A high school English teacher in Texas who works with students facing poverty and traumas related to their immigration to the United States on Monday was named the 2015 National Teacher of the Year.
Shanna Peeples from Amarillo was selected for the honor by the Council of Chief State School Officers. She is the first Texas teacher to win the award since 1957.
Peeples works at Palo Duro High, where about 85 percent of students live below the poverty line and where more refugee children are enrolled than in any other high school in the 31,000-student district.
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She will be recognized by President Barack Obama in a ceremony at the White House on Wednesday.
Peeples said a childhood that exposed her to alcoholism and domestic violence has provided her with empathy for students from Burma, Somalia, Ethiopia, Iraq and Cuba, many of whom are survivors of emotional or physical trauma in their war-torn homelands. That can make trust difficult, she said.
"That's what helped me as a teacher probably more than anything, that I have that connection with them, unfortunately," Peeples said. "You can't really learn when you're scared."
Texas has led the U.S. in refugee resettlements for the last four years. Most are settled in large cities, but immigrant populations also are thriving in more remote areas, including Amarillo.
The 50-year-old mother of three grown children, whose teachers when she was young urged her to write to find a way out of her pain and isolation, began teaching after working as a disc jockey, medical assistant, pet sitter and journalist at the Amarillo Globe-News, where she covered education. She's taught for 12 years, the past seven at Palo Duro.
Peeples, who was nominated by a Palo Duro colleague and won campus, district, region and state teacher of the year honors, teaches AP English and serves as the English department chair as well as an instructional coach for other teachers.
One former student knows there are plenty of selfless teachers in Texas and across the country. But Peeples has something intangible, said Viet Tran, a college junior who believes he wouldn't be at Harvard studying neurobiology on a scholarship without Peeples' help.
"The reason for her being a special teacher is she is able to bridge a very wide gap of both student achievement and student experience," said the 21-year-old junior who came to the U.S. in 1998 from Vietnam. "She teaches kids who have never been in a classroom before and students who want to go to Ivy League schools."
On occasion, she has spoken with refugee parents who wanted their children to get jobs so they could contribute financially to the family, rather than attend school.
"She tries to help the parents in families understand that their (child's) future is really in education," Tran said.
Peeples is a "brilliant" teacher who is animated and captivating, Palo Duro principal Sandy Whitlow said.
"She continually tries to improve herself as a teacher," Whitlow said. "She is like an onion -- there are so many layers to her."
Peeples was selected from among four finalists named in January. The other three teachers hail from Alabama, Hawaii and Indiana. Peeples will spend a year traveling the nation to represent educators and advocate on behalf of teachers.
"I hope to remind people that public school teachers are amazing, dedicated, hard-working, smart and gifted people," she said. "There are great things (at schools across the country) that happen every day. It's not flashy or dramatic."