Deborah Smith Johnston, Ph.D.

Deborah Smith Johnston, Ph.D., teaches history lessons in hopes of building a better future.

World Teachers’ Day is celebrated on Monday, October 5. In honor of the event, Arcadia News spoke with Deborah Smith Johnston of Keystone Academy – an international boarding school in Shunyi, Beijing – to find out how this special day came about.

Johnston, who is a history teacher at the academy, was the recipient of the 2019 Pioneers in World History Award, given by the World History Association. She has an undergraduate and graduate degree in international affairs and worked at the United Nations in the 1990s. She has spent her life studying culture and education and has been a secondary educator for 30 years. 

She explained that the celebration of World Teachers’ Day comes from the Confucius teachings of not only accessibility and education for everyone, but education as a way to explore human nature. 

“One of the most important jobs of a history teacher is to teach the future,” Johnston said. “That may seem like an oxymoron, but I honestly believe that unless we train our students to look at those patterns of what’s happening in the present and see the context... they’re not going to be able to do well in the future.”

UNESCO started World Teachers’ Day in 1994 as a celebration of the day that the organization adopted a new set of global teaching and education standards. 

“That conference specifically was addressing inclusive education: making sure special needs students were part of the equation and moving forward, with education for all,” she said.

Johnston also thinks the event’s creation aligns with UNESCO’s planning for the new millennium. “There’s this moment in the 90s when they’re looking back at the progress they’ve made. They were also looking forward to the millennium development goals they were going to start in 2000,” she said. 

Johnston explained that “education is what is allowing families and communities to escape poverty in the United States and across the world. I think without equal education for all, you limit the potential of developing nations.” 

The 2020 World Teachers’ Day theme, “Teachers: Leading in crisis, reimagining the future” couldn’t be more relevant.

“The recognition that teachers matter has become even more important in the past eight months,” Johnston said. “Not everyone has those resources to be able to do online education at home. When we think about the divide in education, particularly in COVID times, there’s a huge divide between who gets what.”

To Johnston, the best way to show gratitude toward teachers is with a simple note of affirmation and recognition that their students are applying what they learn in the classroom to their daily lives. Whatever you do, make sure to say thank you.


Ways to thank a teacher

Special Gifts

Show appreciation by giving teachers a “thank you” card, surprising them with homemade crafts or drawings, or by writing a poem of admiration. 

Yummy treats

Collaborate with your local PTA to set up a raffle with gift cards, coffee mugs and other prizes. Surprise teachers with coffee and donuts or set up a potluck breakfast for teachers before the school day begins. 

Gift cards

Gift cards for lunch, dinner or self-care treatments are always special – especially after the stresses of this year. Other ideas include sweets, coffee or gift cards to Target or Hobby Lobby. 


Create a special shoutout to your favorite teachers on social media – let them know how awesome they are!