Rebecka Peterson, a high school math teacher from Tulsa, Oklahoma, is the nation's 2023 Teacher of the Year.
Peterson is not just any calculus instructor -- the Oklahoma mathematician, previously a college math instructor, is also a story crafter who uses journaling to inspire her creativity in the classroom.
"If I am a good storyteller, it's because I've learned to be a good story listener and that has been the foundation of my teaching philosophy -- just carving out time and space to listen to my students' stories," Peterson told ABC News. "Once I've taken the time to listen, I'm just empowered to share their stories and empowered to elevate their voices," she said.
Peterson has also written over 1,000 posts for One Good Thing, a blog for teachers to track the good things happening in their classrooms.
She vowed to use her increased platform to tell the stories of all that's good in education while uplifting her students. Despite years of adversity for students across the country, from school closures to mass shootings, Peterson stressed that she tries to cultivate an escape for them each year.
"Now more than ever, we as educators have to create these spaces where we're able to, to, hold their stories and to sit with them and lean into what they're telling us," Peterson said. "They're counting on us. They're counting on us to create these safe and open places," she added.
Peterson said she also wants to thank her fellow teachers -- "thank you" was the first phrase the Swedish Iranian immigrant learned when she came to the U.S. She described her middle school math teacher, Mrs. West, as her inspiration for breaking barriers in teaching.
"With her making a space for me, I was able to see it so I did it," Peterson said, adding, "I grew up in a time where history told [that] us girls don't have a place in STEM, but because of Mrs. West, I get to be part of the narrative that says history was wrong."
STEM -- which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- teachers are often male, according to education experts in the field. Baked into the nationwide teacher shortage, federal data also found the majority of public schools find it somewhat or very difficult to staff physical science and mathematics teachers.
The Tulsa teacher advocated for higher salaries in order to address those shortages and disparities.
"I've been asking teachers all over Oklahoma: How do we recruit and retain highly qualified educators, particularly in STEM? And pay certainly comes up every time, especially when we're talking about recruiting," she said.
Under the National Teacher of the Year program, run by the Council of Chief State School Officers, "one Teacher is selected to be the National Teacher of the Year" annually, from the pool of State Teachers of the Year, according to the council's website.
"The role of the National Teacher of the Year is to bring national public attention on the importance of excellence in teaching. Released from classroom duties for the year, this educator works full-time to shine a light on the vital role of teachers in this country," the website states.
"It's a singular role for an educator who has demonstrated excellence in the classroom, an exceptional commitment to their students and profession and skills in public speaking and advocacy."
As 2023 Teacher of the Year, Peterson will spend the next 12 months representing educators and serving as an ambassador for students and teachers across the nation. Peterson said she is excited to attend a ceremony next Monday afternoon at the White House recognizing her victory and the entire 2023 state Teachers of the Year cohort.
In a video tribute Wednesday morning, first lady Jill Biden -- an educator herself -- praised Peterson for sharing the "beautiful and positive experiences" that come with teaching.
The National Education Association, of which Peterson is a member, also issued a congratulatory statement on Wednesday.
"The best teachers understand how their roles are not just about contributing to an excellent education, but also to their community. And Rebecka is certainly one of those teachers," NEA president Becky Pringle said in a press release. "Her ability to tap into students’ joy and form authentic bonds and her dedication to making learning truly accessible embodies what it means to be an outstanding educator."
For her part, Peterson said she tries to make the normally tricky subject of math less intimidating for her kids.
"It starts by learning their stories, for sure, because then there's this built in trust," she said. "Once they trust me, then I can push them to conquer calculus."
Her students are all in. "Even if they don't believe it yet," she said, "they know Mrs. P believes it, and so then they come along for the ride."