With regard to Utah’s teachers, first lady Abby Cox, the wife of Gov. Spencer Cox, knew something needed to change after her husband took office in January 2021. And as a former special education teacher, she felt she was the woman to do it. 

As a result of the pandemic, teachers have faced increased levels of stress in recent years, experts say. The Utah State Board of Education revealed in their 2022 Educator Exit Survey that emotional exhaustion/burnout and job-specific stressors were the most influential factors in educators’ decisions to leave their jobs. 

Cox’s way of helping was starting “Show Up for Teachers,” a conference dedicated to the emotional well-being of Utah’s educators. The second annual convention took place at the Mountain America Exposition Center in Sandy on Wednesday and featured keynote speakers Arthur C. Brooks, a Harvard professor and bestselling author, and Michael Bonner, a teacher at the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta. 

More than 2,600 educators and community members attended, as well as 125-plus businesses providing teachers with discounts, donated gifts and more to show their appreciation. Additionally, a gala sponsored by the Deseret News and Utah Business will honor teachers Thursday night at the Grand America Hotel. 

The idea originated after Cox spoke with teachers all across the state and realized many were struggling.  

“Almost universally what we heard from our educators was, ‘We need this,’” she said. “We have to help the helpers.” 

Utah first lady Abby Cox talks with a group of volunteers as they work with her team to get ready for the Show Up for Teachers event at the Mountain America Exhibition Center in Sandy on Tuesday, July 18, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Teachers are at their best when they feel supported, which translates to a better learning environment for students, says Cox, whose mother and grandmother were also educators. Based on that principle, Show Up for Teachers was born. 

The event is part of Cox’s larger Show Up Initiative, which is intended to increase connectedness and empathy among Utahns, especially children. It is a “rallying cry” centered around four key areas, the first of which focuses on educator wellness. The remaining issues concern foster care, athletes with intellectual disabilities and community service.  

“All (these areas are) connected through this overarching idea and goal of increasing empathy, increasing compassion, increasing community connectedness and championing and allowing those voices that don’t feel like they’ve been heard and elevating people that have not felt a part of the community,” Cox said. 

Last year’s inaugural conference was met with rave reviews, as 97% of the 1,100 attendees said they were satisfied with the experience, according to Cox. One middle school educator even said, “It was like Disneyland for teachers.” Businesses also relished the opportunity to express their gratitude for the teaching community. 

“It was so fun to share tons of free resources and products with teachers and show them how much we care for them,” a 2022 vendor said. 

Cox felt the conference’s first year couldn’t have gone much better. And all the positive feedback told organizers that the event had value and needed to continue. So just days after the inaugural convention, work began on the next one. 

Utah first lady Abby Cox, director of First Lady Initiatives Kirsten Rappleye and deputy director of the Show Up Initiative Sarah Allred look at the Denik gift packet for the teachers that will be given out at the Show Up for Teachers event at the Mountain America Exhibition Center in Sandy on Tuesday, July 18, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“One thing that people don’t realize about the first lady is that she doesn’t just automatically get a budget to go around and do whatever she wants,” Kirsten Rappleye, the director of Show Up Utah, said. “So we’re constantly in the process of fundraising and creating partner relationships and figuring out what we can do to make this bigger and better every year.” 

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Leading up to this year’s conference, Cox closely worked with higher education administrators to ensure educators are prepared for the unique challenges that teachers presently face. In the modern world, Cox says it is no longer about simply communicating information to students. Technology can do that. 

“Educators are there as mentors, as connectors, as humans teaching them how to be human,” she said. 

And the only way to teach students how to be human is to recognize that teachers are too. 

“When our teachers are stressed and anxious and having mental health struggles, they’re not going to be the best person they can be for that student,” she said. “If we can start to focus on our educators and our administrators and make sure that schools are environments where they can thrive emotionally and mentally, then that will transfer to our students and they will be better prepared for the world.”

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