On this week’s edition of the Joy Beat, All Things Considered is celebrating the oft-unsung heroes of our time: educators. 

Boston Public Schools educators are tasked with shaping the next generation of Bostonians. They bring light to our kids’ lives and equip them with the most powerful tool that no one can ever take away: knowledge. The COVID-19 pandemic especially highlighted how essential their work is. As if anyone needed a reminder, parents got a firsthand look at just how intense the job can be. 

Earlier this week, BPS, the city of Boston and the Boston Teachers Union announced the winners of the 2023 Educator of the Year awards. Of the nearly 500 nominations, just seven people were presented with this distinct honor.

One of the winners, Tanisha Milton, an eighth-grade history teacher at TechBoston Academy, joined All Things Considered host Arun Rath to discuss what makes teaching so special to her. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.

Arun Rath: First off, congratulations! What was your initial reaction to the news? Did you know that you had been nominated?

Tanisha Milton: Not really. I don’t know ... this is every teacher’s dream to get the highest award, to be honored and just recognized for the outstanding work that we do. I feel as though winning this just kind of sealed the deal of the real work that I do. It’s sort of like the city saying, “We see you!” So, to be recognized for that and be honored for it is an amazing feeling. I’m just glad that I’m being recognized for this because, Lord knows I work hard.

TechBoston—We’ve suffered a lot of trauma. Losing our principal at our school, losing a nurse, losing kids to violence... It feels like not only am I winning this just for myself, but I’m winning this for my school as well. So yeah, I’m honored.

Rath: I like to think that, in an idealized way, eighth-grade history teacher is the coolest job because you’re teaching really awesome material at a time when these young minds are really coming alive.

Milton: I’m going to tell you now: teaching middle school is not for the weak. This is my God-given talent. Whenever I talk to anyone, they’re always like, “Middle school, oh God!” But I absolutely enjoy and love what I do. You have to love and enjoy what you do.

Not only do I teach eighth-grade social studies, but the city has just recognized me for being one of the 12 in Boston Public Schools that is currently teaching AP African-American Studies. So, I was just recognized for that as well. I’m doing great work, and to be honored and recognized for it is really a beautiful thing.

Rath: I’m glad you brought that up—about AP African-American History—because in other parts of the country, the curriculum you teach is being attacked. It must feel so much more important at this point in history.

Milton: It’s all about intentionality and then making sure that we are finding joy in our work. I’m finding joy in my work. I’ve been finding joy in my work. I am a proud product of Boston Public Schools. My children have attended Boston Public Schools, and I’ve dedicated 15 years of my life to teaching in the Boston Public School system. I’m just happy to be able to serve the students in the very same community that I am from.

Rath: You mentioned that teaching middle school is not for the weak, and eighth-grade kids are sort of all over the place in terms of development. How do you approach a whole classroom full of new kids each year?

Milton: It’s so important to see the greatness in students. I know that I am impactful, but it’s also important to be culturally competent, culturally responsive, and I understand the importance of the enormous responsibility that I have. It’s all very important for me to make sure that I’m creating safe spaces for my students so that they can be seen, be heard and be encouraged to be their authentic selves.

Rath: Tell us a bit more about those kids at TechBoston. What are the qualities you’ve noticed in this generation of students?

Milton: Well, they love to learn, and it’s really all about finding joy in their learning. They’re great critical thinkers. And, again, as I’m pushing this new AP African-American Studies unit, these kids want to learn about their history. That’s one of the great rewards—being able to teach kids who really want to have that willingness and that strong desire and love to learn.

Rath: You’ve been doing this for a while. Do the kids still surprise you? Are there things that still surprise you with things they might ask or might say?

Milton: Well, I wouldn’t say they surprise me, but the kids are the ones that actually keep me hip. I’m able to learn all the new dances. I’m able to learn all the new slang. But when Ms. Milton says it, it just doesn’t come out right! I think that’s perhaps one of the most important or fun things about teaching, that the kids sort of keep me young.

Rath: I’ve got teenagers in my house, and I know exactly what you mean. I rely on them for my journalism, to be honest.

What advice would you have for kids who are struggling? You know, we’ve just come through a really difficult period. What are the ways that you helped kids get through this difficult period of learning during the pandemic?

Milton: I think it’s really important for kids to—or, be able to hold spaces for students. I mean, they’re really smart. You just have to have a little more patience, and that’s what I did. There were times when we couldn’t, you know, meet the objective of the day. Sometimes we just celebrated ourselves. It’s just so important to walk into a classroom and let kids be able to show their joy because teaching is a joy.

I understand that the work that I’m doing is legacy work. I know that I have a very powerful presence, so it’s so important to continue uplifting them, continue advocating for them, liberating their consciousness. It’s a lot of work, but just kind of letting kids be their authentic selves in the process of their learning.