My Transition from the Classroom to Amplifying Teacher Voice

Guestblogger Xian Barrett is national program director for New Voice Strategies, which created the VIVA Idea Exchange. Previously, he taught Law, History and Japanese Language and Cultures in Chicago Public Schools. 

It is with some amusement that I find myself guest blogging for Eduwonk. In the past, as an activist leader in the Chicago Teachers Union, I often found myself in debate with contributors and readers of this site. But today, I relish the opportunity to engage this community in dialogue around the topic that so many of us live and breathe from the moment we wake up in the morning until our heads hit the pillow at night: the long-term, lasting improvement of our education system, and more broadly, our society.

In light of my (anticipated) firing this year from Chicago Public Schools, I was excited to join the team at New Voice Strategies (NVS), which created the VIVA Idea Exchange to let the expert voices of those on the frontlines lead policy development.  Despite my deep ambivalence about leaving the work and students I love, NVS is allowing me to help more students by fundamentally changing the system.  My own activity in educational policy has always been driven by the voices of my colleagues, the community where I taught and, most of all, my students.

In the same spirit, I’m proud to introduce this guest blog series from NVS, which you may know as VIVA teachers. I will open today, our CEO Elizabeth Evans will close the week, and in between you will hear from educators who have participated in VIVA Idea Exchanges.

In their stories, you will see how they took a leadership role on the key issues of our time— teacher evaluation, teaching in culturally diverse communities, and school and community safety. I think you will, as I do, find their stories moving and inspiring. At the same time, I urge you to consider how our values and vision catalyzed this work.

As you read the series, I want you to keep in mind these guiding principles of our work. First, we believe that full engagement from all professionals in a public service is the only way to solve the most complex of our societal problems. We’ve all been in rooms where decision makers have bemoaned how challenging it is to get parents, teachers and students to “buy-in,” and then strategized how to secure that buy-in. Let’s be blunt. That doesn’t work. Our nation has been at its greatest when tyranny has been overcome by democratic action; it has failed disastrously when those in power have been left to decide what’s best for everyone else.

I learned about this principle of listening from my mentoring teacher when I was a beginning assistant teacher in Japan. She said, “The second you think that you are smarter than a room full of kids, you are not going to be able to help them.” When any of us thinks that we know better for communities or schools than the community itself, we will not only be unable to improve them, we will turn into oppressors.

Through our VIVA Idea Exchange process, rather than elevating the voices of educators who support a particular position, we create a platform for them to problem solve and make their own ideas heard. This not only generates better ideas, but it develops educators who are ready to implement and, if necessary, fight for the changes they envision.

The second principle comes up frequently in the harsh world of education reform: the need to open direct communication between public officials and our diverse educators and communities. We should take care to be civil, but that cannot trump direct, authentic and solution-oriented communication. Sometimes this authentic communication is uncomfortable; when someone is truly passionate, his or her authentic communication may be off-putting. But we still must support their inclusion if they are ready to work on solutions.  After all, the people who are most passionate about the conditions of our schools are the people who are most directly impacted. Many are angry at BOTH status quos—the long-time neglected schools and the instability of top-down solutions that seems to do little more than disrupt communities of highest need. We need to listen to them and support them not just to release that anger, but to channel it into advocacy for their own vision of a just education system.

Our Idea Exchanges create a safe space for educators to have these conversations amongst themselves first. Sometimes it is heated. Sometimes there are generations-old conflicts along race and class lines that play out. But, through supportive dialogue, our teachers unearth better policy solutions than if we had a cordial, more homogeneous gathering.  Through this process, we give our public leaders authentic and actionable solutions that truly reflect what the community is thinking and capture our best professional ideas.

After all, we must recognize that when mistakes are made in policy development, those at the grassroots level are the ones who are impacted most. This means that resistance to change is not due to unwillingness, but a deep logical fear of something that may very well be devastating.

That’s why our work is rooted so firmly in bringing frontline stakeholders into the policy development process. Instead of just offering a seat at the table, we must open up the lead chair. It is fair, it is just, and it is the only way we will actually achieve the solutions our youth need.

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