Category Archives: Teacher Leadership

Extra Eyes to See and Ears to Hear

You know how you don’t know what you don’t know until you realize you don’t know it?

Today I stepped into a role as “instructional coach.” My principal is trying a new thing with several of the leaders in the building—-getting a sub on Wednesdays to cover our classes so that we can support new teachers, conduct informal observations, and provide feedback to any teacher who want an extra set of ears and eyes in their classroom.

Non-evaluative, peer observation are what so many teachers beg for. Yet, with the except of instructional coaches, or a pop-ins by a dept chair there is little time for this type of collaboration. To contend with time constraints, many of the teachers I know are using #ObserveMe as a way to get the peer feedback and informal coaching they crave. This summer, Nate Bowling and I led in-school professional development where we shared the vision behind #ObserveMe. Teachers created their evaluation goals in conjunction with their #ObserveMe goals. I was #stoked.

Fast forward, due to some life stuff, our instructional coach is on hiatus and many of the teacher leaders in our building are stepping in to fill the large hole he left. So there I was, armed with flair pens, a clipboard, a schedule, and an observation tool. I left my students in the capable hands of my student teacher and I marched down to the first classroom.

Over the course of two and a half periods, I observed three full-time teachers and one student teacher. Each teacher had emailed me asking if I could come observe for x, y, and z. I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect to feel as emotional as I did through this process.

First, I was honored that these teachers wanted me in their classroom. They wanted to be better. They wanted an extra set of eyes and ears to see what they weren’t seeing and hear what they missed.

Second, I was moved by the passion I saw from these teachers. The love that they have for their students, their content, and our school motivates them to ask for help from a colleague.

Third, I was inspired by each of these teachers who were putting in work to make their classes more engaging, more relevant, and more real for their students.

I honestly struggled to complete my teacher moves/students moves chart because I just wanted to write things like “I love how the kids look at your with respect in their eyes” or “Even though the students were reluctant to do the song in Spanish with you, they all did it–and that’s a sign of respect for you, their peers, or at least resignation that they need to play along”. I tried to stay in the template and write benign questions like “how do you think blah blah blah”.

What stands out the most is my last visit of the morning. I popped into a Science classroom where the teacher is building a program modeled after the GRuB School. I kind of knew that there was a group of “at risk” young men and women working with this highly effective and passionate teacher to develop social/emotional skills that translate into academic skills such as being on time, attending classes, and doing homework. I knew that some of the students in this program were in my English classes. But I hadn’t put two and two together–I didn’t realize just how many of them I knew. I sat on the edge of the circle listening to students giving each other advice on real life issues from dealing with parents to handling annoying teachers or friends, I wanted to burst into tears. Actually, I did…later when I was alone. Although each of those students struggle to control their actions and choices in a world of chaos, I watched them respond each other with thoughtfulness. I saw them respond to the firm but loving redirection from the teacher. I saw my students in a new light.

Later, when they came to class, I felt like we had a secret. They knew that I knew something about them that I hadn’t known before. They also knew (I hope) that I would listen and support them in a way I might not have before.

I left school today unsure if I made a difference for the teachers I observed. I do know however, that these teachers made a difference to me.

Losing Touch with the Classroom

I made it through September.

I may have nearly crested the salary schedule, but I feel a little like a first-year teacher again… In many ways I am: Same district, but a new building, new curriculum, new pace, new students.

After being a classroom teacher for 13 years, I spent the last two years on full-time release building and launching our district’s new-teacher mentoring and induction program (plus a plethora of other teacher professional learning design and facilitation, from training principals on TPEP to supporting PLC collaboration, and other duties as assigned). Those two years were fulfilling, educational, and an important step in my personal professional trajectory. My heart, though, was always in the classroom.

Now I’m teaching again, and it didn’t take me long to realize just how much I had lost touch with the realities of the day to day work of teaching. For me personally two years of shifting into the policy world, system design, and facilitation of staff PD…all without responsibilities to a roster of kids…was enough for my mind to disconnect.

Oh yeah, this is why it sometimes takes teachers a few days to reply to emails: they’re not at their computers all day or “multitasking” around a meeting table. Oh yeah, this is why those teachers who came to my after-school PD sessions dropped into their chairs, sighed, and slowly slid into an exhausted heap. Oh yeah, that theory about pedagogy and practice is fantastic up until you walk around the room and realize that what you’re tasked to teach isn’t actually at all what the students need.

Cognitively, I assured myself I remembered this and everything else. Back in it, though, I realize that there were some realities of teacherlife that my memory had somehow put into soft focus over the course of my two years outside the classroom.

I’ve had a few people ask which job is “harder,” the central-office systems work or the in-the-building work of teaching. For me, it was probably the systems work in no small part because I so rarely had the chance to see the direct results my efforts had on students. That left me in a perpetual state of uncertainty: were my actions working? How did I know?

Now I get to see the impact of my decisions daily as I listen to kids talk or read, or watch them write or create. I can respond in the moment to shift course, try something different, or push just the right way. Nonetheless, I have enduring respect for the complexity and challenge of central-office systems work having seen behind the curtain now for a couple of years. (Example: I hate dealing with budgets and the associated rules, restrictions and reporting… intense, profound hate.) For my skill-set and for what makes me happy? The classroom is the place.

One more thing I can say after two years straddling the line between teacher and administrator: The administrators I was able to work so closely with are not a secret quasi-illuminati set on building one more meeting-that-could-have-been-an-email agenda to ruin a teacher’s life. They genuinely want what is best for both teachers and students. And don’t get me wrong: I’m just sharing my own story… I’m not implying that they have lost touch as I did. I see many administrators working overtime to walk alongside teachers, and in many cases, teach lessons or units to groups of kids, in order to stay connected with the realities of planning, assessment, feedback, and classroom management.

What my experience transitioning into teaching again has reminded me is that it is so important that we teachers find the right way to share the impact of policy decisions…whether they be a change to the hall pass routine or a change to the state testing regime…so that rather than being shrill complainers we are vivid storytellers.

Stories are the most fundamental way that we can communicate our reality to others, especially if those others are like me: whole-hearted for public education, but perhaps just far enough removed to have forgotten what day-to-day teaching is really like.

Building Relationships With Legislators – Sharing My Stories and Changing the Message

The year I graduated from high school, 1994, marked the introduction of the phrase “failing public schools.” This phrase grabbed hold of society and took off, leading to twenty-plus years of rhetoric on “bad” teachers, union thugs who protect “bad” teachers, and schools which are not meeting the needs of our children. This led to the standardization of classrooms, curriculum, and teaching via governmental regulations. Today, in 2017, we still hear this phrase, and continue to feel the destructive consequences left in its wake, most importantly the increasing lack of respect for educators.

Most recently, over the past several years and particularly with this new federal administration, we’ve seen a huge push for privatization and independent charter schools. The message is that public schools are failing our children and that private and charter schools can provide students with more attention and individual instruction. As an educator and a parent with children in both public and charter schools, I can honestly say that public schools have the ability to offer much more than charter schools, provide more diverse learning opportunities, and are far better at differentiating instruction. Imagine for a moment if all schools had to fight for local funding, via fundraisers and other money-making endeavors. Which schools would have the most money? Which schools would be able to offer the most opportunities? Which schools would your child be able to attend? Which children and which zip codes would be left behind?

The key to changing the rhetoric on public schools is to take charge of the messaging. For far too long, private corporations, government officials, and the media, who by and large have no experience in education, have controlled what the public sees and hears about public schools, and therefore, control the mindset of the masses. It is time for us educators to take that influence back and teach our communities how great our public schools really are, and that with their support, they could be even better.

Over the past two years I have worked to communicate with the state legislators in both the district in which I work, and also the district in which I live. I would periodically contact them via email and phone, and would invite them to my classroom. Repeatedly, I did not hear back. During that time, I puzzled over this problem. How could I be a better messenger and get these decision-makers into my school and into my classroom to actually see and experience what we do? It was at a National Board Hill Day in February 2017, that my ideas finally came together. As I visited many senators and representatives throughout the day, I realized that much of what they hear focuses on what public schools lack, not on what makes us succeed. That’s when I decided to start a letter writing campaign.

After some planning, I sent my first newsletter – “April Update – The Great Things Happening in Our Public Schools.” In it I outlined some incredible activities and experiences educators in my school and in my district were providing their students. I was specific. I told stories. I painted a picture of the everyday in our schools and I immediately got a response. Mostly, our state leaders thanked me for the update and encouraged me to continue to reach out. It was much more than I’d received in two whole years. I had begun to build real relationships with the individuals directly responsible for creating laws for funding our schools.

It was after my second update in May that there was real movement. Two legislators, Republican Senator Baumgartner, and Republican Representative Volz, agreed to come to my classroom. We immediately set up dates and times for June, as they were between special sessions. With it being such a contentious time, as legislators were working to meet the demands of the McLeary decision, I was shocked and so excited. My focus on success was working.

Both visits happened within a week of one another and at a time when the testing season was coming to a close and the school year was wrapping up, but things had not slowed down in my classroom. Both legislators had the opportunity to meet my diverse student group (I teach Newcomer English Language Learners), to learn about what we do in our classroom, and to help my students, new to our nation and our school system, practice their math skills. Watching the interactions and answering the questions that followed was exhilarating. Both Senator Baumgartner and Representative Volz asked insightful questions and showed genuine interest in my class and in my students. Both agreed to visit again in the fall when they would have more time. Since then, I have had commitments from both Senator Billig and Representative Riccelli to also visit in the fall and Representative Volz and I are collaborating on bringing my class over to Olympia for a tour and to meet with the House Education Committee.

It’s a simple thing. Each month I gather stories about what’s awesome about our schools and send an email to my elected officials. It’s not hard. Our schools are great and I have a lot to share about the good work we’re doing! By focusing on our success, it is easy to convince decision-makers to continue and expand their support for our public schools. We live education every day. We must control the messages our communities receive about what we do and how much we care about their children.

Join me in this effort. Write up a story about your classroom or work with your colleagues. Find out who your legislators are that represent where you live and where you work. Push send and see what happens.

This will make all the difference.

Mandy Manning experiences learning with English language learners in the Newcomer Center at Joel E. Ferris High School in Spokane, Washington. Nearing 20 years in education and as a teacher-leader, she endeavors to spread Cultural Competency to students, educators, administrators, and the community at large. She is a National Board Certified Teacher in English as a new language and the 2018 ESD 101 Regional Teacher of the Year.

We Need to Be About The Work: NNSTOY 2017

Educators are hungry for real professional learning opportunities. For fresh, relevant, and timely content. For ideas that can be applied tomorrow. For a community of professionals, like-minded educators who cause us to shout “amen” and to suck in our breath with an “oh snap”.

This is why I concluded my summer conference tour with the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) event. You don’t need to be a state teacher of the year or finalist to attend (my review from last year Professional Interloper) so I recruited two teachers from my school and joined the WATAC representatives. I spent five days in sweaty DC because this is a conference that doesn’t just talk about the work—NNSTOY tries to be about the work. A member driven organization, NNSTOY focuses their programming around issues of social justice and equity.

This year the conference focused on four strands; each with a guiding question. It was strand 1 “Elevating Our Voices for Educational Equity” and the essential question “how can we support the type of schooling (and society) that values, rather than marginalizes” that stayed with me all week. It followed me like campfire smoke I couldn’t wash out of my clothes.

In the last few years we are seeing more and more programs slap on the word “equity” (it’s the new “diversity”) but many groups don’t actually know what it means or make effort to try to understand what it means. This conference actively seeks to include a variety of perspectives and voices from the planning team down to the sessions offered. While last year’s program was solid, I noticed several changes this year. First, I noticed that more people of color were presenting as keynotes and in sessions. Second, I noticed there were more people of color attending. In fact, there was a concerted effort to include Black male educators as participants and as presenters in a way I’ve never seen at an education conference. Third, I noticed more folks engaged in conversations about race and equity (and it wasn’t only the people of color).

What’s the big deal, you may be asking. I’ve attended countless professional development opportunities where the presenters and participants were all white. In the same way I have concerns about a conference where mostly men present their ideas to a roomful of women in a profession dominated by women (yes, both of these really happen), I’m troubled by the lack of effort to counter homogeneous professional settings that lead to groupthink and spread of a dominant culture that isn’t reflective of the diversity within our classrooms. Understanding equity starts with intentional organizational reflection about what creates inequity.

We can create and support the type of schooling and society that values equity.

It starts with the teachers. Don’t be afraid to interrogate the demographics of our school and professional learning communities. NNSTOY is by no means perfect. It was still full of interchangeable white women (as is the profession), but it’s trying to be a model for what true inclusion might look like. It’s intentionally creating a professional learning space where white, black, and brown educators come together to wrestle with what it means to teach for social justice, racial justice, and equity. Get in the habit of looking around the room–who’s at the table? Who’s even invited to participate in the conversation? What’s the ratio of men to women, young & old, black/white/brown? These details matter. We need to learn from people who have lived a different life than we have. We need to learn with others who don’t live where we do, dress like we do, speak like we might, or racially identify as we do, but who are working on behalf of all our students.

It flows into our classrooms. We continually need to examine our curriculum. Do your students see themselves in the texts? Are they reading about experiences other than their own? Wesley Williams, II (watch the video on his home page) framed the entire conference he asked us to consider “And How Are the Children?” If we frame the work we do with this question in mind, our student would actually be at the center of the choices we make. I have to ask myself how are the children in room 200? I want to answer–they’re good. The children are talented. The children are brilliant. The children are beautiful. Concurrently, I have to face the less comfortable answer. The children are homeless. The children underfed. The children are hurting. Dang it. I’m back to the question.

It moves through our system. When was the last time you looked around your school? How is the leadership structured? Who gets hired? Who influences the decision making? What do we believe about our students? How do we talk about our students? For more on this point, listen to Nate Bowling’s interview with Jose Vilson “A Conversation Worth Having,”

One of the most significant takeaways from NNSTOY 2017 was that it doesn’t really matter if you’ve earned a teaching award or other recognition– we all have the power and the responsibility to lift our voices about educational equity and support that type of schooling and society that values equitable access and opportunity for all our students.

Share Your Stories

“Oh you’re a teacher!  You guys have it made.  Paid summers off where you sleep in every day–what a cushy life.”  These words, uttered by my dentist while his hands were in my mouth drilling a tooth, caused far more discomfort than the actual dental procedure.  So after he was done (and yes, the novocaine still had half of my face numb) I shared with him that I spent most of my summer at conferences and in classes. I also explained how the pay structure works.  And, as these conversations typically go, it ended up with, “I really had no idea.”  

A year ago I felt a fire light inside me. I can’t remember what started it all to build, but the result has been an overwhelming desire to advocate for the teaching profession.  Maybe it was the need to address the misconceptions that people have about this lifestyle (I consider teaching a lifestyle, it’s far too encompassing to just be a job) or perhaps it was the oversimplification of this work by the media, tv shows, and movies that show burned out teachers, but either way, that fire started and it keeps burning brighter.  

So last week, when the airplane pilot standing next to me on the shuttle to our plane started asking me questions about my work, I was happy to share the dynamic nature of teaching. I also made sure to note that I was flying back from a week long class on constitutional law.  The pilot didn’t realize that teachers participate in summer coursework to strengthen their knowledge and skills in the classroom.  He was curious about this and we had a great conversation (our shuttle was stuck on the tarmac for 30 minutes) about professional development for teachers and pilots, thus shedding light on both of our professions.

I have spent the past eight months talking to policymakers and stakeholders about the impact of legislation in the classroom.  While I go in with a game plan, inevitably the conversation always turns when I tell a story about my students, my colleagues, and my own children.  Last month I met with my US Congresswoman in Washington D.C., and while my ask was to retain Title II funding in the budget, my story was specific to how we use that funding in our schools.  This story provides insight into policy impact and also constituent needs. Her job is dynamic, too, and I do not expect my representative to be an expert in all facets of life.  So if I can be a resource and share my experience with her, then perhaps that experience can shape her thinking on an issue.

I’ve come to see these interactions as opportunities to educate and advocate for this work. We can control the narrative.  It’s easy to sell an anti-teacher message when the public doesn’t have a deep understanding of what our work looks like.  Worse, if people rely upon their varied past experiences as students without recognizing how that skews their vision of what schools look like today, the picture that’s created may likely be inconsistent in practice and unrecognizable to those of us who do teach.  So instead of dismissing ignorant remarks about our work,  it is imperative that we seize the moment as an opportunity to teach.  We must teach others about our work so that they can see the intricacies of this lifestyle.  We must share our stories, our experiences, our successes, and our struggles. Only then will the larger public begin to see who we really are.

Educators Rising: Start ‘Em While They’re Young

The Hyatt filled with teens from across the country. The smell of long bus rides, airplane food, and hot Cheetos permeated the lobby. But by the opening session, these students had transformed into professionally dressed young men and women in “conference mode.” Their excitement and energy was palpable in the North Ballroom. Last weekend was the convergence of young voices at the Educators Rising Annual Conference. This organization “cultivates highly skilled educators by guiding young people on a path to becoming accomplished teachers, beginning in high school and extending through college and into the profession.” What’s even more exciting than this mission is that 51% of the 30k members are students of color!

Basically, Educators Rising works with secondary teachers to identify black, brown, and white young people–as young as 13– who have potential as future educators. Through intentional programming at local and state levels​, these students will one day be well-prepared, highly effective classroom teachers. The annual conference offers outstanding keynotes, interactive workshops on cultural competency and teacher leadership, and competitions.

Competitions are fascinating and are divided into three categories:

  1. Teaching. Sub categories include planned instruction where students create a lesson, tape themselves teaching, then reflect with a judge (think National Boards) or impromptu teaching where a student is given a scenario (Mr. Hall started vomiting and you must take over his class immediately), a learning standard, and a box of materials. The subs must create an engaging lesson and deliver it in a short time (think Iron Chef but teaching).
  2. Career Explorations. Students competing in this category follow an administrator, a non-core classroom teacher, or a support staff member in a job shadow. They must conduct an interview, dig into all aspects of this career and then present their findings..
  3. Advocacy and Policy Development. Students can create a Ted Talk on an effective instructional strategy, present a policy brief on a researched issue, or give an impromptu speech on an education issue.

Are you kidding me!? I know grown adults who couldn’t handle these challenges.

This makes me hopeful.

Early in the opening session, Joshua Starr set the tone of the conference when he quoted Dr. King reminding us that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” Despite our political climate, the increase in police brutality, and the growing racial divide in this country, we must still have hope. Nate Bowling developed this theme with his talk that culminated in a challenge for everyone in the room (current or future educators): Embed, Disrupt, and Advocate.

Nods, tweets and follow up conversations indicated that these messages resonated with the crowd. This makes me hopeful.

While some adults complain about teens obsession with fidget spinners and Snapchat, I’m here to tell you that our young people are far better than we are. They are more creative. They are more compassionate. They are more understanding. They are more kind. They are more justice-minded.

I met two students who especially exemplified these qualities—Educators Rising National Student President, Cassey Hall from Mississippi and National Student Officer Tamir Harper from Philadelphia. Cassey shared her story of how her 9th grade English teacher recruited her into a new course centered on learning about teaching. As she heads off to college, she is certain she wants to be a 3rd grade Science teacher.

I struck up a conversation with Tamir on the way out of the convention center. Instantly I was struck by his charisma, his wisdom, and his passion for his school, his neighborhood, and his city. Besides running a session at the conference on reconstructing the educational system, this fall Tamir will co-teaching an African American history class at his high school. As Tamir shared his dreams to teach and later run for office, I kept think “is this young man really 17?!”

These are just two of the hundreds of students at #EducatorsRising17 that I know are bending their voices towards justice. In four to six years, they will be teaching our children. I cannot wait!

They make me hopeful.

Things You Should Know About: The Washington Teacher Advisory Council

Back in 2008 I was honored to be a regional “Teacher of the Year” for ESD 112. I had the chance to sit in a room with “TOYs” from each ESD, and it was humbling, astonishing, and inspiring to hear all the great work we each were championing in our section of the state.

Then, after the interviews and celebrations and receptions, we sped back to our respective classrooms and put our respective noses back to our respective grindstones.

Lyon Terry, 2015 Washington State Teacher of the Year, likely had a similar experience. The difference was what he chose to do next. He saw highly accomplished educators be selected and celebrated each year, and in that he saw an opportunity: While you might teach down the hall from a TOY and never know it (we teachers are often reticent to share our accolades), titles such as “Teacher of the Year” carry potentially powerful ethos when we enter into policy conversations with non-educators.

Lyon formed WATAC, the Washington Teacher Advisory Council, aimed at pulling together the expertise and ethos of alumni regional teachers of the year. Each year, the number of regional TOYs grows by nine (one for each ESD), so though the group may be small, it is certainly mighty.

This last weekend at Cedarbrook was the 2017 WATAC Spring Conference, where alumni of the TOY program gathered to learn about policy, advocacy, and the importance of teachers telling their stories. It was a powerful and inspiring experience, and I now feel like I am part of an even deeper network of teachers likewise committed to improving public education in Washington.

A big take-away and a good reminder: Everything we do as teachers is somehow impacted by a policy that someone, somewhere has written. Whether it is law from the legislature or rules put forth by a state-level group like the Board of Ed, Standards Board, or innumerable others, people are making decisions that directly impact every move we make as a teacher. Simply put: the people making those decisions ought to be teachers themselves. That’s one mission of WATAC (and CSTP, for that matter), that teachers are not just present at the policy table, but that they are the ones whose hands, hearts, and minds are creating the policy.

For more information about WATAC, here is the website and here is the overview of the program on OSPI’s homepage.

Stepping Off the Career Ladder

Back in 2009 or so when I started writing for this site, I was what I referred to as an “untitled” teacher leader. I taught all day, didn’t hold any specific positions, yet I still saw myself as a teacher leader charged with advocating for kids, systems, and our profession. I was less than a decade into my career.

Then, in the standard “nose goes” way, I found myself with the title of Department Chair for the English Department. While not “leadership” as I envisioned it (since managing P.O.s and counting books in the book room wasn’t my vision of leadership) it served an important systemic role.

Over time, the titles started to pile on and I began to drift further and further away from the classroom. This year and last, my desk isn’t even in a school, but at central office two doors down from HR. The only time I get to teach real, live, children is when I do model lessons for my first-year-mentees or snag an unfilled sub job here or there to keep myself sane.

This spring has been one of relative upheaval at the high school level in my district. Two administrators at our large compressive high school (my former building) are moving to different roles, leaving unprecedented administrative vacancies. Both of the English teaching positions at our smaller alternative high school opened up, leaving a whole discipline unstaffed.

There is a tremendous amount of pressure on many people who find themselves with teacher leadership titles. I started feeling it a few years ago as TOSA when the social studies department started (half-) jokingly referring to me as “Junior Admin.” When I think about what has made some of the administrators in my district so successful, I often find myself saying “they still think like a teacher.” We should want good educators to be the administrative leaders of our buildings.

And we should also want good educators to be standing in front of kids.

I don’t know if it is the same for women in education, but as a man in education I started feeling the assumptions about “ascending the career ladder” to an administrative position as soon as I took a hybrid role teaching half-time and being on special assignment half-time. After each of the administrator roles at my former building were posted, I was inundated with texts and emails: “Are you going for that job?” Never mind that I have no administrative coursework let alone credential. For reasons woven into the fabric of our idea of what it means to be “professional” in our culture, climbing the career ladder is the assumed goal. To not keep climbing is to lower oneself down, to go “backward.”

Next year, I will be in a hybrid role: I applied for, interviewed for, and was offered one of the English teaching positions at our smaller high school. I’ll still be serving part of my time on release as our local EA President. The year after that, I’ll be full time teaching, untitled.

I’ve worked hard to avoid two phrases as I talk about this move. I’m not “going back.” I’m not “returning.”

Rather, I’m trying to redefine what the career ladder might look like for teachers who want to lead and teach.


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Having a Voice

I didn’t want to get up at 6 am on Saturday.

I didn’t want to catch a 7:05 ferry.

I didn’t want to get turned around in the dark and rain and end up going north on I-5. Then spend 20 minutes wandering around downtown Seattle trying to find my way to south I-5.

Sputter, sputter, sputter.

But, oh, NBCT teachers, if you ever receive an email invitation to an NBCT Policy Summit and wonder if you should consider going, I am here to tell you—it was definitely worth it.

After we all went through check-in and ate breakfast and had a chance to mingle, the morning panel greeted us. There were five people on the panel but three in particular stuck out to me, probably because they represented the three organizations that sponsored the summit:

The general message? Speak up. Stand up. Be heard. Make an impact.

But the specific message that reverberated back and forth from one panel member to the next was that teachers need to find their passion and focus on that passion.

Policy Summit Mural by Taryl Hansen

Policy Summit Mural by Taryl Hansen

I immediately took that message to heart. As soon as we were dismissed to mid morning snack time, I introduced myself to Gil Mendoza. I gave told him I’m on the Executive Board for WAETAG (Washington Association of Educators of Talented and Gifted). He replied enthusiastically about what a great organization it is and how lucky we are to have it in our state. I gave him my card and said, “If you ever need someone with a background in gifted to serve on a committee please keep me in mind.” He grinned—he’d just talked about how OSPI looks for teachers willing to serve on committees. Now he had a volunteer! He handed me his card and asked me to contact him again by email.

I’ve been teaching gifted in this state since 1989, and I’ve been on the board of WAETAG since 2008. But being in the room at the Policy Summit gave me a different level of access than I’d ever experienced before.

Breakout sessions met before and after lunch. Participants met in groups of about eight to discuss one of two issues:

  • A—Second Tier Licensure (Professional Certificate) or
  • B—National Board Incentive Structure

At our table in one of the B groups we started with the fact that we love having a bonus and, for those who get it, love having the extra bonus for challenging schools. What we don’t like is that fact that any bonus is a line item. It’s too easy to delete from the budget. For a long time those were our biggest discussion points.

Then I spoke up. I’d come to the Policy Summit with a slightly different point to make. As I told my table, I’ve been teaching for 38 years, and I’m not ready to stop. I hit 16 years’ experience a long, long time ago. I earned my MA in 1982 and I hit my 90 units beyond an MA when I was in my 50s and a long way from retirement.

The ONLY way for me to get any additional money was to become National Board Certified. So I got my NBCT in 2012. I plan to keep teaching until my certificate expires in 2022.

Having a salary schedule plateau early means veteran teachers can’t keep up with the rising cost of living, especially health costs.

So I suggested it would be beneficial to have some kind of step system that allows for longevity. For example, what if we got a bonus for the initial NBCT and an additional bonus at each renewal?

That led to a long examination of my idea. People brought up snags I hadn’t foreseen. They improved the original suggestion by adding a requirement that teachers who get the extra bonus demonstrate leadership—which spawned another tangle of questions. Who defines leadership? How many hours a year? How would the extra work be documented? How would OSPI track the paperwork? We even tossed around ideas for how much of a bonus although finally most of the questions were labelled TBD.

Nevertheless, at the end of the day, we not only kept my idea on our list of five “high leverage” ideas to submit to the group at large.  In a surprise move, the members of my group voted my suggestion as the number one on the list because it

  • encouraged teachers to pursue NBCT sooner rather than later
  • encouraged teachers to take on leadership roles after completing their NBCT
  • encouraged professional growth, not just professional development

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Then came the mid afternoon snack. (Nasue warned me that her goal was to have each of us gain five pounds before the day was over!)

Our last keynote address came from Peggy Brookins, president of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. She spoke eloquently about those who surreptitiously do things for teachers but without teachers—for example, people who write education laws without bringing teachers to the table. Once again, she encouraged us to make our voices heard.

I came to the Policy Summit wanting to be heard. I hoped my peers would listen and understand and maybe empathize with the salary concerns of older teachers.

I left feeling empowered.

So think about coming yourself next time. And meanwhile, think about your passion and the difference you can make.

 

The Critical Friend (and why we all need more of them)

NBCT Joanna Tovar Barnes

This guest post is courtesy of Joanna Tovar Barnes. Joanna is a NBCT in EMC Literacy. She teaches third grade at Lydia Hawk Elementary in Lacey, WA. Her areas of professional interest include English Language Learners, social justice and integrating art, science and social studies into elementary curriculum.  She facilitates for North Thurston School District’s National Board cohort.  When not teaching Joanna travels the world seeking culture, food and understanding.

When I first heard my role at the Teach to Lead Summit in Long Beach, CA was a “critical friend” I wrinkled my nose and thought “that doesn’t sound like a good thing, who wants a critic?” The term ‘critical’ conjured up images of a group of reporters dissecting a starlet’s wardrobe choice or a food critic berating a chef for his uninspired appetizers. “The Critical Friend asks probing questions” the organizers of the event said, “They make suggestions about possible resources, and offer a fresh perspective on a problem.”  I unwrinkled my nose a little and thought “Ok, maybe I can be a critical friend.  I can do those things. That sounds helpful instead of scary. Also, maybe I need more of these ‘Critical friend’ people in my life.”

I think the opposite of a critical friend could be called an ‘echo-friend’. We all have them. You go to these friends when you want your conclusions validated, not questioned. When prompted they say things like “you’re absolutely right!”, “of course” and “obviously”.  “I’m right and she’s wrong, right?” I ask “of course you are” my echo friend nods knowingly.  I feel better.  My own conclusions were echoed back to me and now I feel justified, reassured and comfortable. No questioning or suggestions, no discomfort.

Here’s the problem with the echo friend; eliciting this kind of feedback leaves us right back in the same place we started with our problem.  In fact, now that our choices have been validated we are even more firmly rooted in the patterns that got us to our frustration point when we sought out our echo friend.  I admit that sometimes I don’t want to go deep and think critically about big problems, I want to vent, or have someone tell me I’m right. However, I can’t be surprised when I still have the same problems with no new strategies to tackle them when I’m done with my echo-session.  If I want to move forward in my problem solving I need a critical friend.

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Teach to Lead Summit participants work together to process problems they face in their work. Teams and their critical friends use a logic model over two days to identify causes, outcomes and next steps.

From my time at Teach to Lead I am beginning to formulate some important steps in the art of being a critical friend. (it’s a good thing)

  1. A critical friendship begins with connection

Ok, we know that the critical part can help us move forward with a problem but that ‘friend’ word also really matters. As a teacher leader I’ve found that if people don’t know you and see you as a person outside of the current context they are less willing to accept critical feedback. People need to know that their critical friend is just that; friendly. That they assume positive intentions and competence and are there to be helpful.

I try to share something that tells people who I am professionally and personally. “I am passionate about social justice and interested in bilingual education” gives a quick glimpse into who I am at the core as a teacher and person.  It makes me vulnerable and encourages the person I’m working with to do the same.  I also present something I am still working to understand such as “I’m still learning about the new National Board component too, let’s look at the directions together”.

  1. Next it’s time to listen

The listen part is where the connection you built will allow you to get at what the problem is through how much the other person shares, which details they include and how they frame the problem.  Without the connection you may not hear much, or you may hear only a small window into the problem at hand.  You may need to go back and establish more of a connection before they will tell you more. Listening carefully will help you know which questions to ask. But hang on! There’s an important next step.

  1. Before questioning it is helpful to validate

Remember the echo friend we sometimes seek out? You’re going to want to meet that need too by acknowledging that this problem is frustrating, complex, etc.  You can use some counseling 101 phrases like “That sounds really frustrating.” Or “There are a lot of different needs you’re having to think about.”  This part matters because now you can strengthen your connection as a friend and you can meet their need to be validated. If we weren’t a critical friend we’d stop here.  But here’s where the magic happens and we become something more than an echo friend. Here’s where we push our friend forward.

  1. Time to ask some questions

I know enough to know I know very little about the art of questioning.  Luckily I have some awesome role models when it comes to this. Peers, friends and coaches who have challenged my thinking with thoughtful questions that at first made me huff, and then made me think much more meaningfully and deeply about something.

If you’re like me and are just starting to question critically maybe some sentence frames can help you. “I wonder…” “What if…” “Why do you think…” are some of my standbys because they’re open enough to allow the person wrestling with the problem to say something about them but encourage deeper investigation of one element of the problem.

  1. Now you can suggest resources

Oh boy, what you’ve been waiting for. Now you can tell them how to solve their problem if they would just…wait! Do not start telling them what you would do.  This is not about you. (I can’t help it, it’s the bossy older sister in me) It’s about them and their problem.  You can help by suggesting a resource you know of that might hold a missing piece of the puzzle, or someone who is struggling with a related problem.  The suggestion part needs to be connected to what you heard initially and when you questioned.  It’s important that the person you’re working with knows you’ve been hearing them when they shared.

Here’s the cool thing about the role of critical friend-you can do it with anyone starting right now! Just start connecting, listening, validating, questioning and suggesting.  If you’re an echo friend already, you have a connection and must be someone they trust to listen.  The next step for you will be questioning. I’ve pulled this trick on several people in my life since the Teach to Lead Summit.

I’m getting better at finding my own style of critical friendship and am recognizing when I see someone else who has mastered it and I seek them out to be one of my CFs.  If we want to move forward in our understanding we need to embrace the discomfort of someone giving us more than an “uh-huh.” We all need more critical friends in our lives so we can become better educators and people.  Isn’t that the point?

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My amazing Teach to Lead Summit group who I served as a critical friend with our logic model.