By Chuck Carlson
It started with an email. Where it ends? Even Lesley Hagelgans isn’t quite sure.
But the Marshall Middle School eighth grade teacher does know this: She’s going to enjoy the ride and do what she can to help change the dialogue and, perhaps, the direction of public education.
“I’m a teacher, a mom and a writer,” Hagelgans said. “Writing has taken me to Washington, D.C. twice, New Orleans and New York City. I’ve gotten to see people around the country and meet people I never thought I would have met.”
She has found herself deep in the often complex, sometimes frustrating world of public policy. In fact earlier this month, she was in Denver with nine other educators from across the country in the National Education Association “Raise Your Hand: Empowered Educators” representing Vision Ideas Voice Action, a teacher-empowerment group.
She has become a powerful local voice in teacher evaluations and in the national VIVA program and she has met with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to voice her ideas and suggestions.
“It’s very fulfilling,” she said.
And it all started with a single email.
In fact, it was an email blast that came from Marshall school superintendent Randy Davis, by way of a school board member, and it asked the generic question, “If you had $3.94 billion to spend on public education, how would you spend it?”
The number was not random — it was the amount the federal government currently spends on professional development in education — and the question intrigued Hagelgans, who teaches language arts and is the school’s yearbook adviser.
“I was just going to spend 15 minutes on the computer looking into it and I was there two hours,” she said. “I was sucked in. And when I was in Denver, the other teachers all said the same thing.”
That initial foray was a little more than three years ago and since then, she has become an advocate for VIVA Teachers and the launching of its Idea Exchange, a three-step process developed by New Voice Strategies to increase participation in public policy.
The plan is to begin an online conversation and then bring those who are truly interested into a room to discuss recommendations for teacher accountability, teacher support and more.
Those recommendations made their way to Duncan’s office and he met with a group of teachers, including Hagelgans, in D.C.
He discussed some of the proposals and seemed non-committal, she said, but six months later, he introduced the “Race to the Top” program, the Education Department’s $4 billion contest created to spur innovation and reforms in state and local public education.
She has also found herself in groups discussing public education and funding with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which over the years has donated millions to education.
“It’s taken on a life of its own,” she said. “It’s so cool.”
It was never supposed to be this way for Hagelgans, who while growing up in central and southern Illinois, figured she’d eventually do something with what she knew best — math.
“We moved down to Carterville, Ill. and it was a small town, but kind of cliquey, something like Marshall, though no disrespect to Marshall,” she said. “I had a teacher named Connie Church and all the cliquey groups fell away. She said everyone has a voice and she didn’t care about your past. For the first time I felt like I belonged in a small town.”
Hagelgans had Church as a teacher for three classes by her senior year but in October of her senior year, Church, her husband, her sister, her sister-in- law and two others died in a horrific traffic accident.
“We had to do something so we all went to her house,” Hagelgans said. “She brought us together when she was alive and she brought us together in death. But she pushed me in language arts. It just opened up for me. She gave me the push I needed.”
She also provided the template for Hagelgans, who decided to make her life’s work teaching.
She went to Western Michigan University, earning a bachelor’s degree in English and political science and a master’s in middle school teaching.
She heard about an opening at Marshall Middle School and, 15 minutes into the interview, was hired. She’s been there ever since and she has made it a point to teach the way Mrs. Church did, making every kid feel comfortable.
“I want to give kids that sense of community,” said Hagelgans, who turns 38 this week and lives in Union City with her husband Michael and their two kids, Damen, 9, and Delilah, 6, who both attend Hughes Elementary.
She continues working with educators around the country in VIVA Teachers as well as writing about public policy and the role of public education today.
“It’s like being a doctor,” she said. “You make a diagnosis of students and get a prescription for how to make them better.”
Originally posted Jul. 13, 2014 by the Battle Creek Enquirer http://ow.ly/zeok4