So often, teachers are asked to share their opinions on what’s broken in education and what needs fixing. But who is asking the questions and leading the conversation, who is listening, and who ultimately makes the decisions that impact the daily lives of teachers and students? Within those answers lies the disconnect between teacher input and true teacher voice.
It seems teachers can find vehicles to engage in conversations on educational issues, evident in the education blogs online, the teaching associations that have flourished in the last 10 years, developing fellowships and hand selecting educators to promote their missions in the name of teacher voice. What is absent generally is the opportunity that VIVA Teachers offers for teachers to engage in solution-driven dialogue with their teaching colleagues, emphasizing visible, systemic change for teachers, by teachers.
This absence in true dialogue made way for a lot of noise and confusion in at the two-hour Education Nation Teacher Town Hall, hosted by Brian Williams and NBC Studios at the New York Public Library on Sept. 23, 2012.
A Platform for Teachers
I headed to the town hall hoping to hear from a multitude of teachers that truly represented the teaching force in the United States. I believed the experience would bring me closer to the colleagues I have in the other school districts, grade levels, and content areas.
When I arrived, I was greeted by a woman who wanted to know who I was, whom I was affiliated with, and what the VIVA Project was? Did I represent the AFT? Was I a teacher? Whose side was I on? Those questions seemed to suggest a divide between the groups. I have always believed teachers, regardless of teaching context, were on the same side, working towards a common goal, and we all had a shared interest in creating equitable learning conditions for our students and teaching conditions for each other. Could I be wrong?
Teacher Voice: A Sampling?
As a VIVA Teacher Leader, I understood why I was in the room, but quickly learned there was one section of teachers who were Teachers of the Year, teachers from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, several individuals I recognized from my time at the Department of Education, and a large group from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).
I no longer believed true, balanced teacher voice was being represented in this distinguished group of educators and union employees who now had the microphone and the platform to make their voice heard.
Throughout the discussion, there seemed to be a clear divide between the public and charter teachers. Several teachers stood up to cheer on their charter school, the work they do, how much more they go above and beyond public school teachers; the room quickly devolved to a shouting match. Union and non-union teachers argued over the level of commitment to their job, to their school, and ultimately, to their students, based on the length of their school day and how deep they dig into their pockets to provide supplies to their students.
I was shocked to see such divisions in teachers who share such common ground.
The Issues: A Mile Wide and an Inch Deep
The show began with the topic of teacher preparation, which we looked at closely in our VIVA National Report, Voices from the Classroom. Our ideas seemed to resonate with the teachers at Education Nation who agreed that teachers need hands-on experience in the classroom prior to completion of their coursework and they need ongoing support from master teachers and/or mentors in their first three years of teaching. But teacher training was just one small part of the two-hour discussion.
Throughout, Williams shifted from topic to topic, inviting audience commentary on the effects of poverty on school systems, the shift to Common Core, the role of parents, providing wraparound services…each topic deserving a two-hour time slot on its own.
While I appreciated the role of the town hall to bring teacher voice to the table on each of these topics, the show did offer the solution-oriented nature of a VIVA Idea Exchange. In my opinion, the VIVA Teachers Idea Exchange platform offers real solutions, concrete examples of what is and is not working in schools across the country. The solutions are centered on the contexts with which teachers work, within the state and local mandates of their schools. VIVA is able to accomplish what I believe Education Nation’s Teacher Town Hall intended to represent in a two-hour segment: teacher voice and teacher activism. However, it fell short and I left feeling uninspired by my colleagues from across the United States.
The Take Away
My experience at Education Nation reinforced the validity of VIVA’s mission to elevate Authentic teacher voice. While I believe the Education Nation Summit provides a space for educators to come to the table and discuss a range of issues, I found little in the way of solutions and strongly believe that is what sets VIVA apart from the rest.
As a nation, we have a long road to travel on the path to reform and while I believe we have a common goal–our students–we are transparently divided and, therefore, stuck.
Freeda Pirillis was a member of the team that wrote the first VIVA report, Voices from the Classroom.