Category Archives: Teacher Leadership

National Boards: Let Me Tell You Why

Washington State just welcomed 1,434 new National Board Certified Teachers. That makes 10,135 statewide. The popularity and support of National Board Certification indicates an emphasis on quality education for the students of our state. We are fortunate to have support at a level that teachers in other states can only imagine.

Suddenly, all around me, teachers are taking notice and asking about National Boards. What is it like? Should they do it? Is it worth it?

Good questions. I think I have some answers.

I am a National Board Certified Teacher. And that matters. Now let me tell you why.

NBCTs demonstrate a new levels of dedication to their students. Certainly, I was thoroughly dedicated before I certified, as are the majority of teachers. I was the sort of teacher that was always looking for ways to improve my practice. I wanted to be the teacher my students deserved. And I was willing to work for it. This is just the sort of teacher that decides to pursue certification.

It takes a certain work ethic to pursue certification, but the extra work is worth it if students benefit. When it’s all said and done, certification is a badge of honor, proof of dedication.

NBCTs take increasing pride in their work. And yet there is a certain humility that we cultivate as well. We know that everything we do is grounded in our knowledge of our students and their needs.

I was the first in my small, rural district to certify. Hardly anyone seemed to notice at the time. Despite that, I was overflowing with pride in my achievement and a new level of confidence.

That newfound confidence led me to do something bold on that very day. I was looking for my name on the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards website. I just wanted to make sure it was there, that I really was an NBCT. An announcement on the webpage caught my eye. The NBPTS was looking for applicants for its English Language Arts Standards Committee.

I had just certified…just that day. But did that keep me from filling out an application? No, it did not. And, by some miracle, I ended up on that committee.

With the NBPTS ELA Standards Committee, I had the experience of working with passionate and talented educators from around the country, creating standards that made us all very proud. The experience left me with a weird mixture of humble gratitude and elevated confidence in my abilities.

My certificate- A student’s reflection is visible, if you look closely. It has a place of honor in my classroom, as a reminder to keep my students at the forefront of my practice.

For many NBCTs, the journey doesn’t end at certification. NBCTs don’t retreat from the work. They know that we have to continue growing and improving as professionals, just as we want our students to grow and improve.

My professional journey has made me a much better learner alongside my students. I have learned to adjust on the fly, and to tweak activities and instructional tools to work for individuals, small groups, and whole classes. And, most of all, I know that we are all works in progress. My students and myself, we have a lot of growing to do. My NBCT journey gave me the confidence to always be in the middle of it, never just coasting on what I have always done before.

NBCTs develop the courage to look back and ask hard questions about their practice. We know what it is like to be judged by our peers, and, as unnerving as it is, the growth we achieve through the process propels us, perpetually looking back in order to move forward. The NBCTs I talk to always say that the certification process forces them to increase their ability to reflect and seek feedback. There is always something that can improve.

If you are trying something new, if you are pushing yourself to improve, you will find yourself in uncomfortable territory, where failure is possible. Not everyone is up to this, but NBCTs are ready to reflect and to adjust their practice as needed.

NBCTs seek opportunities to collaborate with others to provide the best experiences for their students. That means reaching out to their colleagues, their communities, their online resources and beyond. Our access to ideas and support is virtually limitless. For years, this pursuit of a network of support has bolstered my practice, increasing my confidence and filling my toolbox full of instructional tricks of the trade.

With the new interest in National Board Certification in my rural region, it became part of my journey to become a cohort facilitator and help others on their path to certification.  Local cohorts like ours are making it possible to get rural educators on board.

This year, two of my colleagues certified; so there are three NBCTs in my district now, and five more candidates in the process. The fire that has been lit across the state has ignited in rural Lewis County after all.

So, if you or someone you know is considering National Board Certification, if you are wondering what all the fuss is about, let me tell you:

Through National Board Certification teachers validate their practice and gain confidence to take it to the next level. Certification begins a journey of professional development that can be richly rewarding.

I highly recommend it.

“Teachers are members of learning communities”

Earlier this week, Shari shared the great news about accomplished teaching here in Washington (1,435 teachers earned National Board Certification and 533 teachers renewed their National Board Certification in this last cycle).

When I earned my National Board Certification in 2006, I had no idea what an impact it was going to have on my career.

We often hear about the National Board Certification process: it fosters reflection on and close examination of student needs and our responsive practice. Many teachers who go through the process share how it helped focus their lens on how their knowledge of students informs practice as they move up that “Architecture of Accomplished Teaching.” There are those “Five Core Propositions” around which the process is centered, as well:

(Image source)

For me, earning my certification was a watershed moment around Proposition 5: Teachers are members of learning communities.

Specifically, I realized that my learning community wasn’t limited to the Friday PLC meetings I attended. In fact, my community extended across the whole state of Washington and beyond.

One of the best…and hardest…things about being a teacher is that you can be by yourself in your room, doing what you decide is best for the kids sitting in front of you. There is the opportunity for tremendous autonomy, creativity, and personal choice. That autonomy might be nice, but it might leave us unaware of the opportunities for learning that can occur when we connect our classrooms to others.

After earning my NBPTS certification, I ended upon a few email lists. Usually that is an annoyance, but when I started getting emails from names like Jeanne Harmon, Terese Emry (those names might ring a bell to some of you readers), it didn’t read as the typical spam email that filled my inbox. Instead, it was about connecting teachers, fostering teacher leadership, amplifying teacher voice, and making a difference within and beyond the classroom.

Earning my NBPTS certification connected me with a community of talented, creative and passionate teachers. Those teachers existed before, like me, doing their best work in front of roomfuls of kids. Those extra letters after our names, though, that “NBCT,” instantly built bridges to connect classrooms otherwise isolated by open miles, even whole states.

Since 2006, I’ve met and learned from elementary teachers in tiny districts far flung across our state, middle school specialists from urban districts on the east coast, and NBCT-administrators leading systems change near and far. What I’ve learned has shaped my knowledge and skill as a teacher leader, and as importantly, has added skills and tools to my repertoire as a classroom teacher.

Congratulations to the new and newly-renewed NBCTs across our state, not only for what you’ve accomplished for your students but also for becoming a part of a thriving network of amazing teachers… your learning community just expanded!

On Your Mark, Get Set, Go!

With the recent news that 1,435 teachers recently earned National Board Certification and 533 teachers renewed National Board Certification, the State of Washington has much to celebrate. This achievement means a great deal to the teachers, districts, cohorts, and our state education system, including a variety of agencies and organizations that provide supports to those seeking certification. However, for those who’ve just earned certification, your race to the finish line might feel it’s over, but In fact, it’s just beginning.

Thirteen years ago I began my National Board Certification journey. I was a fourth year teacher, both new to Washington and my district.  I was the first in my district to attempt certification much less complete the process.  I remember trying to explain it to my students–many had never seen a video camera in the classroom before. Most people in my district hadn’t heard of this certification, much less how to support it. I struggled through the certification process without the supports that exist in the system today, but with the mindset that I would finish what I started.  And I did. In all transparency, I barely made it and certified by one point. That one point might have made the difference between certifying in 2005 versus 2006 but the process involved created more growth for me than just arriving at the destination.  After certifying, I took on a challenge.  I wanted to open the doors for other teachers to deeply analyze their practice using the structure and framework provided by the National Board process. This is where my leadership began. I wanted to be the person who helped clear the pathways so that others who wanted to, could travel with a bit more ease. Thirteen years later, I’m proud to say that my district has many National Board Certified Teachers and an effective cohort system that supports teachers and counselors as they journey down this road.

I oftentimes share with candidates that the process of earning National Board Certification is more of a marathon and less of a sprint.  Figuring out when to start the race depends on the individual teacher/counselor. There is no perfect time to start. I started the process at a critical time in my career. I was just past the triage stage–you know, when you’re staying up until midnight planning for tomorrow’s lesson, unsure of where you’re going or how to get there.  Now, I could see the big picture and better understand my pacing, skill development, and how to write assessments.  But I certainly didn’t feel settled. I needed National Board Certification to push me, to develop me, and to help me find more rhythm. I questioned the triage strategies and routines I’d already established. I needed this, like a runner needs fuel.  Analyzing my work fed my soul and honed my skills to make me a reflective practitioner.   

The growth didn’t just come from the process.  Certification was a pivotal turning point in my teaching career. Who knows, perhaps it was the one point differential that activated change in me.  Perhaps it was the adrenaline rush that comes from finding out that I certified.  But after learning that I certified, I began to see myself as a teacher leader.  I became more involved in organizations that promote and support highly effective teaching practices. I began advocating for students at a building and district level. I understood that my voice could be heard and that my personal struggle through the process brought validation and credibility to the table when I talked with administrators about the needs of students.  I took on more leadership roles, participated in building decision making, and felt inspired to be a change agent for my community.  I took risks–used cutting edge resources, created new lessons, developed new strategies and all the while, reflected upon each change to determine what worked, what didn’t, and why (a process I practiced through National Board and continue to use today).  And while many of my colleagues who aren’t NBCTs may be doing these things too, this certification caused me to go down this path.  The best part is, that my journey into teacher leadership is still ongoing. Like so many other NBCTs, my race isn’t over yet. Heck, we’re just now picking up speed. 

 

 

Oh Pioneers!

 

 

When I think of a pioneer, I think of nineteenth century people willing to take chances by moving west, astronauts empowered by mathematicians and scientists that sought space exploration, and characters in a Willa Cather novel.  In the past, I hadn’t really thought to apply that word to teachers. Yet, in so many ways, teachers are pioneers, seeking to open up a new activity, a new line of thinking, or a new development in the education world.

Look around on Amazon and you’ll see teacher authors selling books on new engagement methods and strategies. On Twitter, teachers are organizing, leading, and participating in chats. I read the books from my teacherpreneur friends and participate in weekly chats on Twitter.  I’ve learned a lot over the past few years about education and how to help my students engage within the classroom.  Yet, some pioneers seek to create a bridge to engage the outside policymaking world with the needs of students and teachers within the classroom.  Enter WATAC. Taken from their website, “The Washington Teacher Advisory Council or WATAC is the voice of accomplished teachers advocating for student success.  We inform education decisions and influence policy, promoting equity, and excellence for all.”  WATAC is functioning on a new line of thinking– open up the lines of communication between those education decision makers and teachers who are impacted by policy.  Pioneering, right?  So maybe on paper, this doesn’t sound like a new development in the education world. But talk with teachers and you’ll soon find that we are rarely consulted about how an educational policy is impacting our kids and our work.  While there are some opportunities for work groups to flush out policy implementation (I participated in one for TPEP analyzing the first few districts to pilot the new evaluation system), educator voice is needed at all steps in the policy process, not just at the work group implementation stage. Much less, we’re even less likely to be approached with what legislative or policy needs we have. Until you’ve established a line of communication between yourself and your local legislator, it’s unlikely you’ll be consulted about potential legislation (although to be clear, I’m a huge fan of talking to my legislators and I’ve had a positive experience with this over the past year).  So, to take up the cause, WATAC seeks to do this work and to help teachers learn how to advocate for their students and their classrooms, too.  Basically, WATAC wants to ensure that there is teacher voice involved in creating policy and evaluating policy.  Because who better to know what a policy can do to a classroom, than the teachers who work with students who are impacted by the law?  

How do we create and curate teacher voice in education policy decisions?  What systems need to be in place to ensure that teachers have a voice?  What systems need to be in place to ensure sustainability regardless of who the education policymakers are? Clearly, I have more questions than answers. WATAC is still new and this is pioneering work that these educators have taken on. Engaging in education policy advocacy isn’t something teachers have a lot of training in how to do and frankly, it’s hard to find the time to eat lunch, much less read up on laws moving through the state legislature (by the way, save yourself some time and consider signing up for weekly legislative updates here: http://cstp-wa.org/policy-dialogue/legislative-updates/.   You can also sign up to receive updates from OSPI (Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction) and PESB (Professional Educator Standards Board) here:  https://public.govdelivery.com/accounts/WAOSPI/subscriber/new.)   Creating systems that partner teachers with policy makers is going to take time, some careful planning, and serious assessment.  We need clear deliverables in statutes that require practitioner voice.  We need systems in place for how to do this.  

I have faith.  WATAC’s work has just begun but the foundation’s laid.  A network of award winning teachers has been established and a leadership team of teachers assembled.  Last Spring, WATAC held its first conference, engaging educators in policy advocacy at the local, regional, state, and national levels. The result? 75 educators came together to learn how policy is constructed, and how to ask for change in their schools, their districts, and at the state level. Educators learned about ESSA and had a chance to talk with legislators and policy makers from OSPI and the Governor’s Office.  The network is growing. Like pioneers, the pathway may not always be clear as to how to get to the goal, but the vision is there.  Planning is key for a journey like this.  But promoting educator voice is worth the expedition.  

The Worldwide Woes of Rural Education

It’s no secret that there is a shortage of teachers entering the workforce in Washington (OSPI has a page on this). But have you seen the news from rural China? Recent articles explain how education in rural China is in a crisis. Due to the developmental divide between urban and rural areas, and the low wages for teachers, young Chinese teachers entering the profession have little incentive to work in rural areas, far from the conveniences of the larger towns and cities. Likewise, wealthier rural families send their children to schools in more urban areas for better opportunities. Meanwhile, the students who remain in rural schools suffer from ever-decreasing quality of education, high teacher turnover, and limited programs of instruction.

Yunnan Rice Fields

I wish these articles were as exotic and foreign to me as the locale would suggest, but, line after line, I kept seeing a parallel to my own teaching context.

First of all, Chinese villages are inconvenient, with transportation issues for students and teachers. Transportation is a problem in rural Lewis County, too. Some students who attend my small, rural school in Southwest Washington, ride the bus for more than an hour from their remote homes. And, teachers who want to eat at a nice restaurant, shop at a large store, or get the oil changed in their car will have to drive at least forty minutes from our little neighborhood. Okay, it is probably worse in rural China, but who wants to drive forty minutes for fast food?

Another parallel? Rural Chinese teachers have little or no social life. Likewise, although many young teachers take rural teaching jobs in our region, it takes very little time before they realize that these remote, depressed areas are not exactly conducive to meeting other young singles. They have to travel for socialization, and, let’s face it, first-year teachers don’t have the time or money for the traveling.

Yamdrok Lake, Tibet, China

Other Chinese programs have cropped up to create incentives for teachers and young college graduates, even if they have no long-term wish to teach at all. These young people are encouraged to “volunteer” to perform a service for less privileged populations. They often start out enthusiastic and effective, but rarely last as teachers. They are a temporary fix that leaves needy rural students feeling abandoned after a short time.

This is a problem in our school, too. We have several positions filled by people who would not normally qualify for the jobs. For instance, our secondary special education teacher is a long-term substitute without prior experience in special ed. This is her second year. That would be especially terrible, but we are lucky, and she is doing a super job. But how fair is it that someone is doing a job they were not trained to do, without receiving benefits? She doesn’t plan to stay in the job.

Riffe Lake, Mossyrock WA

Another program that China is developing is a pipeline for rural educators, starting with high school students. They are incentivizing young people, getting them to promise to work in rural areas in exchange for their college education. This is where the parallel ends. I wish we had incentives for young people in rural communities to go into teaching. Our rural county is lacking in high school programs for future educators (such as Recruiting Washington Teachers), and that is especially frustrating.

Look, it takes a certain kind of educator to work in a poor, rural area. We are remote. We lack conveniences. Plus, we have kids that need us desperately due to poverty, homelessness, and domestic issues. We have diverse populations with needs that are sometimes hard to meet with limited resources and staff. It is hard to come from somewhere else and fall in love with this community, despite its beauty and the charm of the people who live here. Candidates for teaching jobs need to be up to the challenge.

My idea of a solid solution is our own local pipeline. I can imagine some of my current students as future teachers in rural Washington. They would know what they were getting into. They would understand the rhythm of the place. They would know the people. They would speak the languages. They wouldn’t mind the drive “out town,” which is our particular colloquialism for the big cities of Chehalis and Centralia. These kids would be perfect for the jobs. And we need them- desperately.

Lewis County Blueberry Fields

But this is not China, and no one is offering them money to become teachers and come back home to teach. In fact, we struggle to get programs for these promising students to earn college credit in high school. Unlike most urban schools who can attract teachers with advanced degrees to teach college courses in a high school setting, our teachers are often teaching several subjects, some of them far removed from their original major. Like rural China, our best students leave us for the better offerings of larger towns, such as Running Start or schools that offer more AP courses, clubs, or arts programs.

So, despite having students who would be excellent future teachers, we are losing the opportunity to give them an early start on that journey, to win them over to the joys of rural education.

Because it is joyous.

It would take so little to solve so much. Before it is worse, before we seem even more like rural China, we need to get our policy leaders to incentivize the education of future rural teachers.

The Teacher Leader I Want To Be

I laid awake in bed at the Omni Shoreham. Light seeped through the cracks of the door and laughter drifted up from the courtyard. It wasn’t so much the time zone that kept me awake. I couldn’t turn my brain off. I often can’t turn my brain off.=

This time though, I was thinking about what I’d learned today sitting around the table with teachers, principals, coaches, and district leaders mulling through the Teacher Leader Model Standards and Professional Standards for Educational Leaders. The day’s conversations lingered and added to some of the thinking I’d done with the CSTP Teacher Leadership Skills Framework. I was incredibly grateful to Katherine Bassett (NNSTOY) and those at the Aspen Education Program who thought I should be part of this conversation.

I couldn’t stop thinking: What kind of leader do you want to be? What kind of teacher leader are you trying to be, Hope?

My first “formal” leadership position was team lead my second year of teaching. That same year I was recruited to join a new Equity and Diversity committee. The following year I moved to a new school but quickly found myself leading some curriculum design work. By my 5th year of teaching, I’d served on a district curriculum design team, as a senior team lead, a senior project lead, a Daffodil Princess Coordinator, was offered a job as a litearcy coach (Um, how was I going to tell experienced teachers how to teach?!), and was an NBCT. Fast-foward, add English Department chair, ASB teacher, inquiry group lead, and a few more formal and informal teacher leadership roles in there and you’ll be all caught up to 2017.

I was busy but fulfilled. I learned to work with a variety of personalities. I learned how to navigate a school system. I gained a stronger sense of purpose. Most importantly, I had examples of the kind of leader I want to be…and the kind of leader I despise.

As I contemplate what type of teacher leader I want to be, I am acutely aware of my own hypocrisy. On the one hand, I don’t care about titles at all. On the other, it deeply bothers me when I’m asked so what else do you do besides teach? I find myself stumbling to make up titles for the ways I contribute to the growth of my grade level team, my department, my school and my work with Teachers United.

A title doesn’t make you a good leader. And that’s definitely not the type of leader I want to be. So who do I want to be?

I want to be the type of leader that inspires others to come alongside and follow. The kind of leader who is in expert in instructional and content but doesn’t have to tell everyone about it. The type of leader others know they can come to when they need help creating a lesson plan, a reality check, or a laugh. I want to be the kind of leader who is both well-planned and prepared, but prepared and planned enough to be organic. I want to be the type of leader that doesn’t demand more than they’re willing to give. The leader who checks their emails thoroughly before responding. The leader who thinks about how their choices will marginalize or include others. The leader that knows when to step in and when to step back. The leader who understands that leading is an ongoing learning process. The leader that sees current promise in others and predicts their future greatness. The leader that sees the big pictures and pays attention to the tiny details. The leader who is constantly considering the role race, class, and gender norms play in that moment. I want to inspire. I want to always remain reflective. I want to be the kind of leader who learns from her mistakes. I want to a leader that is humble enough to ask for help, and willing to seek out the wisdom of others. The kind of leader that doesn’t have to talk about how great of a leader they are (I recognize the irony of this blog post).

Don’t get me wrong. I have aspirations of being sharply dressed, breaking out a Tweetable quip, and using big words. I want to remember the name of the author who wrote that one book and recognize Katie Couric when I see her dressed in a blue sweat suit (yes, that happened). But let’s not get carried away here.

Most importantly, I want to be the teacher leader that is a part of a team that shares power, distributes responsibilities and is accountable to one another. They build teams. They are committed to building partnerships with everyone who has something to lose or gain in the work. When I think about my favorite leaders, the ones who modelled and continue to model, this is who they are. They know their why and they never stray from it.

 

The Discomfort of Learning—Plagiarism and Consequences

Recently students in a non-English language arts class turned in research papers worth a high percentage of their grade. Scoring the papers, their teacher found rampant plagiarism ranging from improper citing of sources to blatantly copying and pasting paragraphs of text from online sources without any citation at all.

My colleague who I will dub—Attentive-Responsible-Teacher (or Art)—followed our school’s handbook in regards to plagiarism. Art gave each student a zero on their paper, wrote up disciplinary referrals, and set parameters for students to try again. Because no one blatantly took an entire paper from another source and attempted to pass said paper off as their own, this teacher wanted students to learn from their mistake and have a chance to try again (at a 30% reduction).

Some parents and students came unglued.

Around 25% of the class had plagiarized sections in their papers and, according to Art, the responses from students ranged from taking full responsibility; to acknowledging poor note-taking strategies which led to the problem passages; to I never learned this.

After a flurry of emails, meetings, conferences and phone calls Art contacted me, as the English Department Chair, to clarify a few things.

Some students and parents argued their miss-cited papers landed in a gray area. That miss-citing sources is not the same as plagiarism. This is euphemism. Plagiarism, defined, is representing someone else’s words, image, etc. as one’s own. If a student includes a quote verbatim from a text without quote marks, they are graphically indicating those words are their own. Plagiarism.

It might be an honest mistake without mal-intent, but it is nonetheless a serious error deserving consequences. I spoke with a parent who felt the students should get to re-write the paper and still earn 100%, claiming that would make it a learning opportunity and not punishment. This contributed to an over-arching theme emerging from the conversations with parents and administrators: the students didn’t know they were plagiarizing so they can’t be punished for plagiarizing.

Of course they can. Just as I can get a speeding ticket when unaware of how fast I was driving, inadvertent plagiarism is not really a thing, but a rhetorical nicety created by parents and students to avoid the feeling of shame being called out as plagiarizers.  A natural human reaction.

Then it hit me, this situation was less about academic integrity than it was about failure. They failed something in such a way as to tarnish both their academic record (temporarily) and their personal integrity (also temporary, but I suspect it does not feel temporary).

From my teacher’s perspective, the academic learning opportunity is pretty clear. I hope they have a clearer sense of what constitutes academic plagiarism, and acts of academic plagiarism carry serious consequences (here a slight grade reduction, at University expulsion is on the list).

I also understand students and parents reacting to the culturally inherent fear of failure. The fact is, for learning to take place it must be uncomfortable and we must fail. As teachers, our job is not to make it more comfortable, but to respect students enough to walk them into discomfort, and not leave them there completely alone.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever come across for education, or for life, is from Samuel Beckett’s enigmatic story Worstward Ho! where his characters face continual abstract struggle: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

This advice applies to teachers and students alike. There are all kinds of failure, and when it comes to learning, it is necessary. The reality is teachers and students (and even parents) sometimes have to sit in discomfort for any development to take place. We all have to try again and continually attempt to fail better.

 

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.