Honoring Mattie May Whyte Woodridge, the Real Founder of Teacher Appreciation Week

Mattie May Whyte Woodridge

Teacher Appreciation Week is an established tradition in school districts throughout the United States, but not many people seem to know how it started. Well, here you go!


It Started with a Teacher in Arkansas

Specifically, a Black Arkansas teacher at a school in the segregated South. At some point during the early 1940s, Mattie Whyte Woodridge (1909–1999) decided that educators should be recognized for the contributions they make to society—and that she would make that happen.

Woodridge wrote to every governor in the United States. She corresponded with a host of politicians and leaders in education, stressing the need for a national day to honor teachers. In 1944, one of the many letters she wrote landed on the desk of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Mrs. Roosevelt acted upon that letter, asking the 81st U.S. Congress to consider setting aside one day per year to acknowledge and honor the work of teachers. In addition, the National Education Association (NEA), joined by its state affiliates in Kansas and Indiana, worked tirelessly to help make Woodridge’s suggestion a reality. Like Mrs. Roosevelt, the NEA lobbied Congress to create a day for the nation to celebrate teachers.

Woodridge Gradually Saw Her Plan Materialize

Mattie Whyte Woodridge continued to work as an educator in the Arkansas Delta, eventually serving as principal of North End Elementary School in Helena in the 1950s. Although her idea worked its way through Congress for decades, she did live to see its fruition.

At first, Congress declared March 7, 1980, National Teacher Day—but only for that particular year. However, a growing movement to make it an annual event had already taken root, and people throughout the country continued to celebrate it. For several more years, the NEA and its affiliates observed National Teacher Day on the first Tuesday of March, and in 1985, the NEA Representative Assembly voted to officially designate that day as National Teacher Day.

The National Parent Teacher Association was also eager to make the day of recognition official but took it a step further: each year, the first full week of May would be designated as Teacher Appreciation Week.

Teacher Appreciation Week Is Established

In May 1999, Representative Rush Holt, a congressman from New Jersey, delivered a touching speech as he discussed National Teacher Day before the 106th Congress. Here’s an excerpt:

“As a teacher myself, I know that teaching is a hard and sometimes unrecognized job. But of all the important jobs in our society, nothing makes more of an impact on our children than a well-trained, caring, and dedicated teacher. No job ultimately is more important to our society.”

On August 14, 1999, just three months after Holt gave this speech, Mattie Whyte Woodridge died at age 90. Although details of her lifelong mission are sparse, her patience and diligence led to the permanent establishment of an annual event that continues to make educators and students smile year after year.

Woodridge doesn’t have her own Wikipedia page, nor is she profiled in many history-based publications. In fact, her name is rarely even mentioned during Teacher Appreciation Week. As we celebrate the teachers of today, let’s also remember and honor her legacy.

Maia Appleby is the Editorial Director of the American Consortium for Equity in Education. She’s also a communications manager and an advocate who has been writing and editing in the education space since 2010. Connect with her on LinkedIn at

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