Update: On March 3, 2022, Rebecka Peterson was named the 2022 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year, a continuation of the district award outlined below. As Teacher of the Year, Peterson will spend one year on hiatus, working as an ambassador for teachers in the state public school system.
Rebecka Peterson, who graduated from OKWU in 2009 with a math degree, would never have imagined that she’d be where she is today, teaching in a massive public high school—much less that she’d be as in love with her job as she is, or that she’d be earning accolades as the top teacher in her district.
“I avoided high school,” she said. “There’s a reason I wasn’t an education major. I was homeschooled in high school, you know? I don’t know how to teach high school.”
Her recent accomplishment—being named Union Public Schools’ District Teacher of the Year—begs to differ. But while she’s honored at the achievement, Peterson says she’s received more from Union than she’s given to it, something much more life-changing than any award: she found a home, a concept that’s always been somewhat elusive in her life.
“To Change the World in This Way”
It’s difficult for Peterson, when asked, to tell you quite where home was for her growing up. Her father was Iranian, her mother Swedish, and the two met at a Bible school in Sweden. When Rebecka was born, they moved to Tulsa, but that didn’t stick for long. Both of her parents worked in the medical field, so they ended up moving often throughout her childhood for medical mission work. A year in Kazakhstan here, a year in Tajikistan there—it eventually became difficult to put down roots.
“I’m very culturally ambiguous,” Peterson said. “I just kind of grew up everywhere, which was really difficult as a child. But it’s something that I’m so grateful for as an adult.”
OKWU proved to be a soft place for Rebecka to land. She heard about it through a high school friend who attended the university and recommended it, and it was close to Tulsa, which was familiar and which she still considered her home base. “When I stepped on campus, I just knew that it was going to be such a great fit for me,” she said.
Her years at OKWU provided stability, opportunities for mentorship, and key relationships—including her future husband, Brett, who graduated in 2009 with a degree in Business Administration. They also offered an affirmation of her life’s passions, along with a newfound freedom to pursue the calling in her life that was forming.
Specifically, Peterson points to Dr. Brian Turner and Dr. Beverly Hartter as foundational mentors who nurtured her calling into teaching. She still remembers Dr. Turner’s many devotions on the parable of the talents as being formative in her life.
“You’re given your talents for a reason, and you’re supposed to use those talents to help other people,” she said. “And it took four years of him saying that for it to sink in.”
For his part, Dr. Turner well remembers those talents. “I’ll always remember first meeting Rebecka,” he said. “She walked into my upper-level college math course as a high-schooler and wowed us all with her mathematical ability. From there she blossomed into a true mathematician, leading OKWU in many ways, including giving professional research projects: one on music, and another on fluid dynamics.”
In 2009, Peterson was awarded the outstanding mathematics achievement, given by OKWU’s Math and Science faculty. “She was always well-respected by both faculty and peers,” Dr. Hartter said. “I‘ve been blessed by her friendship since the first year we met.”
The most impressive thing about Rebecka that Turner remembers is her heart for others. “Most of all, she is an incredibly caring human being who gave up other opportunities to teach high school because she felt that God called her to change the world in this way. And changed it she has,” he said.
“I know what it’s like not to speak English in the home. I know what it’s like to not be able to ask your parents to proofread your English papers. I know what it’s like to not understand those American idioms. And the air just kind of loosens.“
A New Home
Rebecka and Brett were married one week after graduating from OKWU. From there, they were off to the University of South Dakota, where both pursued graduate degrees. At that time, Peterson planned to teach math at the college level, and she found her passion affirmed during her work as a teaching assistant.
“I just fell in love with teaching,” she said. “I loved my math courses, I did, but I really looked forward to the hours where I got to teach college algebra sections to undergrads. I just knew that this is what I want to do.”
After a few years as a TA and an adjunct professor, the Petersons moved back to Tulsa, where Rebecka began teaching at Tulsa Community College. During her time there, she also taught concurrent classes at Union High School, where she made an impression on the faculty and administration. Eventually, they approached her about coming aboard full time, and Peterson agreed. She has no regrets.
“It’s become home,” she said. “As an immigrant myself, to get to teach such a diverse population [is great].”
Her unique experience growing up helps her connect with her students on a deeper level, especially at such a large and diverse school—Union has 3,500 total students, and over 80 language and cultural groups are represented there.
“The best part is getting to know teenagers. They are so fun and funny and inspiring, and they make me so hopeful for the future. They’re just incredible.”
“On that first day of school, I’m able to say—even though I look white, I’m also half brown,” she said. “I know what it’s like not to speak English in the home. I know what it’s like to not be able to ask your parents to proofread your English papers. I know what it’s like to not understand those American idioms. And the air just kind of loosens.”
It’s this connection with her students, the ability to go above and beyond the classroom curriculum, that’s most rewarding for Peterson.
“The best part is getting to know teenagers,” she said. “They are so fun and funny and inspiring, and they make me so hopeful for the future. They’re just incredible… And the best part of my job is getting to know their stories and knowing how much they’ve gone through already. Yet they’re still so hopeful.”
Larissa Hale, a 5th-grade teacher at Wilson Elementary in Bartlesville, had Peterson as a math teacher in high school, and she echoes this focus on connection. “Rebecka helped us to find the good in each day, even if each day wasn’t always good,” she said. “She hosted special training and tutoring for students taking AP exams and preparing for the PSAT, and she always remembered what extracurriculars we were a part of. She made each student truly feel noticed, loved, and appreciated.”
The coronavirus pandemic certainly made it a challenge to remain as connected to students as normal, but Peterson is remaining optimistic. “2020 was the hardest year of teaching, but hopefully we’re all better teachers because of it,” she said. “Right now, the challenge is keeping in touch with everybody and keeping everyone on track… The challenge, in general, is meeting everybody’s needs, and that’s where their stories are so important.”
This Teacher of the Year honor provides a chance to reflect on the past years and to look ahead to the future, but Peterson is hoping things don’t change much. She strives to simply continue to do what she’s doing now—investing in and enriching the lives of her students, both in and out of the classroom.
“I just feel very lucky to be where I am,” she said.