding of subject matter while discovering how to have an impact on local and global issues.
“Service-learning is a way for them to understand that, even though you’re a teenager, you can bring about change. You are a powerful person,” she says. “All it takes is that one person with that crazy idea, bringing it to fruition, to impact hundreds, millions of people.”
Cowley-Pettis has seen students save up their allowance to buy donations for food banks or sleep outside so they can experience homelessness firsthand. Some students have felt so strongly about the cause that they’ve asked to come back and volunteer with her even after they’ve moved on to high school. Still others have returned to thank her for opening their eyes to such critical issues. It’s instances like this that make her glad that she’s a teacher.
To thank her for inspiring the next generation to make a difference, at WE Day Illinois Cowley-Pettis was presented with a $500 Walgreens WE Teachers Award to purchase much-needed supplies for her classroom and her students as they continue to make a positive impact on their community and honor her niece’s memory.
“Getting students involved and active and having them see that what they’re doing is going to empower and impact others, it just makes me feel good,” she says. “I love it—I really do.”
Superintendent, Jennings, MO Bringing people together to change communities and help prevent youth violence
Creating connections has been a central theme in Dr. Art McCoy’s life. He was 15 years old when he first discovered that he could speak out—and that others would listen.
His spark came in 1991, during a time of upheaval in Los Angeles following the historic Rodney King trial. After the verdict in 1992, angry protests erupted across the city. Watching the violence from his home in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri, nearly 2,000 miles away, McCoy saw the seeds of similar protests all around him. He wondered if there wasn’t some way to build a bridge across the racial divide in his community before it too exploded into violence.
McCoy started a youth mediation group with some of his friends, and soon they were intervening in fights among their classmates, stopping disagreements before they could escalate.
“That’s when I really felt that calling and I said: ‘Okay, this is what I think I want to do for the rest of my life.’”
Today, McCoy is the superintendent of Missouri’s Jennings School District, overseeing eight schools and thousands of students. He continues to work to break the cycles of violence in his community, using dialogue to enlighten and resources, such as those provided by WE, to engage and empower.
“First, you need to enlighten people to the various voices in their community,” he explains. “We need to honor voices and value what people bring to the table based on their background.”
For him, this has meant creating opportunities where people can engage in honest dialogue—and 2014 put this principle to the test. That year, the shooting of Michael Brown, a former student from one of McCoy’s schools, set off a firestorm of protests across the country, similar to those that followed the Rodney King trial.
McCoy spent the next two years working to keep lines of communication open and in the end, was able to bring about a reconciliation between Brown’s mother Lezley McSpadden and the Ferguson Police Department. The two have gone on to build a community garden for the school that Brown, and his brothers attended.
A natural teacher, who easily engages others, McCoy is also more than a teacher. As a superintendent, he’s championed collaborations with local hospitals to provide health care for students and encouraged his teachers to use WE’s new WE Teachers resources in their classrooms.
Made possible by Walgreens, the WE Teachers program aims to support America’s teachers by providing free resources to help them address critical social issues with their students. The program has helped McCoy and his teachers talk frankly with students about bullying, poverty and empathy in their community.
For his work as an outstanding educator, McCoy was honored onstage at WE Day California in April 2019 and presented with a surprise $25,000 WE Teachers award from Walgreens to help the educators in his district buy much-needed school supplies.
“The beauty of the WE curriculum is that it allows for such engaging service-learning leadership, and that engagement is key,” says McCoy. “Once you're engaged and enlightened, then empowerment occurs because you feel the power of leading your space to a new place—a better place.”
For McCoy, this empowerment is personal. He grew up poor; both of his parents were disabled. But his teachers stepped in to make sure he was okay and got extra help in school whenever he needed it.
He credits his teachers for making him who he is today and works to make sure that the teachers in his school district are able to share that transformational power with their students.
“Our teachers are empowered to change the trajectory of entire families and communities.”
Teacher, St. Louis, Missouri Helping low-income students to become their best selves while they give back to their community and help the homeless
Last April, onstage at WE Day St. Louis, Miriam Alejandro was presented with a $500 WE Teachers award to purchase much-needed school supplies for her classroom. Ten years ago, Alejandro would never have imagined herself in this position. The carefully plotted life plan she’d created as a child would need to be completely rewritten before she could discover the best way to make an impact.
Alejandro had always known that she wanted to help others. She grew up in the Bronx in New York City, the borough with some of the city’s highest poverty rates. She knew that if she wanted to make a difference she’d need to be in the right profession. She started in law, and then found her passion tutoring youth and a new plan emerged: “I needed to help those kids before they go on to the wider world.”
Alejandro earned a master’s degree in education and began teaching in the South Bronx, not far from where she grew up. Now, she teaches political science and history at KIPP St. Louis High School in St. Louis.
She credits her early drive to help others to her mother, an educator who created software that helped immigrant parents navigate the American school system for their children. She’d come to New York from Puerto Rico in the 1980s and raised Alejandro and her three siblings by herself. Watching the way her mother inspired confidence in everyone around her taught Alejandro that “to give someone a sense of pride or ownership helps them become better.”
Alejandro has enshrined that approach in her own classroom among her students, whom she calls scholars. “It’s a reciprocal relationship, so if I’m not disrespectful to them, they’re not disrespectful to me.”
This desire to help her students be the best possible versions of themselves drew her to service-learning. She uses WE resources to strengthen her class curriculum and to help her students create and lead their own WE Club. Her students have volunteered at senior care homes and distributed care packages at homeless shelters. Alejandro believes these experiences give them a sense of self-determination that they may not have had otherwise.
“Even though it’s a high-needs school in a low-income area, these scholars are able to reach pinnacles that people are not even aware of,” she says.
Educator, Colombia, Maryland WE Teachers award winner, tackling bullying and teaching life-changing skills to special education students
Sitting cross-legged in a Colombia, Maryland, classroom, a fifth-grade boy defies expectations by reading an iconic Dr. Seuss line to his first-grade reading buddy.
“Do you like green eggs and ham? I do not like them, Sam-I-am.”
Two years ago, this same 11-year-old couldn’t read a full sentence. He was written off by his teachers, who declared he would never read properly. Two years ago, he, too, believed it was a skill he would never master.
Enter Deborah Robbins.
“No child is unteachable,” she says. “I can teach them all something.”
Robbins has been a special education paraeducator at Guilford Elementary School for the past 14 years. Paraeducators provide specialized or concentrated assistance to elementary and secondary school students.
Her passion for teaching special education students stems from her daughter Rachel’s scholastic challenges. Rachel couldn’t grasp spatial reasoning, so Robbins sat her at the family computer and had her stack block upon block in Tetris. When she struggled to memorize math facts, her teachers used a multi-sensory method that places counting points on numbers to help her understand how a symbol represents a quantity. With this intensive support, her grades, and her comprehension, improved.
Now 26, Rachel is in graduate school studying to become an audiologist and continues to use the techniques she learned throughout her youth. Robbins witnessed how building confidence in a child, paired with the right academic interventions, can set them up for a success.
Today, Robbins teaches students with various learning disabilities. By working tirelessly to build up her students’ confidence and search out the right interventions for each one’s learning style, Robbins helps her students flourish. “That’s where my heart and passion is. I love working with special-ed students,” she says. “I just don’t want to see a child fail.”
The boy who spouted Dr. Seuss at the start of this story is part of a larger group of once-struggling readers who, through Robbins’ tutoring, have improved to such a degree that they can volunteer as reading buddies for younger students.
Beyond literacy, she’s addressed other local issues with her students, including accessibility and bullying. The latter hit close to home; her students have been tormented for everything from their physical looks to their academic potential.
And if being a special education teacher isn’t enough, Robbins runs an after-school program where she tutors students in Grades 3 to 5 and engages them in service-learning. Using WE resources, Robbins deepens students’ understanding of subject matter and helps them build connections between the classroom and the real world.
As part of a service-learning lesson on bullying, Robbins taught her after-school group how to behave on the internet, how to recognize cyberbullying and what to do when they are on the receiving end of hateful remarks. The students then made anti-bullying posters to educate their peers and spread kindness throughout the school.
She hasn’t had an instance of bullying in the after-school program since. Cases of special-ed students being bullied by their general-ed peers have subsided as well.
To thank her for her dedication to her students, Walgreens surprised Robbins on stage at WE Day Baltimore with a $500 WE Teachers award to purchase much-needed school supplies.
“I was shocked. Then the tears just started to stream out of my eyes,” she says.
Just before WE Day, Robbins had taken stock of her marker supply, something her students use regularly for classroom work and service-learning projects. Some of them are coming up on seven years old—older than some students—and are in dire need of replacement. The financial burden of restocking them, and any other school supplies, often falls to her. She was overjoyed by the prospect of replacing them.
“I love to see my kids succeed. In service, in the classroom, everywhere,” she says. “No one’s failing—not on my watch.”
Teacher, Louisville, Kentucky Making a difference by helping students break down complex issues and take action
Susan Snyder only wears tennis shoes four times a year in her job as a teacher in Louisville, Kentucky, because, she concedes, “dress-down days raise money for a good cause.” The rest of the time, she wears business suits, just as she did when she worked in corporate finance—to show her middle school students that she takes them seriously.
It was 15 years ago that Snyder traded her corner office for a classroom at Sacred Heart Model School. “I had to tell my husband I’d be working for a quarter of what I was making before,” she laughs. “But he understood. I come from a long line of educators. I wanted to go home at the end of the day feeling like I had made a difference.”
Snyder earned her teaching degree studying nights and weekends, still hesitant to fully give into her instincts and quit her job as vice president at the bank. Luckily, her student teaching placement landed her at Sacred Heart, where student life and culture were driven by the tenets of compassion and community.
“It was a perfect fit,” she says, recalling the administration’s eagerness to leverage her leadership experience. “They were so open to what I could bring.” By the time she reached the end of her placement, Snyder was certain she was on the right path. She began teaching at Sacred Heart that very term.
In her first years at the school, Snyder watched the philosophy of service brought to life by the student body. On dress-down days, for instance, students were permitted to shed their uniforms and dress as they pleased, in exchange for a $2 donation to that month’s charity of choice. But while the children consistently brought in their coins, Snyder suspected that their intention was focused less on giving and more on what they were getting in return.
One summer afternoon, the school principal, who had just returned from an educator conference, handed her a book called Me to We: Finding Meaning in a Material World. Snyder was unfamiliar with the authors, brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger, but their message called up lessons from her own childhood.
“It was everything I had grown up with—compassion and inclusivity. Someone has written a book about the way life is supposed to be,” says Snyder. “It’s just human kindness.” Each anecdote about the rewards of service and connection seemed to validate the instinct that had led Snyder to change careers, while also detailing how the philosophy could be applied to young people.
Other teachers were just as moved by the message as she had been. At Snyder’s urging, the phrase “Think WE” became Sacred Heart’s new mantra—a school-wide theme that would unite faculty and students around a common goal for the year ahead.
By connecting with the WE organization, Snyder was able to tap into an array of service-learning resources, including lesson plans to break down complex local and global issues and a calendar of campaigns to give students a way to take action.
“WE has helped us be much more intentional about why we’re doing what we’re doing,” says Snyder, now the program lead for her school. “It’s not just ‘bring your $2 so you can wear blue jeans.’ Now, when kids drop their money in the bag, they know it’s helping someone.”
Before Sacred Heart’s next dress-down day, students involved in the WE program will stand up in front of their classes and speak about the cause they have chosen to support. And when Snyder steps into her tennis shoes, she’ll be confident that her school’s fundraiser is every bit as important as the million-dollar accounts she used to manage. Perhaps even more so, because she is passing on a treasured torch, helping kids learn to think of others before themselves.
“WE is helping us with that—empowering kids to go out and make difference, letting them know they don’t have to wait for us.”
Educator, Louisville, Kentucky Fostering the potential of every student to give back, know more and do better
Growing up, future educator Ashley Davenport learned a pivotal lesson from the drastically different experiences she and her younger brother had in their classrooms.
She was more of a “book” learner—she thrived in traditional classroom settings—but her brother learned best when he could experience things.
With just 14 months between the siblings, it became clear to Davenport that if she did well in a class, her brother would struggle with that teacher. When she found a course too scattered, he would thrive.
Knowing the issue wasn’t about intelligence—she’s quick to praise her brother’s intellect—Davenport was motivated to learn about multiple intelligences and use that knowledge to help the next generation succeed.
“I wanted to be that teacher that could help all kids learn in different ways,” says Davenport.
Now the Director of Student Activities at Holy Trinity Parish School in Louisville, Davenport is helping students succeed and find their own passions, whether it be in the classroom, on a team or through service-learning.
Davenport spent five years as a homeroom teacher at Holy Trinity before switching to her current role six years ago. She oversees all enrichment activities for the school’s 700 pre-kindergarten to Grade 8 students, including clubs, service-learning and academic teams.
Davenport uses WE service-learning resources with the youth on student council, who range from Grades 6 to 8.
Knowing that not all children have the confidence to present at an assembly or the artistic ability to make posters, Davenport uses her knowledge of learning styles to pair students with the task that allows them to best contribute to a project.
Among their myriad service projects—they complete more than 30 every year—one of the main issues students take action on is poverty reduction. In 2015, almost 25 percent of youth under the age of 18 in Louisville lived in poverty.
“Poverty is such a broad term,” says Davenport. “Clean water, hunger, clothing, school supplies, they’re all poverty initiatives. When you’re impoverished you need everything.”
Every October, the school runs a food drive that concludes with Grade 7 students taking the donations to local shelters and spending the day volunteering. The experience helps students understand that poverty is present in their community.
“They see that people get one jar of peanut butter for a month, or only three cans of vegetables when they come to a food pantry. It’s not enough to feed a family,” says Davenport. “It’s always eye-opening.”
Each May, instead of throwing away old pencil cases, students are urged to donate or recycle their unneeded school supplies. Whatever kids don’t take home is sorted by the student council and donated to community organizations. The same goes for abandoned clothing in the lost and found and any unclaimed books from a reading swap.
When they delved into the issue of clean water, she reminded them of the crisis in Flint, Michigan, to show them that it’s not just a third-world problem. On a service trip to the Appalachia region, students helped install basic piping to bring clean water into a home.
“When we know more, we do more. When we know better, we do better,” she says. “Service-learning teaches us that we’re more alike than different. People don’t choose their struggles.” WE service-learning resources help Davenport relate issues to her students’ own lives and show them that they are part of a world beyond themselves.
Compton & Inglewood, L.A Connecting teachers to inspire others and empowering students to make a change in their communities
Jacqueline “Dr. J” Sanderlin is a champion educator, community leader, crowd-pumper extraordinaire and celebrity magnet.
She uses all of her enthusiasm and entrepreneurial spirit to attract supporters for her “scholars,” which is what she calls the students in the Los Angeles-area school districts that she’s helped transform. Sanderlin’s “Why Not” attitude has led to dramatic improvements in educational opportunities and outcomes in Culver City, Compton and Inglewood districts.
“As a WE leader and principal for 18 years, I’ve had the opportunity to work in challenging school districts, which had approximately 40 percent foster youth and some even homeless,” says Sanderlin. “It was my personal mission to help build bridges of inspiration and hope for them and their families.”
Sanderlin is a huge champion of WE and the WE Teachers program that empowers a teacher community and provides free resources to teachers across America to help them address critical social issues with their students. Says Carrie Patterson, Chief of Operations for WE Charity: “Dr. J brings a passion and dedication to education that is as contagious as it is fun! Her commitment to her students and their potential inspires me and reminds me of the importance of creating a future in education where all students can thrive.”
Says Sanderlin: “I want the future of my students to be limitless. My perspective is for us not to just think big, but to think even bigger.”
The charismatic educator started out with dreams of becoming a journalist, earning a Bachelor of Arts in Communications/Public Relations from Cal State University. She even had a campus talk show, where she called herself “Jackie Winfrey.” She went on to earn a Doctorate in Education, Leadership, Administration and Policy from Pepperdine University. “Dr. J” was launched.
As principal at George Washington Carver Elementary School in Compton Unified School District, she connected with comedian and actress Cheryl Hines (of Curb Your Enthusiasm fame), who was a student “reading buddy”. When Hines saw the school’s playground, she commented on how rundown it was. Over five years, the two identified and pooled public and private money—working with William Morris talent agency and The Hollywood Reporter—to refurbish Carver and then Foster Elementary School, fixing the playgrounds, hanging stage curtains, renovating teachers’ lounges, planting flowers and securing new computers.
“I didn’t realize that I had more control than I thought to fix my school. Once we put our minds to something, we got it done. And that spurred another question, Why not? Why not more?” recalls Sanderlin.
That’s when Dr. J introduced the concept of service-learning—where students connect what they learn in the classroom to real issues in the surrounding community and they take action.
She began to integrate the WE service-learning curriculum into each one of the district’s schools, supporting them as they tied classroom learning to issues in their communities. Some schools created hygiene packs and distributed them to people living on the streets; others collected used clothes to pass on to homeless children; one school set up a recycling program at their school and did lunch and schoolyard cleanup at recess; another created a strong mentoring program where school ambassadors were selected to mentor younger children. In addition, the entire school district took action to support displaced victims of Hurricane Harvey by filling backpacks with supplies, including clothing, and sending them to Texas.
Understanding that partnerships help to bring community together and support teachers in their mission to empower students, Dr. J has formed over 200 partnerships in the districts where she has worked. For her students, she says these “opportunities and access gave them pride and joy,” and also “college acceptances into Ivy League colleges that would not be there before.”
She’s making waves by nurturing her students’ potential to “look beyond their circumstances and engage in being the change in their own communities.”
Teacher, Napa, California Countering negativity and helplessness by empowering student leaders
Patty Wyman is who she is today because she chose her path and stuck to it. Everything she has achieved is the result of conscious decision-making and a rock-solid belief in her ability to succeed. This combination has been the bedrock of her teaching career for the last 30 years. And she’s passing on to her students the same unwavering belief in their own abilities and potential.
Born in Napa, California, Wyman was a shy middle child who often struggled to stand out among her older, more outgoing siblings. In eighth grade, she decided she wanted to be a cheerleader. In one year, in a single act of will, Patty transformed herself into an exuberant personality who drew plenty of friends and was at the center of social activities.
“I just always wanted to be that type of person who wouldn't just sit back; I liked to get things done.”
But after graduating from college, she struggled to find a career that could make the best use of the skills she’d cultivated. She worked a variety of jobs, none entirely satisfying her, until she found herself teaching educational courses to tourists one summer. And that is when she discovered that her empathy and humor, as well as that streak of theatricality, were perfect for teaching.
“That's how it started: I just loved talking and entertaining people, and I figured I could do that with twelve and thirteen-year-olds,” she says.
She got a Master’s in Education and became a history teacher at Silverado Middle School back in Napa, where she grew up. In 2007, she started an elective leadership class for her eighth graders to counter what she saw as a growing sense of negativity and helplessness in her students.
That year, after watching an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show that featured WE Charity founder Craig Kielburger, Wyman became one of the first educators in the U.S. to sign up for free WE service-learning resources. Together, Wyman and her students learned about the challenges associated with accessing education in many countries and they worked to raise enough money to build two schools with WE in Ecuador.
Today, Wyman continues to value being part of the WE Teachers program and having tools that can help her students make a difference in the world.
Wyman is approaching retirement but has no plans to slow down. She’ll be visiting some of the schools she and her students helped build in the Napo Valley in Ecuador soon, and will be working with Oprah on a movie of her class’s meeting with her.
“Every year it’s just another expansion of that idea I had in the eighth grade that I can be whatever I want.”
School Counselor, Frisco, Texas Supporting students’ social emotional development through connection
When Tiffany Ragland was just eight years old, an act of kindness from her teacher set her on a life path toward becoming an educator. She says it motivated her to inspire the next generation of students—one act of goodness at a time.
Ragland, 47, recalls being in Grade 3 almost 25 years ago when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. Reeling from the news, her older brother became involved with drugs, and then the police. At night, Ragland and her ailing mother would stay up all night wondering if he was okay.
When Ragland was too tired and distracted to pay attention in class, her teacher, Jan Webb, known as “Mrs. Webb,” would carve out time to ask her how she was coping and listen to her worries. And when Ragland’s mother was in hospital receiving chemotherapy, Mrs. Webb invited Ragland to stay with her family. “It was above and beyond what a teacher would do.”
She was more than a teacher.
Mrs. Webb was the role model for the type of teacher that Ragland wanted to become. “I learned early on that kids are at school for more than just math and science and reading and writing.”
Ragland took that lesson with her into her first teaching assignment in a high-needs school where some of the kids suffered from violence, abuse, homelessness and neglect.
She knew that if she wanted her students to absorb her teaching, she had to provide them with more than homework. She needed to connect with them—just as Mrs. Webb had done with her.
After 16 years of teaching, Ragland became a counselor at Purefoy Elementary School in Frisco, Texas. She wanted to apply her belief that “no matter their background, every kid needs social and emotional support.”
WE’s resources help teachers like Ragland develop their students’ social and emotional learning skills by showing them how to understand and manage emotions, and feel and show empathy toward others. Over the last year, Ragland’s used WE’s educational resources, lesson plans and activities to enhance her school’s curriculum and encourage students to connect and broaden their understanding of world issues.
She is also showing her students that happiness can come from simply giving to others, by helping them lead the school’s service program, including food drives for the local Food Pantry and a school supplies drive for victims of Hurricane Harvey. “I’m kind of the eyes and the heart of what goes on.”
Ragland’s students have even taken over leadership of their service programs from the Parent Teacher Association. “It’s led a lot of them to start thinking beyond our school, about what they’re really passionate about.”
Ragland says that she has seen students graduate from high school and put into action the selflessness she tried to instill in them. One of those students even came back to build a buddy bench for the school playground, so children feeling alone have a special place to sit if they want someone to come talk to them. “That’s the piece that makes me happy.”
Teacher, Brooklyn, New York Helping her students bring an end to cyberbullying and inspire a school culture of respect
Nadine Lewis-Knight remembers how her uniform felt on her first day of school, years ago in rural Jamaica. It was fresh and neat, just like her two ponytails. Her teacher met her at the classroom door, crouched down to say hello and handed her a book with her name on it.
“She said I could keep it forever,” Lewis-Knight says, recalling the moment she first fell in love with school. “It stayed with me that learning can be fun and exciting. That’s why I wanted to be a teacher. To pass on that excitement to every kid I met.”
As a teacher at the Warren Prep Academy, a public school in Brooklyn, New York, Lewis-Knight inspires her students to think outside the box. She gives them the opportunity to make choices and evaluate the consequences. “They won’t change the world if I’m thinking for them all the time. That’s not how innovators are created,” she says.
But her class’s choice of local issue was one she didn’t know much about. “Cyberbullying” wasn’t a problem Lewis-Knight had faced growing up. “Cyberbullying was out of my realm,” she says. “But my students use a lot of technology and social media, and they’re bullied. That’s why they chose it.”
As their first step, her students researched the effects of cyberbullying on mental health and investigated potential solutions. Although Lewis-Knight was learning about the issue right alongside them, she helped serve as a guide, walking them through internet safety and online research skills—how to distinguish fact from fiction and identify credible sites. Hoping to add a layer of understanding, she reached out to organizations working on the issue, with the aim of inviting a guest speaker. It was a challenge, however, to secure anti-bullying resources for fifth graders, when most are geared to students in middle or high school.
“They’re exposed to social media, but there’s nothing out there to educate them about it—to help them be aware and knowledgeable,” she says. True to their training under Lewis-Knight, who refers to her class as “little revolutionaries,” her students were moved to take matters into their own hands. In the absence of learning resources, they resolved to simply create their own, breaking down the issue of cyberbullying not only for themselves, but also for younger grades.
As most of Lewis-Knight’s students have YouTube channels, they reached for a familiar tool—video. They conceived, scripted and shot the project themselves.
The opening scene of their video reveals a group of students making fun of the new kid in class. When the teacher (Lewis-Knight herself) notices, the children attempt to hide their behavior. But the crushing impact on the new student is clear.
What happens next is what Lewis-Knight and her students think should always happen in such cases—a conversation about honesty and respect. The teacher encourages the bullied student to be honest about his experience and the bullies to remedy their actions.
Lewis-Knight’s class has screened their video at school-wide assemblies and opened the floor so younger students could have their say on the issue. Whenever the students witness a brewing altercation in the halls or on the playground, they reach out to their schoolmates, intervening and counseling as best they can. “A lot of them have endured bullying since they were in younger grades,” Lewis-Knight says. “They hold each other accountable.”
She may have been unfamiliar with cyberbullying at first, but she’s been connected to every step of her students’ effort, attempting to see the issue from their vantage point and inspiring them to be advocates for themselves and their peers.
“I’ve learned to live in their world and understand what they go through,” says Lewis-Knight. “For me this is a learning journey.”
Counselor, Elizabeth, NJ Supporting her students in fighting for better opportunities for themselves and their community
It’s hard to convince 130 kids to stay late at school—harder still to get them to stay overnight.
But guidance counselor Briana Helm at J. Christian Bollwage Finance Academy high school in Elizabeth, New Jersey, discovered that when she handed her students the reins for organizing a literacy lock-in event to celebrate reading, nothing could hold them back.
Elizabeth is a majority-Hispanic community with high dropout rates and low education levels compared to state and national averages. When Helm’s senior students asked her to head their WE service club at the beginning of the year, she knew it was a chance to support her students in fighting for better opportunities for themselves and their community.
Helm has made a career out of finding a way to support every student who walks through her door and helping her community overcome its challenges.
“I really find a passion working with the kids and the area,” says Helm. “A lot of our parents are working two and three jobs to put food on the table. A lot of our students are first generation and just getting here and learning the ropes. I see myself as a conduit to help bridge that gap.”
At the beginning of the year, she asked her students what issues they wanted to take action on. Their answers showed an abundance of enthusiasm—but perhaps a lack of direction. Helm helped the club channel their passion about issues such as literacy and nutrition into a tangible action: writing, illustrating and designing an ABC book focused on healthy eating that they could distribute to Elizabeth’s pre-kindergarten centers.
To raise money for printing copies in both English and Spanish for the Hispanic members of their community, they invited classmates to a school literacy lock-in—an overnight carnival of book-themed activities to celebrate reading.
Helm saw her students light up with enthusiasm as they worked through the logistics and saw their plans come together.
“Seeing their happiness in their own success—that’s my favorite,” says Helm.
The night of the lock-in, 130 participants turned out—almost half the school’s population. Students decorated the gym with colorful balloons and decorations in homage to Reading Rainbow and Doctor Seuss. Teams in matching T-shirts participated in activities like reading groups and scavenger hunts with literacy facts. Even Elizabeth’s mayor, J. Christian Bollwage, came out to read from his favorite book: The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch.
“It was just a really fun, positive night,” says Helm. “A lot of our kids are out in the streets in our community. This was a night we knew our kids were safe and doing something good.”
The students collected $1,882 in admission entries to produce their book, Let’s Eat with the A B C’s, which they plan on donating to local pre-K centers. The WE club leaders are even discussing coming back after graduation to continue distributing copies.
For Helm, their commitment to the project is humbling, but what she feels is even more powerful is the way younger students look up to the WE club leaders and want to follow in their footsteps.
With a new year of WE club actions to come, Helm may have her work cut out for her. She plans to keep supporting her students in pursuing their dreams.
“We have some truly amazing kids who deserve the same things as kids in any other community in America,” says Helm. “If there’s not someone like me around advocating, then who will there be?”
Teacher, New York City Diversity and inclusion champion
As the pharmaceutical teacher at New York City’s Union Square Academy, Leonela Garcia uses humor, discipline and a deep sense of empathy to give the young minority women in her classes the support they need to change the status quo.
Garcia came to teaching after 10 years of working in pharmacy—a career she started right out of high school. She was hired two weeks before Union Square Academy opened in August 2012 and tasked with creating its pharmacy program from scratch within a year.
Six years later, it’s the only program of its kind in the city and is a model for other career and technical education programs. Over 75 percent of the school’s student body is female, and most of them are from minority backgrounds. This unique demographic was a big part of why Garcia took the job.
“If this high school was around when I was going to school, I definitely would have gone here,” she says.
Garcia knows from personal experience that minority women can face extra barriers in the workforce. She says they are often paid less, promoted more slowly and judged more harshly for their appearance, such as their hair and the way they dress. These challenges can be discouraging and cause young minority women to drop out of careers they might love, adds Garcia.
To counter this, she believes educators need to be more than teachers; they need to be mentors. Garcia credits her own mentor, Patrick Ebea, who was Garcia’s manager at her first job out of high school, for encouraging her to enter pharmacy as a career.
Garcia tries to go above and beyond to support her students in the same way. She understands that students with a difficult home life may need extra time on their tests, and she makes sure she is available after school to chat with students who need to confide in a trusted adult. She also makes sure that her students can give back through service-learning projects.
Using WE resources, Garcia works to address critical social issues with her students and give them the opportunity to be active in their neighborhoods. As a result, they’ve helped to raise awareness about important social justice issues such as sexual harassment and the rights and recognition of the LGBTQ community.
“It’s not just thinking about it and putting it on paper, but actually doing something about it,” she says. “It helps to bring ideas to life.”
Garcia knows what it’s like to not feel able to make an impact in the world. The youngest of five siblings, she was raised in the Bronx by a single mom who immigrated from the Dominican Republic and worked in childcare to make ends meet. Garcia would often come home from school and pitch in to help with her mother’s youngest charges.
She believes that those early experiences helped make her the teacher she is today.
“Kids’ lives can be hard when they leave school,” she says. “They don't always go to an apartment that’s clean or get to sit with family for dinner. A lot of them don't even get a home-cooked meal.”
As the program she helped launch prepares to graduate its latest class, Garcia is most proud that so many of her former students still drop by to see her and share their passion for their careers.
“I know that I’m teaching students that are going to be active participants in the health care industry, and that’s such a big deal.”
Mental health affects every aspect of our lives and plays a huge part in our well-being. That’s why WE and Mental Health America (MHA) have partnered to develop the WE Teachers Educational Modules. Mental Health America—founded in 1909—is the nation’s leading community based nonprofit dedicated to addressing the needs of those living with mental illness and to promoting the overall mental health of all Americans.