To Baltimore Teachers: Thank You

05/06/2015 04:08 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2016

Over the last two weeks, teachers in Baltimore have worked tirelessly to support their students, their schools and their community. I have two words for them: thank you.

Ashley Smith, a fourth grade teacher at Lakeland Elementary/Middle School in Southwest Baltimore, used her classroom as a safe harbor where her students could openly express their reactions to the Baltimore riots through their writing. "I knew the students would be coming into class... with a lot of questions about what had taken place," she told ABC News. Ashley relied on her skills as an educator to encourage an open, healthy dialogue among her students. She not only gave them a space to share their feelings by writing essays, but also established an open communication channel between peers. It was through this channel that her students' discussed the power of peaceful protests and the tragedies that often result from violent uprisings.

Another Baltimore City middle school educator, Jerae Kelley, teaches many low-income students from the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood at the Academy for College and Career Exploration. She appeared on CNN late last week to talk with a national audience about the power of student voices during the rioting and protests. Jerae conveyed that teachers must understand the role they play in helping to direct their students' power in constructive ways.

As Shannon Hoffman, a first grade teacher at Medfield Heights, wrote in an email,

I am reminded that my job is so important. Even though I teach elementary students, it is my job to create an environment for them to learn to communicate respectfully, manage frustration, keep perspective and effectively communicate their wants and needs.

In the last ten days, countless educators have supported their students and communities by fostering open discussions in the classroom, cleaning up neighborhoods, calling each of their students to see if they were okay and developing thoughtful lesson plans for kids returning to the classroom. But the work of great teachers like Ashley, Jerae and Shannon is not a one-off experience in response to the current events in the city. These teachers empower their students every day to be civically engaged and critically analyze the world around them.

I'm so proud of all the great teachers that have helped Baltimore and the nation endure through this difficult time. And, in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, I again say thank you. Great teachers, like Urban Teacher Center teachers Ashley, Jerae and Shannon, are invaluable and we applaud their continued efforts to improve the lives of their students.

And, one day soon, if we've done our work well, zip codes will not determine the quality of education students receive and it will be all our students' voices that are heard, using what they learned in school to stand up for justice in their communities.