Policy and Practice: Why Teacher Voice Matters

Elizabeth Evans is founding CEO of New Voice Strategies, which created the VIVA Idea Exchange. A nationally recognized community organizer and nonprofit leader, she has been working on issues related to how we educate American children for the last dozen years.

The screaming headline read: “The all-out, all-ages overhaul of school is happening now.” Did you see that on the cover of the September 15 New York Times Magazine? I picked it up just as I started thinking about this blog post. I kept glancing back at it as I thought about why I believe teachers can and should play a dramatically larger role in policy leadership — in their own unions, in their school districts, and in their states. To equip all children to succeed in a knowledge economy, we need teachers front and center in policy design.

Eduwonk has been my ‘must stop’ check in on education policy for almost a decade. In the two years I’ve been building New Voice Strategies, I’ve hardly found an ed policy advocate who doesn’t use Eduwonk as an essential source. Yet, precious few teachers have ever even heard of Eduwonk. What’s going on? How can we policy advocates be so isolated from the professionals who actually do the work?

Headlines like the one in the New York Times are part of the problem. We all share a sense of urgency to drive improvement in our schools in the face of a global knowledge economy. And our track record at lasting systemic change is no comfort. We have to look back a good 150 years for a model. And, too often, teachers experience that urgency as another fad, new directive, or some other outside demand. Why? Because not enough teachers are part of the policy creation conversation from the outset.

We’ve been accused of talking too much and doing too little. Fair enough. I think policy wonk-dom is filled with a whole lot of talking, often to familiar friends, and not much listening. Blogs are especially likely to reflect this listening dearth — snarky comments are way more frequent than reflective, substantive responses or action plans. In the meantime, teachers are busy in their classrooms working with students, filling out paperwork, interpreting the latest impenetrable bureaucratic mandate, putting out a fire. Yet, without their expertise, professional training, and thoughtful input on implementation of any policy, the policy is likely to fail.

That’s the nut we’re trying to crack — how to bring teachers into the center of policy-making without taking them away from their jobs and without piling on yet another task to their overflowing plate. The VIVA Idea Exchange uses the best of peer networking and technology to give teachers opportunities for collaboration that can dramatically change the value and impact of policy and, yes, influence their classroom practice. No, we’re not aiming for some invisible hand to control teachers’ every decision. Instead, we’re doing something about teachers’ isolation and marginalization.

The VIVA Idea Exchange strengthens existing peer connections and builds new ones. Now, a teacher in suburban Minneapolis and a teacher in International Falls can collaborate and advise the state education commissioner on how to evaluate teachers. Then, they can continue their relationship and work on lesson planning, literacy instruction, and tackling specific instructional needs of their students. Teachers in different neighborhoods in Chicago can share ideas at three o’clock in the morning about the implications of the inevitable longer school day and how to design it to work best for their students and their professional needs. Two strong-willed, opinionated teachers, who would never encounter each other were it not for the opportunity to collaborate online, reached a meeting of the minds on how to reshape the school calendar. And, now they each have new classroom strategies because of their newly forged professional relationship.

Yet, we can only do so much. If policy makers and politicians approach conversation with teachers as a public relations stunt, another opportunity to spin their message, or a tactic in negotiations, all the teacher talk in the world will add up to not much. It’s going to take listening by leaders to put teachers in the center of the policy making process. At New Voice Strategies, we don’t choose sides, we choose listeners. We’ve had the good fortune to work with, among others, the statewide union leaders in Massachusetts, Minnesota and Iowa, charter advocates in Arizona and New Jersey, and superintendents in Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Minneapolis. They sometimes differ dramatically on fundamental issues of how to make public schools work for students. What they all do agree on: there’s great power and promise in finding new ways to bring classroom teachers into policy making, that re-shaping the role of teachers in policy making will strengthen their classroom practices, and they are willing to gamble on an unconventional approach because they feel the urgency to improve opportunities for learning for more students.

Teachers need an invitation to the table. They also need time to tap into their expertise, collaborate with peers, and come up with workable solutions. That’s what VIVA is offering teachers: a new channel for leadership, a broadened platform to get what they need to succeed with students, and a new megaphone to replace the simplistic headlines that lead to simplistic, ineffective solutions.

School Safety, Part 2: Bridging the Gun Divide

Guestblogger Dean Raizman is a teacher-librarian for Jefferson County Public Schools in Lakewood, Colo. He participated in New Voice Strategies’ VIVA Idea Exchange on school safety, conducted on behalf of the National Education Association.

People who are trying to persuade other people on the righteousness of their position, political or otherwise, often carefully frame the discussion of their topic to make themselves look good and the other party look bad. Kind of like self-advertising. You talk loudly about your strengths and hope people will ignore the weaknesses and contradictions of your positions. Perhaps the most contentious framing in recent times relates to abortion. One group framed itself as pro-choice. The other as pro-life.

This framing of issues extends to guns as well, with groups either for “gun control” or for “gun rights.”  The language used in gun discourse has made all positions seem irreconcilable. But maybe positions are not as absolute as the debate has made them seem. Perhaps we have more in common than we think.

I have watched my school district and its union, two usually diametrically opposed forces, consistently come together on difficult issues. Again and again. Even on the hard issues. When I asked my local union director how this happened, he replied, “interest-based bargaining.”  This is in contrast to traditional positional bargaining that most people conceptualize when they think of bargaining.

What is the difference between these two different approaches to resolving differences?  In traditional bargaining, parties take a positional stance on some issue based on their own needs. For example, teachers want a minimum amount of money for salaries. The school district is only willing to pay so much. Each group takes a stand based on their perceived needs. The traditional approach is adversarial and pits one group against another because the parties are focused on their differences. A positional tug of war ensues.

In interest-based bargaining, parties start with what they have in common as the basis for negotiation. For example, the beginning of negotiations in a school district might be an agreement by both the administration and the union that each wants the students to prosper. Further, they might agree that for the students to prosper teachers need to be continuously honing their skills and this is best served with a strong professional training program. What the two parties do is look for and build upon actions, beliefs, and attitudes that they share. The focus is on their agreements.

Can we apply the principles of interest-based bargaining to the discussion around guns?  Or, are all positions mutually exclusive?

I had the experience of collaborating with 10 others teachers from around the country to produce a document titled Sensible Solutions for Safer Schools. We worked together to propose solutions for guns and violence in our schools. This group consisted of “gun rights” and “gun control” advocates. We had our differences, but we shared common ground that was inclusive of all teachers. This work was sponsored by VIVA, which strives to increase participation of classroom teachers in important policy decisions about public education.

I suggest that the same overlap and inclusivity is true for the general population. Despite our differing positions on guns, we share things in common. For example, I argue that no matter what your position concerning guns is, you believe that keeping your children safe at school is a top priority. Agreed?  I find it hard to imagine a parent, gun owner or not, who would not agree with this statement.

If we agree on the issue of school safety, are there some action(s) that both sides could find acceptable?  Is having a police officer at each school something that we can agree upon?  If not that, perhaps we can agree that each school should have a protected recess area and locks and cameras on all doors.

Can we also agree that guns should be kept out of the hands of unsupervised minors?  Seems straightforward. Is it intrusive to ask that families have gun locks or gun safes to protect minors from unauthorized access to weapons?

Do we have any shared beliefs that guns should be kept out of the hands of individuals who have committed violent crimes?  Can we agree that if you are convicted of a violent felony that you lose your right to own a gun?

How about someone with severe mental illness?  Do we have a shared understanding that certain forms of mental illness should preclude someone from owning a gun?

E pluribus unum. This Latin quote is on all our currency and loosely translated means “out of many, one.”  With this saying, the founding fathers seem to have identified the biggest difficulty of a democracy: the process of finding consensus from diverse viewpoints. This process can be our strength, as we unite, or immobilize us, and be our weakness. Are we up to the challenge?  I believe that if all parties are willing to sit down with one another, and assume positive intent underlying opposing viewpoints, then we can identify our shared beliefs and find a non contentious starting place to discuss and act on public gun policy and law.

School Safety, Part 1: Children Deserve Action

Guestblogger Kori Milroy teaches grammar school science. She participated in New Voice Strategies’ VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange and is coauthor of the 2011 collaborative report “Time, Teachers, and Tomorrow’s Schools.

Like most schools in America, my school conducted a lockdown drill shortly after the Sandy Hook massacre last year.  During the drill, we were instructed to lock our classroom doors, turn out the lights, pull the window shades, and hide our students out of sight as much as possible. The goal was to make the classroom look empty, as if the students were away at another class.

In my classroom, the best place to hide is inside my storage closet.  It is windowless but well lit, and has its own intercom and phone line.  Unfortunately, it is only large enough to hold about half of my fourth grade class.

The next best place to hide is against an interior wall.   If you stand up straight and don’t let your feet poke out too far, you are out of the sightlines of the hallway windows.  The wall is just long enough to accommodate the other half of the class, standing shoulder to shoulder.

Before the drill, teachers and administrators talked to the children about what was going to happen.  We stressed that we were practicing how to stay safe at school and that, just like when we have fire drills, nothing bad was really happening.

Despite my reassurances, a few children became distressed when they found out they were in the “Wall Group” and not the “Closet Group.”  They were very aware of the Sandy Hook shooting from the news.  “It’s not fair.  They will have a better chance than us,” said one boy.  A girl worried about tripping or not making it to the closet on time.  “What if he sees me?” she asked.  I tried to comfort her.  “There is no ‘he,’ honey.  This is just for practice and nothing bad is really happening.  I will be here the entire time.  Remember, this is just like a fire drill.  It will only take a few minutes.”

The drill was over quickly and my students performed admirably.  Most importantly, everyone remained hidden. But I am left with a nagging concern.  Are lockdown drills really the best we have to offer our children in terms of protection from an armed intruder?  It has been almost one year since Sandy Hook.  Shouldn’t we have seen additional security improvements by now?

Unfortunately, while teachers and school administrators have been busy conducting drills and comforting anxious children, our national lawmakers have been busy doing absolutely nothing about this problem.  This past spring, the United States Congress absurdly voted down a perfectly reasonable (and popular) background check proposal that also included the establishment of a commission to study school safety.  The legislation would have improved mental health reporting to the background check system, which everyone agrees needs to happen.  That Congress couldn’t get enough votes for these simple safety measures is beyond disgraceful.  Their actions told American students, teachers, and parents, “You are on your own.  Good luck.”

A glimmer of hope exists in President Obama’s “Executive Orders to Reduce Gun Violence.” One order has helped create detailed emergency planning guides for schools, and another helps schools hire resource officers.  But this isn’t enough.  We need panic buttons and bulletproof exterior doors.  We need universal background checks.  We need to find a way to prevent the dangerously mentally ill from purchasing or otherwise obtaining guns.

Congress’ inaction has abandoned America’s school children in an increasingly gun-infested society, where preventable mass shootings like the one last week at the Navy Yard in DC, are now commonplace.  This is simply unacceptable.  It is time for teachers and parents to stand up for our children’s safety, and demand action on school safety and security.

Cultural Competency Amongst Teachers

Guestblogger Pia P. Payne-Shannon teaches sixth and seventh grade Language Arts classes at Nellie Stone Johnson Community School, Minneapolis, Minn. She participated in New Voice Strategies’ VIVA Minneapolis Idea Exchange. 

Cultural competency relates to the skills and knowledge necessary to successfully teach and relate to students from diverse cultures.  As an African-American teacher in Minneapolis, I have witnessed the cultural shifts in our schools.  Nellie Stone Johnson Community School was predominantly African-American/Black and Asian a few years ago, but is now African-American/Black and Latino.  As teachers, we should have access to quality staff development courses to help us adjust our curricula, as well as afford us an opportunity to become bilingual in Spanish without having to pay for classes, which we cannot afford.  This is called catering to the needs of our students and families.

The VIVA Minneapolis Idea Exchange report Connections for Learning, which I co-authored earlier this year, is filled with recommendations that could help to bridge the gaps in our current education system. District professional development needs to bridge the cultural gap that exists between teachers and students, and among diverse students. As teachers, we know structural changes need to be implemented in order for our academic environments to be more conducive to scholarly achievement.  Therefore, if Minneapolis Public Schools is serious about the education of our students, then cultural competency staff development cannot be voluntary or based on the feel-good needs of adults.  We need to demonstrate to our families that we are serious about valuing the diversity of our students by ensuring that all staff working with students become culturally self-aware, knowledgeable about the dynamics of cultural interactions, and select relevant curricula to acknowledge the cultural diversity in our schools.

The time is now for district and union officials to negotiate how these changes can be implemented in Minneapolis.  It is not enough to provide professional development, which is optional or voluntary when it comes to the needs of our students being met.  The doors of opportunity for our students, especially students of color, are continuously being closed because the goal post keeps moving for them.  They need to know that we care enough to make sure their teachers and staff are culturally aware of the diverse students whom we are teaching every day.

Teachers continuously are finding themselves in diverse classrooms trying to develop relationships with students who are from different cultural backgrounds and have had distinct experiences that differ from their peers and teachers.  To foster respect and productivity, teachers need to be mindful of their students’ backgrounds.  This, alone, would help to reduce conflict.  The relationship between the teacher and student must be viewed as a positive partnership for learning, not an adversarial relationship based on fear, misunderstanding and mistrust.  Students need to be able to identify with the curriculum of the classroom and pedagogy used in the classroom.  We need to foster child-centered educational programming, which meets the needs of the whole child. Our students should have access to extracurricular classes that explore their various interests.

Enhancing the cultural competence of its staff will help foster the districts’ goals of improving student academic achievement, improving the effectiveness of teachers, and meet accountability requirements, while improving the communication between families and schools.

Holding the Keys to the Education Kingdom

Guestblogger Jim Szewc is currently a full-time mentor to beginning teachers in Florida’s Hillsborough County Public Schools. He participated in New Voice Strategies’ VIVA MET Idea Exchange. 

Last December, a group of 10 educators from school districts across our country were given an opportunity to lend their professional voice, insight, and experience to the national conversation about what path the education world of our future will take. This once-in-a-lifetime gift, to have our thinking shared in a forum where no ideas were too big, was made possible by the efforts of New Voice Strategies and its partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) study. What started with an open invitation to 2,000 teachers who participated in the original MET research spawned into an active, rich, and passionate conversation through a VIVA Idea Exchange. This tool connected us in an interactive conversation web strengthened by our shared ideals and desire to be change agents making even the most pie-in-the-sky idea an attainable piece of cake.

We narrowed our thinking to eight initiatives the Gates Foundation should examine following the MET study and delivered them through a formal report. Ranging from reforming teacher evaluation systems to redesigning professional development systems to be more like social networks that provide educators with ongoing, instant support and feedback, our initiatives spoke to the issues and needs each of us have faced. Although we had deadlines and an assignment to complete, we all felt the giddiness of being offered the keys to the education kingdom. Few of us had ever before been given a platform to speak our minds so freely and bounce ideas off some of the most influential game-changers in the education world.

Following our in-person presentation at the Gates Foundation’s office in Seattle, our report generated enough buzz to get the attention of the U.S. Department of Education, elevating our voices from the pinnacle of the non-profit reform leaders to the open-eared policy makers in Washington. In a few short months, we went from the hallways of our schools to the Secretary’s boardroom, as educators with a vision to authentic participants in a realistic policy discussion.

As I write this, the conversation between teachers and educators across the MET school districts has escalated to a consortium of hundreds convening in Chicago later this fall. This symposium will give others the chance to dig deeper into those initiatives, amplifying our voices for a whole new audience. The validation and recognition gained from these experiences, and the knowledge that my collaborators and I sparked a national dialogue that has affected so many additional thought leaders, speaks volumes about how colossal a privilege this experience has been.

Knowing this “original 10,” their appetite for change, and our shared desire to think differently and spur others to do the same, continues to excite me as it did when I first received the invite to be a part of this elite group. We will continue leading this charge far beyond the walls of our classroom, and will influence others to do the same or even more. After having our voices not only heard, but seeing how others genuinely listened and have begun to take action because of it, why would we ever stop being the spark for the conversation?

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.

Building Lasting Power to Support Baltimore City Students

Guestblogger Shannen Coleman Siciliano is a former Baltimore City Schools teacher. She was the founding Co-chair of the Baltimore Education Coalition and currently serves as the Director of Strategic Initiatives for Child First Authority. She is also a member of Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE).

In October 2007, I walked into a room filled with 250 parents from 10 different Child First sites from across Baltimore City. We joined together for an action with Baltimore City Schools and its CEO Dr. Andres Alonso. The issue: better school facilities. I sat towards the back of the room; this was my first action and I was skeptical.

Time ticked away and whispers filled the room. We waited and wondered if Dr. Alonso would show. Just then, a parent — yes, a parent and not a paid staff member – grabbed the microphone and said, “Dr. Alonso isn’t coming. We need the planning team to come forward to caucus.”

I was intrigued that a parent was taking the lead and my interest peaked. After what seemed like a short time, another announcement was made. “The team has caucused. We have drafted a letter expressing our disappointment and will deliver the letter to Dr. Alonso tomorrow morning at 10:00 am.” I left, encouraged by the leadership of the parents, still skeptical of the follow through from the school system.

Three days later I received an email from Child First indicating that Dr. Alonso responded to the parents and wanted to hold the action again.

Two weeks passed and I was back in a room filled with 250 people. Again, I was doubtful but intrigued by the organizing power of the parents. Dr. Alonso took the stage. “Never in my years of being an educator has a group of parents questioned my illness and demanded that I reschedule my appearance. This is EXACTLY what the school system needs!”

“Wait…what?” I asked myself. He continued to describe his vision for school facilities and commended the parents for their advocacy. I was intrigued.

Over the next 6 weeks, my school had contractors in the building almost every day. All of our most pressing issues (ones that existed for many, many years) — HVAC system, plumbing, electrical issues, chipped paint, etc. – were addressed and fixed. I was amazed. All because parents demanded it.

I experienced collective power, saw its impact and wanted to do more.

I joined Child First full time in July of 2008. In January of 2009, my opportunity to create lasting power came in the form of the Baltimore Education Coalition. After an article in the Baltimore Sun highlighted state funding cuts to Baltimore City, Child First joined 30 organizations to discuss our next steps. From 2009 to 2012, I served as co-chair of the Baltimore Education Coalition. We organized around school funding and saved over $150 million in cuts to Baltimore City Schools.

We also began working on a school facilities campaign for all of Baltimore City Schools. In April of 2013, the Baltimore Education Coalition and its partners were able to secure $1 billion in school construction funding that will renovate 40% of Baltimore’s schools – a major step towards securing the $2.1 billion needed for all schools.

As I walked out of the statehouse building after the vote to secure that funding passed in the State House, I knew that once again collective power won. I sought to help build power — lasting power from communities, parents, teachers and churches to ensure equity for Baltimore City schools.

I looked down at my expectant, growing belly, and thought now my child, along with other children in my neighborhood and across Baltimore City, will learn in buildings that truly reflect their potential.

Teacher Voices Vital to Improve Outcomes for Kids

Guest blogger Jon Alfuth is a public school teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. He is a teacher leader in Stand for Children, part of the Teach Plus national editorial board and blogs regularly at bluffcityed.com. He is a also member of Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE).

Part way into my second year teaching, I was struggling. I felt like I was giving my kids everything I had each and every day. But I was also constantly frustrated by a system that constrained me from moving my teaching to the next level. All too frequently this system dictated what I was to teach, when I had to teach it and what program I had to use. My solution at the time was to accept the system as an unchangeable reality and just do the best I could for my kids.

It was around that time that I met a Memphis teacher named Brittany Clark who changed my perspective on what it means to be a truly transformational educator. Brittany was a phenomenal teacher, but she also advocated for her kids outside the classroom. She participated as a Teach Plus policy fellow, worked with the district to provide a teacher voice on new policies and advocated for her students with elected officials both at the local and state level. When I met her, I realized that while I thought I was doing everything I could for my kids, I could be doing so much more. I didn’t have to accept the system as an unchangeable reality. I could take action and work towards fixing the parts that I felt were broken.

I’m continually inspired by colleagues like Brittany who embrace the dual role of teacher and advocate because I’ve realized it’s not enough to just be a great teacher. So much of what we are able to do on a daily basis is dictated by the system we work within. But when the system isn’t the best it can be, we have a choice. We can put our heads down and make do, or we can chose to speak out and advocate for change. Only when we do the later are we truly doing all we can for our kids.

When teachers make the choice to advocate for their students, we should be confident in our authority to do so. Research suggests that teachers have the greatest in-class impact on a child’s education. This gives our opinion an enormous amount of credibility. Not only that, but teachers experience firsthand the collective impact of our education system on those within it. We know what policies help our students and which ones hinder their progress. With that in mind, who else is better qualified to comment on those policies but a teacher?

Once we make the choice to advocate, there are many different degrees to which teachers can act on behalf of their children. Sometimes being an advocate simply means calling or emailing someone with influence. And in my experience, when teachers speak out in these small ways, policy makers take action. For example, I had the opportunity to work with a number of other teachers and parents through Stand for Children on a campaign last month to ensure adequate funding for our schools in Shelby County. Collectively, Stand’s members made over 130 phone calls, sent in 30 hand written letters and gathered over 1600 signatures, which helped ensure the effort’s success. The individual effort was small, but the collective impact was huge.

Using social media is another great way for teachers to advocate for our children. When we post a story on Facebook or through Twitter, people listen because of the credibility that comes with our role as educators. Additionally, elected officials and policy makers continue to operate through these platforms in ever increasing numbers. As such, they offer a great way to interact directly with decision makers.

We are also working in a time when the opportunity for educators to directly lead the discussion on education policy has never been better. Advocacy groups such as Teach Plus and non-profits like the Gates Foundation offer opportunities for teachers to not only meet with policy makers but to actively mold and shape new policies. These are fantastic opportunities for anyone looking to get more involved.

It’s vital for educators everywhere to use our credibility to actively advocate for the students in our charge. We must be great teachers, but in an ever changing policy environment, that is no longer enough. Each and every educator should consider it their duty not only to teach their children but to advocate for changes to the system so we can do our best for our students each and every day. There are many ways for us to get involved on whatever scale we believe to be most appropriate. But however we chose to do so, it’s absolutely vital that we make our voice heard. When we see that something is broken, if we don’t speak up, who will?

In Baltimore, Helping Students and Communities Find Their Voice

Guestblogger Dena Robinson is an ELL public school teacher and community organizer at the Intersection in Baltimore, Maryland. She is also a member of Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE).

When the Bronx community I lived in became too violent and my elementary school began to fail, my parents decided enough was enough. We had to move so I could go to a better school to get a better education — one that opened the doors of opportunity rather than shutting me out.

It didn’t come easy, but with a lot of work and a lot of sacrifice, my parents were able to move my family out of the Bronx to Orange County, New York. And there, my parents enrolled me in what I thought was an amazing school, something that simply didn’t exist where I once lived.

At my new school, I discovered opportunities I had never imagined. I was one of the only students of color enrolled in the Honors/AP program. I was the only student of color on the rowing team. But it was there that I discovered something else – the power of my voice.

Reaching back to my mother’s love of organizing and my father’s love of social justice, I used my voice to tackle problems that existed within the walls of my school – problems like our school’s lunch policy that discriminated against students enrolled in free- and reduced-lunch programs.

And through these experiences, I learned about true power and how it can be cultivated for good – a lesson I continue to draw on today, as a teacher and community organizer in Baltimore.

In my classroom, I work to empower English Language Learners by helping them find their voice. Some of my students have gone from shy and barely vocal to confident and unafraid to speak up.

Outside the classroom, I work at a non-profit called the Intersection, which empowers young students to find and use their voice to tackle big problems like gun violence.

Whether it’s been as a classroom teacher or an organizer at the Intersection, I have seen the power that community organizing has brought to the students, parents, and residents of Baltimore City. I have come to understand that organizing does not happen for communities but with communities. And I’ve seen what’s possible when people find their voice, come together and advocate for change.

And I am not alone.

At Leadership for Educational Equity’s National Organizing Workshop in Chicago, I met other teachers and educators who found organizing and power to be equally as important for students to learn as subjects like math, science, and language arts.

That experience inspired me to think even more deeply about how to incorporate organizing principles into my classroom so that my students have the tools and skills they need to become effective organizers and advocates for themselves and their communities.

I teach because education can be a radical way to empower young people and give them a sense of hope and the endless possibilities that come from finding power within. And I organize because I remember seeing citizens in my community who were disillusioned by what was going on around them but felt powerless to make a change.

I do this work because I want others to enjoy the same opportunities my parents fought so hard to give to me. And I will keep on doing this work with the hope that our system of public schools will become the radical forces for change and empowerment that they should be – so that all children can thrive, grow, and make the world a better place.

Misconceptions of Teacher Summer Vacation

Guestblogger Katelyn Stukenberg is a 7th grade language arts teacher in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she is completing her second year of Teach for America. She is a Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE) Fellow with Teach Plus in Los Angeles for the summer.

Early in my first year of teaching, there were certainly times when I found myself day-dreaming of the long-awaited summer. My thoughts wandered to mornings of sleeping in, days lounging by the pool, and most excitedly, finally getting to dive into that stack of overdue reading I hadn’t touched all year. During that first semester, a summer break that gave me a mental respite from my life in the classroom seemed like a welcome reward.

However, as the year progressed, I found my ideal summer evolving as my students pushed and challenged me with their hungry curiosity and desire to learn. In my first year of teaching, I expected to deal with challenging students and classroom management difficulties; however, I did not anticipate the lack of support given to teachers in order to overcome those numerous daily challenges. I realized that even the best teachers, without curriculum support, regular feedback and instructional resources, were limited to the impact they could make in their students’ lives. I quickly came to realize the lack of understanding policy makers had of what a day in the classroom really looked like in urban schools. And although there is a progression to reform policies to better support teachers and students, the progression is in great need of teachers to be at the decision making table.

It was then I knew that the work I was doing in education was one I did not want to take a break from—even for the two months of summer. I joined a fellowship with Leadership for Education Equity that placed me to work in my hometown of Los Angeles with Teach Plus, a non-profit that seeks to improve outcomes for urban children by ensuring that students have access to effective teachers. My hope through this summer in partnership with my host organization has been to directly affect the lives of students in a long-term way. I don’t want to come to the end of another school year wondering, as my students leave my classroom, if they will receive the quality education they deserve in the years to come. I want to be part of turning the tide so I know they will.

This summer I have been part of putting together a teacher-led Common Core conference, in which teacher leaders prepare fellow teachers for the new Common Core State Standards. In this process, I have been overwhelmed by the huge appetite teachers have shown for a professional development opportunity such as this one. I have found that I am far from the only teacher taking her summer vacation to continue to improve learning outcomes and the futures of our students; indeed, nationwide, thousands of teachers are continuing to better their craft through these opportunities.

Additionally, I have gotten to take an active part in becoming an advocate for students. As a teacher, I know my role needs to extend outside of the classroom if equality for all students is truly to be reached. It has become obvious that there is a wide gap between what happens in the classroom and what happens at the policy level and teachers are the best insiders for getting an accurate picture of what the students need.

While exploring the world of education advocacy, I have been greatly encouraged and motivated by the fact that I am not in this work alone. I have gathered with coalitions of advocacy groups representing community members including teachers, students and parents who are dedicated to finding solutions in order to ensure equality and access to high quality schools in every community in Los Angeles.

Ask any teacher why they teach and you won’t likely hear about summer vacation. This myth of teachers joining the profession to take advantage of summer vacations is in fact only that: a myth. Teachers don’t come to the profession just to spend summer months basking in the sun and sleeping in. In all honesty, that’s just not who we are. Although we may be stepping out of the classroom, our minds never really get to go on vacation. Our hearts are tied to our classrooms in a yearlong commitment to becoming better educators for our students and to improve the education system they depend on.