Can We Interest You in Teacher Leadership?

ptone-e1421769385476By Paul Toner, President of The VIVA Project

Last weekend in The New York Times, Mokoto Rich wrote that “school districts have gone from handing out pink slips to scrambling to hire teachers,” thanks to an improving US economy.

In an op-ed to the Times three days later, Can We Interest You in Teaching?, Frank Bruni countered that “Teaching can’t compete. When the economy improves and job prospects multiply, college students turn their attention elsewhere.”

Bruni’s three-pronged approach to making the teaching profession more attractive to college students—“more money, more independence, and more respect”—is on-target.

However, while better pay and higher prestige are crucial, increasing teacher autonomy by involving them more directly in the policy-making process and school management is the most straightforward solution we can achieve today.

That’s right: teacher autonomy and leadership is not a mirage-like vision of the future. It’s already happening now, via organizations like The VIVA Project, NEA, AFT, Teach Plus, Teach to Lead, NNSTOY and numerous other teacher voice and advocacy groups.

Further, Mr. Bruni notes that “Education leaders disagree over how much of a voice” teachers should have. But The VIVA Project’s history proves that education leaders and policymakers—from Secretary Arne Duncan to governors, district superintendents and school boards—are all eager and willing to hear from classroom educators.

They want to capitalize on teachers’ wisdom and expertise. They’re ready for a new breed of teacher leaders to step forward.

If we want to draw the best and brightest to teaching, providing them with good salaries and bestowing more respect on the profession are both critical steps. But if we want those teachers to remain in the profession, we can’t keep leaving them out of education policy decisions.

Policymakers must continue to work with organizations like The VIVA Project to engage teachers in leading their profession through policy-making at the local, state and national levels. If those teacher leaders continue to step forward, and policymakers continue to listen, higher salaries and increased respect will surely follow.

An ESEA Reauthorization That Could Empower Teachers

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by Paul Toner, President of the VIVA Project

An update of the ESEA is long overdue, and this week, the Senate has a real chance to improve it with the following bipartisan amendments based on the wisdom and input of classroom educators, written in collaboration with the Teaching Policy Fellows at Teach Plus.

First, the Bennet-Collins Teacher Leadership Amendment would enable states to use Title II funds for teacher leadership training. In our own VIVA Idea Exchanges™, teachers have consistently asked for more opportunities for evidence-based professional development, more time to serve as mentors and coaches, and more chances to collaborate.

In our latest VIVA Idea Exchange™ on the Common Core, for instance, teachers across the country said, “Often [professional development] opportunities take the form of one-off workshops, where information is presented in one day with little or no follow-through…[but] professional development must be sustained over time and embedded within regular work hours. Teachers require the opportunity to work together on departmental and grade-level teams to interpret the standards and develop resources and curricula that align with their school’s mission and vision.”

Just imagine the difference $2.5 billion per year could make when put toward professional development, both internal and external. This amendment would allow all 50 states to gage which schools need the most help creating teacher and principal leadership opportunities, and then allocate Title II funds as it sees fit, including to third-party nonprofit organizations.

Second, the STEM Master Teacher Corps Act, will ensure that schools find and keep STEM teachers while helping them serve as mentors and role models, and ensuring they have enough time during regular school hours to serve in leadership and mentor positions, instead of increased responsibilities after school.

Third, the Baldwin-Cassidy SMART Act (Support Making Assessments Reliable and Timely) will reduce over-testing, one of the key concerns of our VIVA teachers in the latest VIVA Idea Exchange™ on the Common Core. The SMART Act will take a data-based approach to make sure student assessments are well-aligned with standards, curricula, and that they never conflict with a teacher’s need for plenty of instructional, planning, and collaboration time.

Finally, the Bennet-Hatch Innovation Amendment will allow teachers and schools to embrace innovative programs by providing funding for the ones that show promise. In our VIVA Idea Exchanges™, teachers have expressed their excitement for new and different ways to improve student learning and close achievement gaps, and this amendment would make those kinds of groundbreaking programs easier to implement and reproduce.

If you believe, like we do, that teachers deserve more opportunities for career growth, more autonomy in deciding what works best for students, and a better student assessment strategy, make sure your senator knows how you feel before these ESEA amendments hit the senate floor later this week.


Instead of just “looking up,” let’s look at one another

By Jennifer Reinhardt

If you’ve been on social media channels lately, you’ve probably seen Gary Turk’s “Look Up” video, which urges us to put down our smartphones and engage with the people around us.

I admit that I am often guilty of this, choosing to beat the next level of Candy Crush (or not) instead of striking up a conversation with the person sitting next to me.

But, I think it’s a mistake to frame all types of online engagement as a cacophony of noise that distracts us from being “productive and present,” as the video would say, in our own lives.

Here at New Voice Strategies, we strive to create authentic relationships that propel policy change by cultivating trust between our members and partners. And we do so primarily through online tools.

I’ve never met face-to-face most of the teachers and community leaders whom I am honored and humbled to work with. I don’t have to; technology offers us a powerful platform from which to support, connect, promote, and learn from one another.

Here are three recent examples that highlight our online community coming together to identify key issues and take action:

1) After an online discussion about how housing issues affect students, and how teachers can take leadership roles to advocate for change, Julie Miller Hays (Anoka, Minn.) attended the Urban Institute’s “How Housing Matters” roundtable in Washington, D.C., in April. She was the only teacher representative on the panel.

2) Fellow educators Ahngelique Davis (Philadelphia, Pa.) and Lesley Hagelgans (Union City, Mich.) are currently forming a research cohort among VIVA Leaders to promote scalable research models across school districts and create a pipeline for teacher-led research and articles.

3) In conjunction with Jose Vilson’s (New York, N.Y.) new book This is Not a Test, a collection of essays about race, class, and teaching, “with a mix of research and first-hand experience,” we’re exploring ways to engage our members around social justice issues in the classroom and beyond. If you are interested in hosting a community event or participating in a book discussion, let us know!

We believe what distinguishes our VIVA community is how we elevate one another and put teacher voice front and center in our dialogue.

As we continue to build our engagement programs, we would love to hear your feedback or suggestions. Please share success stories from within your district, or let us know if you would like to join or form an action group around a particular issue.


jennJennifer Reinhardt is New Voice Strategies’ engagement program manager. She works through the VIVA Leadership Center to design, implement and lead strategic campaigns around practitioner-identified issues.

New Idea Exchange on Teacher Licensure in Colorado

logo_join_bannerWhen the Colorado General Assembly convenes in the new year, it will be considering legislation governing educator licensure. The Colorado Education Association (CEA) strongly believes the experience and insights of educators are critical to shaping any changes to Colorado’s licensing system. For that reason, last week, CEA launched a VIVA Idea Exchange to seek member input on creating the most effective state licensure and renewal system. The resulting recommendations will help to shape CEA’s positions on our state’s licensure standards.

If you are a CEA member, please join the VIVA CEA Idea Exchange: Teacher Licensure to share your ideas for re-envisioning Colorado’s licensure system. If you know a CEA member, help us spread the word. The Idea Exchange will be open until Oct. 25th.

Eduwonk: Guest blog series by VIVA Teachers and staff

For the week of Sept. 27, 2013, New Voice Strategies staff and VIVA Teachers from around the country submitted posts for a guest series on the prominent Eduwonk blog. Read excerpts below and click the links to read the entire posts.

My Transition from the Classroom to Amplifying Teacher Voice by Xian Barrett, New Voice Strategies national program director and former Chicago Public Schools teacher

As you read the series, I want you to keep in mind these guiding principles of our work. First, we believe that full engagement from all professionals in a public service is the only way to solve the most complex of our societal problems. We’ve all been in rooms where decision makers have bemoaned how challenging it is to get parents, teachers and students to “buy-in,” and then strategized how to secure that buy-in. Let’s be blunt. That doesn’t work. Our nation has been at its greatest when tyranny has been overcome by democratic action; it has failed disastrously when those in power have been left to decide what’s best for everyone else.

Holding the Keys to the Education Kingdom by Jim Szewc (VIVA MET), full-time mentor to beginning teachers in Florida’s Hillsborough County Public Schools.

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

Cultural Competency Amongst Teachers by Pia P. Payne-Shannon (VIVA Minneapolis), who teaches sixth and seventh grade Language Arts classes at Nellie Stone Johnson Community School.

District professional development needs to bridge the cultural gap that exists between teachers and students, and among diverse students. As teachers, we know structural changes need to be implemented in order for our academic environments to be more conducive to scholarly achievement … We need to demonstrate to our families that we are serious about valuing the diversity of our students by ensuring that all staff working with students become culturally self-aware, knowledgeable about the dynamics of cultural interactions, and select relevant curricula to acknowledge the cultural diversity in our schools.

School Safety, Part 1: Children Deserve Action by Kori Milroy (VIVA Chicago), who teaches grammar school science.

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

School Safety, Part 2: Bridging the Gun Divide by Dean Raizman (VIVA NEA), teacher-librarian for Jefferson County Public Schools in Lakewood, Colo.

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

Policy and Practice: Why Teacher Voice Matters by New Voice Strategies Founding CEO Elizabeth Evans

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



New York Times: Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught?

NYTcoverIn Sunday’s New York Times, Jennifer Kahn, who teaches at the University of California-Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, asks “Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught?”  Her provocative piece examines different approaches to Social Emotion Learning (SEL) that are playing out at schools across the country and offers insights from academics, psychologists, administrators and teachers.

She writes, “Once a small corner of education theory, S.E.L. has gained traction in recent years, driven in part by concerns over school violence, bullying and teen suicide. But while prevention programs tend to focus on a single problem, the goal of social-emotional learning is grander: to instill a deep psychological intelligence that will help children regulate their emotions.”

We want to know what you think. Should schools be focusing on SEL? Has your school adopted an SEL curriculum? How is it working for you, in your classroom?

The Way We Live in Newtown: Letting Love Win

by Katherine Doerr Morosky

When I went for a run this morning, I forgot to lock my front door. About two miles away from home, a sign in someone’s front yard jostled my memory: “Grant them peace.” The wind rustled the late summer leaves; the only other sounds were birds singing and insects buzzing. My town is rural, beautiful, bucolic, idyllic. It’s Newtown, which the world now associates with gun violence and senseless murder. Yet, I still forgot to lock my door, because our tragedy caused transformed Newtown by love.

Like every other teacher I know, the final days of summer vacation are a mixture of anticipation about new classes, new curricula, new colleagues. This summer was dominated by a new anxiety: school safety. How were my district’s safety protocols going to change, if at all? The high school where I teach, in a neighboring district, shares a school resource officer (SRO) with the middle school. The school’s front door remained unlocked all last winter and spring, even though the most shocking mass shooting in U.S. history happened only 30 minutes away. At this year’s opening faculty meeting on emergency procedures, I learned they were keeping that practice. In fact, nothing about security was significantly altered from last school year, apart from placing alarms on more exterior doors. Several of my colleagues expressed concern at the slow pace of action. A representative from the community safety committee assured us that the plan was still being updated and we would hear more in the winter. In the meantime, our old lockdown plan was in place, with one new twist. If the situation called for us to do something outside the confines of lockdown, we should use our best judgment. I immediately thought of a recurring dream from last year: leading my students in tying a rope ladder from jackets and everyone climbing out the window to safety.

How can anyone know how he or she will respond in a crisis? We can only speculate based upon personal experience or what we learn from others. Some of what I know comes from a child: my daughter’s friend was in Vicki Soto’s class at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14. She survived the massacre because she ran behind Adam Lanza when he put his gun down, ran down the hall to the driveway to the firehouse. It was her best judgment at that time, in that unfathomable situation, and it saved her life. An adult instinct would be the leave a secured area to confront a threat. Our best knowledge of the Sandy Hook massacre is that by putting themselves in Adam Lanza’s way, the adults he killed saved some children’s lives. Reflecting this, the Obama administration’s school safety guidelines, released in June, suggested that in the worst case it might be a viable option for staff to confront an assailant. I wonder if my moral compass will allow me to know when that worst-case is.

For hours on December 14, my daughters Pearl and Marie-Therese sat on the floor in their darkened fourth and first-grade classrooms at Hawley Elementary. Marie-Therese told me that she and her friend hugged each other and prayed to Jesus to keep them safe from the robber. Before that day, the scariest thing she could imagine was a robber. Metaphorically, Adam Lanza and the weapons he used were robbers: He robbed Newtown of its innocence and naïveté, especially its teachers. Teachers like my daughters’, who, crushed with the knowledge their students’ innocence was forever changed, still held it together for the whole school day on December 14. Heroes, they kept their faces calm and their voices upbeat, soldiering on until the normal dismissal time. It wasn’t professionalism or being on the clock that enabled this courage. It was their love for their vocation and the children who needed them.

In the first weeks after the massacre, I was in shock. The horrific truth was way beyond my comprehension. A weird mantra was running through my head.  “Now I get to live.” But life felt like a sentence, not a blessing. As my fog lifted, a new message began to develop: “We are Sandy Hook, and we choose love.” It was on car magnets and signs, hung in windows all over town. Newtowners, united by the profoundest loss, could only make meaning with love.

That love has pushed me to do things I never considered before. I’m a scientist, a chemistry and physics teacher. I don’t consider writing a core competency of mine. However, I couldn’t resist an invitation through the National Education Association (NEA) to add ideas about improving school safety – something I’m passionate about — to a VIVA Idea Exchange. I worked with over 10 other teachers from across the country to collaboratively write the Sensible Solutions for Safer Schools report, and then travel together to Washington D.C., to present and discuss our recommendations about school climate, character education, safety protocols, and gun control with officials at NEA and the U.S. Department of Education. Back in Wilton, when my department asked if anyone wanted to teach the new special-ed science courses, I volunteered. Again, this is a totally new experience that I never would have considered a year ago. These contributions are tribute to the 20 children and six teachers Newtown lost on December 14. Even though it takes extra effort to push through grief, I encourage myself with Dawn Hochsprung’s simple motto: “Be nice to each other, it’s all that really matters.”

KMoroskyKatherine Doerr Morosky teaches science at Wilton High School in Wilton, Conn. She participated in the VIVA NEA Writing Collaborative on school safety.

A Democracy Needs Authenticity

Where is the authenticity in American government?

As I indulged in my weekly obsession—Sunday morning news talk shows—I was struck by the lack of candor spewing forth. These media-trained, on-message politicians and political commentators told us next to nothing that could be considered authentic information about our country, the campaign or the future. I turned off the television in dismay.

Photo: Yana Paskova for The New York Times

Demanding pre-approval

I shouldn’t have been surprised, really. After all, the New York Times on Monday bared its journalistic soul with a story called “Last Word on the Trail? I Take It Back.” The story, which caused quite an uproar among non-Beltway journalists, revealed that high-level politicians now demand to approve their quotes before they can be used in print.  The writer, Jeremy W. Peters, blamed it on “a millisecond Twitter news cycle and an unforgiving, gaffe-obsessed media culture.”

Whatever the reason, I don’t think this can be good for our society, our government or our future.

Authentic Teacher Voices
That’s why I am so proud of the VIVA Teachers who share their time, their ideas and their authentic voice with us as part of our VIVA Idea Exchanges. And glad that American government still has at least a few public  leaders who believe in leadership that requires them to workable solutions not just shouting louder and more dogmatically.

Being authentic comes with risk. At the top political levels, they risk taking a hit during one ever-shortening news cycle. At the classroom, school and district level, our teachers sometimes risk their very jobs by speaking out.

We do our best to protect them from scrutiny. The VIVA Idea Exchange displays only their first name, last initial and (usually) what they teach. But there’s always the risk of an unusual name combined with a teaching specialty and a motivated person could figure out who is talking.

Worth the risk
At a recent national meeting of nonprofits helping teachers find their own public voice,  some of the bold teachers who have volunteered their time and talent with other organizations shared the risks they take—bloggers who get “flamed” on the Internet, policy agitators who have had their pay docked for attending meetings, teachers who speak out and are spurned by colleagues or punished by public administrators.  Yet, each of those teachers raised their authentic voice because they believed it was in the best interests of their students and their profession.

That’s the kind of passion our country needs. That’s the kind of courage that is required of a leader. That’s the authentic voice that can make a difference.

If a classroom teacher can do it, shouldn’t we expect the same from the people who lead this country?


Common Core State Standards

Our next project, the VIVA Arizona Charter School Teachers Idea Exchange, launches Monday, April 16.

Charter school teachers from across Arizona will have the chance to share their ideas about the state’s implementation of Common Core standards. Do you know any charter teachers in Arizona? Tell them about VIVA. They can log on to to share their voice.  Arizona Superintendent John Huppenthal and State Board of Education President Jaime Molera are anxious to hear what the charter teachers have to say. See the VIVA Teachers flier for more information about how to get involved.

VIVA Appreciates

Glenn Morehouse Olson for writing a commentary for the Minnesota Educator in which she says she has “never felt so empowered in (her) life.”   Hers was one of two articles in the union newspaper. The other offers details of the VIVA Minnesota teachers’ recommendations for principal evaluations.

ABC Newspapers for interviewing VIVA Minnesota teachers about their report: “360 Degree Leadership: Evaluating Minnesota Principals.”

Education Next for featuring our video on the front page of their website which generated some interesting comments.

Teach Plus for writing a blog on VIVA’s website about its Assessment Advisor, which is a great tool to encourage the use of multiple measures for teacher and student evaluations.

Education Karma for keeping us out of harm’s way on Friday the 13th (today!)