Utah first lady Abby Cox poses for a photo as she and her team get ready for the "Show Up for Teachers" event. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Utah Business

Utah first lady Abby Cox poses for a photo as she and her team get ready for the "Show Up for Teachers" event. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The why and how behind Utah first lady Abby Cox’s mission to reform educator wellness

The earliest memory first lady Abby Cox can recall is a visit to her grandmother’s third-grade classroom in Layton, Utah. School had ended for the day, and in the absence of students, everything in the empty classroom felt larger than life. 

Throughout her childhood and adolescence, Cox’s mother would also work as an educator at Mount Pleasant Middle School and, later, the elementary school. 

Watching her grandmother and mother teach and becoming close friends with three of her peers who had Down syndrome eventually paved the way for Cox’s future trajectory. When it came time for Cox to decide what to study in college, she was inspired by her family’s legacy of teaching and her three friends. She pursued a degree in special education with a dual emphasis on early childhood and severe disabilities at Utah State University.

After completing her student teaching and earning her degree and certification, Cox shifted her focus to her family and became a full-time mom and homemaker. In addition to helping teach her four children at home, Cox committed one hour every week to volunteering in her children’s classrooms. 

Cox’s involvement in education throughout her life has given her experience and perspective as a student, teacher and parent. Now, as first lady of Utah, Cox is in a unique position to make a difference for educators. 

After Gov. Spencer Cox was elected, Abby had the opportunity to develop her own first lady initiatives. For inspiration, she turned to her passions and created the four-pronged “Show Up” initiative.

“The overarching goal and mission of Show Up is really creating empathy, connection, a sense of community and a sense of belonging for everyone,” Cox says.

In the early phases of developing her initiative, Cox knew she wanted education to be one of her focuses. “We wanted to figure out how we could teach essential emotional intelligence skills and deliver valuable mental health resources to our students,” she says. “But when we talked to teachers, the answer was universal: ‘We need this ourselves. We need help with emotional intelligence. We need help with our own mental health.’”

With this feedback in mind, Abby shifted her focus to educator wellness. “Before we can teach these skills to the kids, we have to help the helpers,” she says. “As a state, we will be in dire trouble if we do not take care of our educators. They are the people who are training, teaching and inspiring our future leaders. We’re in trouble if they don’t have the skills and tools and resources to stay in their jobs, to be supported in their jobs, and to be successful in their jobs.”

As a consistent parent volunteer in her children’s schools, Cox was able to see firsthand where the teachers were struggling and how much support they lacked. Now, Cox is implementing the knowledge and experience she gained from her time as a volunteer to inform her work as the first lady. 

“While I’m here, I want to make a difference,” Cox says. “I want to bring people together that can make a positive change for educators. I want to be a voice for teachers. I hope they are seeing their voice being reflected and amplified through me and our team, giving them a sense of their own power.”

Cox determined that her educator initiative would focus on disseminating wellness tools and resources to teachers. She also wanted to reinforce appreciation and respect for teaching as a profession. With these goals in mind, the Show Up for Teachers conference was born.

“I want to bring people together that can make a positive change for educators. I want to be a voice for teachers. I hope they are seeing their voice being reflected and amplified through me and our team, giving them a sense of their own power.”

Show Up for Teachers

Utah teacher retention rates are below the national average, with 45 to 50 percent of educators leaving the profession within the first five years. Teachers leave so quickly because of emotional exhaustion, burnout and job-specific stressors. Teaching is already a demanding profession, but without the proper support, it becomes nearly impossible. Cox is using this conference to distribute resources to educators and demonstrate respect for the profession. This way, more teachers will receive the help they need to thrive in their classrooms.

As part of the Show Up for Educator Wellness initiative, Abby and her team launched the Show Up for Teachers conference in 2022. Show Up for Teachers invites over 2,000 educators from across the state to attend a free, one-day conference where they learn valuable skills and make meaningful connections. 

The conference features renowned keynote speakers in addition to a diverse selection of over 50 breakout sessions on topics such as stress management and conflict resolution. In addition to these sessions, a wide range of Utah-based companies show up to express their appreciation for teachers with gifts and as vendors in the “Show [Up] Room.”

The Show Up for Teachers conference provides a place for educators to access valuable knowledge and resources while creating networks that promote beneficial education policies.

At the 2023 conference, Cox brought together policymakers, business and community leaders, and higher education professionals during a breakfast before the conference began. Cox explains that the goal of the breakfast was to “promote educators, show why this kind of event is important and why we need to listen to teachers tell their stories.”

The conference provides a unique forum for policymakers to talk directly with educators who are in the classroom every day. There is often a disconnect between what’s happening in schools and what’s being decided on Capitol Hill. Giving teachers the opportunity to share their experiences provides legislators with valuable insights that help inform education policies. 

Because Utah’s legislative session happens in the middle of the school year, it’s often difficult for teachers to influence education bills. However, the conference is held during the summer when teachers aren’t as busy in their classrooms. This is a valuable time for educators to connect with legislators and make a difference in policy. Throughout the conference, there are dedicated times when policymakers are encouraged to have conversations with the teachers.

“It’s been so powerful for a third-grade teacher to sit and talk to a legislator about their experiences and why this bill is bad, or this bill is good,” Cox says. “It’s really empowering for them, and I truly believe it’s going to lead to and has led to better policies for educators, and that means better policies for our students.”

Creating an education network

Ultimately, Cox’s Show Up initiative is centered around connection. In addition to the Show Up for Teachers conference, Cox is taking advantage of her unique position as first lady to create networks throughout the realm of Utah education. With her contacts in the political world and her work with nonprofits and businesses, Cox and her team can act as a nexus for education reform. 

“I’m happy that, as a whole, we’ve found these really positive voices that want to make a positive change,” Cox says of her partnerships. As she’s worked with organizations such as the Utah Teacher Fellows and Parent Teacher Association, Cox has been able to assess the needs of teachers and advocate for them with legislators and business owners. 

There will always be disagreements when it comes to education and education policies, but Cox is committed to helping these diverse groups come together and “disagree better” in order to promote productive collaboration. 

“On all sides, these groups are so passionate about improving education,” Cox says. “They want to contribute, they want to build, they don’t want to tear down. That’s the kind of network that we’re creating. One that works together, disagrees better and finds common ground.” 

In addition to these groups, Utah families and communities play an essential role in this network. Cox encourages parents and community members to volunteer in classrooms at their local schools when possible. “Teachers need your support,” Cox says. “If you can just go in for one hour a week or half an hour a week, it makes a difference.”

It’s also crucial for the community to get involved with their local legislators and school board members. Whether a community member has school-aged children or not, they can help promote or discourage education policies. When a bill is going through, listening to teachers’ opinions and helping amplify their voices with the policymakers can make an immense impact. Be an informed voter by talking to educators and school board members about what is best for schools, teachers and students.

Utah first lady Abby Cox speaks at the Show Up for Teachers Conference. | Photo by Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Utah first lady Abby Cox speaks at the Show Up for Teachers Conference. | Photo by Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Inspiring the next generation of educators

As part of her initiative, Cox has prioritized visiting higher education institutions across the state to discuss how they are preparing future teachers for the workforce. During these visits, she talks with faculty and staff about how their programs can better prepare teachers for the realities of being an educator and how they can provide college students studying education with the tools necessary to succeed. Cox also hopes that as teachers receive more resources and support, more students will choose teaching as their profession. 

“We need to inspire our pre-service teachers and even our high school students who are trying to decide what they want to do,” Cox says. “We need the best and the brightest to be the next generation of educators. We have a goal to ensure there are robust pre-service education programs in each one of our universities and that those programs are adaptable and can fit the needs of our students.”

Through creating more robust programs and preparing future educators for success, Cox hopes to empower teachers in their profession and bolster respect and dignity for the profession of education. 

“The impact a teacher can have on an individual student is felt for generations, so why would we not want the best and brightest humans as teachers?” Cox asks. “As students see their educators being supported and see the narrative surrounding the profession shift to be more positive and respected, more students will be drawn to that.” 

Cox’s message to educators is, “Thank you for showing up for Utah’s kids. Now let us SHOW UP for you!” As Cox prepares for the next few years and beyond, she hopes the impact of her initiatives will live on. 

“I know this is a finite time for me,” Cox says. “What I would like to see in each of my focus areas in the initiative is that they become self-sustaining—that these programs and the things we’ve established can move forward on their own in the education space.” 

Through empowering educators and teaching them essential skills to be successful, Cox is creating a shift that will impact and improve schools, communities and the state of Utah as a whole. During her 2023 Show Up for Teachers conference speech, Cox told educators, “My pledge to you today: As long as I am in this position, and forever afterward, I will work relentlessly on your behalf. I will never stop reminding anyone who will listen to me that you matter, that you need to be heard, that you are responsible for building the next generation of powerful leaders, hopeful warriors, and brilliant humans, and that it is our responsibility to elevate your efforts in every way possible.” 

First lady Abby Cox reads to Midvale Elementary School students. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
First lady Abby Cox reads to Midvale Elementary School students. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Heather Bergeson is a writer and editor based in Utah. Heather has written about travel, higher education, sports and the outdoors for Stowaway magazine, BYU College of Humanities, Utah Valley University and Moab Sun News. She has a bachelor's degree in English and editing from Brigham Young University.