Teacher Blog Posts

The following posts are authored by Teacher Leaders who participated in a VIVA Idea Exchange. The opinions expressed are their own.

Lowering the Expectations of Our Students

by Kelly Waller

Should students receive half credit for an assignment they didn’t even bother to turn in? That is the new trend sweeping across the country in our public school system. District leaders are either strongly encouraging or making it mandatory for teachers to change their grading criteria so that 50% is the lowest score a student can earn, even when they fail to turn in the assignment.

According to Douglas B. Reeves, Chairman and Founder of the Center for Performance assessment in Boston, “it is mathematically disproportionate when a student receives a 0 on a 100-point scale when the interval between numerical and letter grades is 10 points. Therefore, when applying a 0 to a score, the interval between a D and an F is not 10 points, but 60 points.” (The Case Against the Zero).

So, taking this theory into consideration, should schools and teachers change their grading scale so that a 50% is the lowest possible score and, likewise, give a student credit for no work at all?

The logic sounds solid, but can (or should) teachers alter their ideals and make this adjustment?  After all, our education system is not only responsible for instilling knowledge in their students, but also for life skills such as accountability. When our students grow up, will they still get paid for their job if they don’t show up to work?

There is also another factor that should be taken into consideration: the weighing of the assignments. Most teachers, me included, weigh an assessment at a higher percentage than a homework assignment. So, if a student doesn’t turn in their homework, a “0” will not drop them significantly. On the other hand, if a student decides they don’t want to complete their essay assessment, should they still receive 50%?

As a middle school teacher in the public school system, I feel an immense amount of pressure from my administration and district to make sure my students pass, especially since the dropout rate in the United States continues to rise. However, should one of those opportunities be to change a grade and give credit that wasn’t earned?

Like most teachers I’ve spoken to, I already give students every opportunity possible to help them pass my class (extra time, replacing lost materials, extra credit, in-school make-up work days, parental communication, incentives, etc.). Should changing their grade now be one of those opportunities?

If we continue to lower our expectations for our students, how will they be able to compete with graduates from higher performing schools that expect students to be successful by earning their grades?

Furthermore, how will they learn the importance of responsibility if they no longer need to be accountable for their own work?

Kelly Waller 150Kelly Waller teaches middle school language arts in Hillsborough County, Florida Public Schools. She participated in the VIVA MET Idea Exchange.

How Can a Teacher Make a Difference in Education Policy?

by Sara Arnold

Seems a bit ironic, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t changes in education be made by well-trained educators?

Shutting our doors and teaching is no longer an option.

I used to believe that all I needed to do was be the best teacher I could be for my students. I had control of what happened in my classroom, but I had no idea how many decisions were being made about my profession by non-educators.

Many decisions that drive education are made in the state house, not the school house. Two years ago, I realized I could no longer sit idly by and allow policy to be made for me. Many people don’t know where to begin when it comes to education policy, so here are three things you can do to make a difference for your students.

Tell Classroom Stories to Your Legislators

It seems scary and intimidating, but your legislators want to hear from you. I made my first trip to the state house this January to be a voice for adequate funding for our schools. I was able to tell my story and offer my input back to my legislators.

You can talk about increasing class sizes, reductions in programming, increased testing….but also share your heartfelt stories. Stories of a student who learned how to read or a class that organized a food drive for a local food pantry. These stories are the reasons we became educators: to make a difference in the lives of others.

Just Say ‘Yes’

Whether it’s a state or local committee, say “yes” when you’re asked to serve. I said yes to a few local and state committees and I’ve learned so much through the process and had the opportunity to share my voice. Decisions are no longer being made for me, they’re being made with me at the table.

Always Do What’s Best for Your Students

You are the expert in your field. You know and understand your students, so do what’s best for them. As a teacher, I would never try and tell a neurosurgeon how to perform brain surgery, just as legislators shouldn’t be telling us how to do things in our classrooms. Sometimes we must stand up for what’s right and make decisions based on what’s best for our students.

Sara Arnold teaches elementary gifted and talented students in Iowa’s Cedar Rapids Public Schools. She participated in the VIVA ISEA Teachers Idea Exchange.

Things I Never Would Have Guessed About Teaching

 

by Amanda Morick

When I first entered the field of education, I never would have guessed that the teacher leader role would take on a mind of its own. I looked at administrators and thought, “There is no way I would want that kind of position. Way too much pressure is associated with taking the reins and spearheading change. I just don’t have the wherewithal for that sort of thing.”

I understood that teachers are lifelong learners, but I assumed that meant we needed to stay up-to-date in our content areas. I have found, through my work with Teach to Lead, that lifelong learning means meta-cognition at its finest. We must be constant innovators and introspective nearly to the point of mania in order to do the best for our students, families, and communities.

When I was pursuing my Master’s degree, I never would have guessed how a course entitled “Teachers as Leaders” would eventually relate to my daily practice. I successfully completed the course with an A, but I didn’t comprehend what this would look like or how I could put it into practice for myself.

The theory of how this type of leadership benefits the greater system of education made basic sense, but I didn’t have a vision for how I would fit in on my end. How could I have known I would proudly label myself as a teacher leader just a few years later?

When I received a call from my colleague, Lesley Hagelgans, I never would have guessed how our action research would emerge into a system-changing initiative. We began researching, surveying, and harvesting/analyzing data for our school alone. Before I knew it, we were ready to take on the whole field of education for our proactive efforts.

When I attended the Louisville Teach to Lead summit, I never would have guessed that our project would be encouraged and highlighted in our state and even the nation. Through the time spent seeing what other individuals, schools, districts, and states were doing to develop innovative ideas, I felt propelled in my interest to develop a stronger school community. Hearing success stories encouraged my belief that I really could do more to increase student achievement on a larger scale, even though I’m “only a teacher.”

Only a teacher? What? Is there anyone who knows more about the needs of learners? No way! If this is the case, then we should be the ones figuring out what’s best for our kids.

Even better, we are absolutely in the position to do just that. I learned ways to communicate with administration in a way that aligns their vision with ours. We discovered how others were already pioneering the road to teacher voice. The Teach to Lead initiative also showed me that there were significantly more resources available to me than I could have guessed.

I don’t dare to guess—now that I’ve seen the many surprises that teacher leadership has provided—what the future will hold for me as a teacher leader. As I develop my own ideas about what it means to lead from my role as an educator, doors continue to open, and progress continues to be made.

After we were selected to have a Leadership Lab at our school, our scope of possibility seemed nearly limitless. What we discovered was that because the community as a whole is striving to see successful, healthy humans, we were all invested in the same effort.

Providing a connection and common ground, the Lab put us all at the same table both literally and figuratively. Teach to Lead has pushed me to be a better teacher and a better contributor to society. Encouraging us to challenge the status quo has provided a platform for trying new things.

Self Portrait- Amanda

Amanda Morick teaches six graders at Marshall Middle School—specializing in Language Arts. She contributes to The IF Team’s Action Research Project, is the co-chair of the School Improvement Writing team, and teacher leader within the Language Arts committee. 

Let’s Talk about Your Dedication to Teaching

by Lesley Hagelgans

Being in the classroom for 15 years and being a teacher leader for the past five, young people looking for direction have often asked me about going into education as a profession. Well…it’s a loaded question.

I usually tell them, “RUN!” After a good laugh, a reflective and meaningful conversation occurs. This same conversation has been provoked on a wider scale in recent weeks.

Unless a teacher is living under a rock—or just plain buried in term papers at the end of a marking period—most have heard that Nancie Atwell won the first Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize, the $1 million “Nobel Prize for teaching”.

What most educators probably didn’t see was the interview on CNN where the media took a whole 2 minutes and 24 seconds to acknowledge her award. During the last 40 seconds of the interview, she answered a question about what she says to kids who are thinking about going into teaching.

“Honestly, right now I encourage them to look in the private sector…if you are a creative, smart, young person, this is not the time to go into teaching unless an independent school would suit you.”

I myself have told young people who want to go into teaching something similar, so my gut reaction is the same as Nancie Atwell’s.

Following Atwell’s interview, Dan Brown wrote an op-ed piece, “$1 Million Global Teacher Prize Winner is Dead Wrong”, where he criticized Atwell:

“The most celebrated educator in the world is discouraging creative, smart young people from considering teaching in the American public school system, which serves 50 million children. That’s shocking. To support that position to its logical end, in which creative, smart young people steer away from teaching in public schools, is to surrender the future of the public education.”

Brown’s criticism challenged my own thinking and motivated me to reflect on the conversations I’ve had with young people considering education. For a brief moment, I felt ashamed of those times I had told young people to run.

I had to ask myself, “Why?” I value the same things as Dan Brown. I want creative, energetic people teaching my own children and others, too. Let’s face it: the future of this country depends on educators educating students, parents, other teachers, and policy makers.

Again, I asked myself, “Why did I tell young people to run?” What I had forgotten about were those meaningful conversations after the first laugh. Ironically, it’s because I want only the best and brightest to go into education.

I like to ask young people why they want to go into teaching. Most of them tell me they like working with kids and having a work schedule similar to the school year (going home at 3:00 and getting summers off).

That’s when the conversation gets real. I explain to them the demands of the job: lesson plans, grading, curriculum documents, assessments, data collection and analysis, counseling, parent teacher conferences, staff meetings, continuing education, PLC’s, etc.

I try to show them that a lot of time away from kids goes into making the time spent with kids as meaningful as possible. I invite them to come spend an hour, a day, a week, or even longer in my classroom.

I want these idealistic young people to know that teaching is a lifestyle, not a job. If they can’t handle that, I respectfully ask them to invest their efforts somewhere else. I only want the most dedicated people working in schools.

Did Nancie Atwell get it wrong? Not entirely. Was Dan Brown too harsh in his criticism? I don’t think so, either.

Schools need intelligent, young professionals full of enthusiasm in classrooms. However, as experienced professionals, we have a responsibility to make sure that these young people know what they’re getting into. Once they have a clear understanding of the big picture, seasoned educators also have the duty to cultivate the talent and energy of those that commit to the lifestyle of teaching.

So, what do I tell those young people now? “Let’s talk about your dedication to teaching.”

 

Lesley-Hagelgans-150(2)Lesley Hagelgans teaches Language Arts at Marshall Middle School in Marshall, Mich. She was a member of the National VIVA Task Force.

 

Learning to Listen to Teachers: Accountability and Responsibility in Public Education

By Lynn Otaguro

 

Have you ever been in a room full of people when an idea starts to grow like an avalanche, moving in one direction, with everyone being pulled along? But you’re the one who has to take responsibility for the decisions made in the room, so you ask a question. People rethink their positions and suddenly the answer is very different, because the information considered is more complete.

This is the value of giving people a voice and listening to diverse points of view. I have been in that room and I have been that person, but in a former life, not as a teacher.

This fall, teachers came together in the VIVA Idea Exchange to talk about accountability in public education. Over 900 teachers responded with ideas, sharing comments with one another. Seventeen teachers then worked collaboratively to create a report reflecting those ideas and made recommendations for transforming the present systems of accountability and responsibility in public education. I was fortunate to be one of the seventeen teachers in the Writing Collaborative.

The report we wrote, “Changing the Story: Transformation Toward Fair Accountability and Responsibility in Public Education”, takes a broader view of accountability in education. It asks that we treat our children as individuals and teach them so that they can be successful in all aspects of their lives. It asks that schools be funded equitably so all children have the best chance at success. It asks that schools be structured more collaboratively so that they are more supportive of parents, students, and teachers. It asks that teachers be allowed to use specific knowledge of their own classrooms, students, and themselves, to choose the steps that will best help them improve and serve their students.

Sometimes, as a teacher, it feels as if we are in those rooms where decisions are being made about education, but unlike my own former experience, we have no voice and are unable to provide input. The national conversation about accountability and responsibility in education tends to be very narrow: teacher evaluations, high-stakes testing, and who is responsible (or to blame) for public education. I first approached the issue in that way, but then, for me, the teachers in the Idea Exchange and the Writing Collaborative served as the person in the room raising a question, and I began to think more deeply about the issues.

When we talk about our responsibility in education, shouldn’t we be thinking about how our current policies and decisions affect the next generation? Are we giving our children what they need to lead a full, well-rounded life? Are our schools structured in a way that gives our children what they need or that allows teachers to provide these things?

These questions need to be raised, but they will only be raised and considered when we give our teachers a voice. Our educational decisions will only be complete when we listen to those who must implement our policies. The report written by the Writing Collaborative is a step toward giving teachers the kind of voice that can make a difference.

You can read the “Changing the Story” report online. Please read it. Talk about it. Agree or disagree with it, but let it be the beginning of a conversation that includes teachers in the decisions that affect our schools and classrooms. Teachers care deeply about their students. Let teachers help find solutions to the issues surrounding public education.

 Screen Shot 2015-03-19 at 10.27.51 AMLynn Otaguro is a first grade teacher in Honolulu, Hawaii. Previously she was an attorney who represented the State of Hawaii Department of Education. She participated in the NEA 360 Idea Exchange; Changing the Story

Breaking Through the Barriers Between Disciplines

A Job for 21st-Century Teacher Leaders

By Kellyanne Mahoney and Catherine O’Flaherty

 

Our students have never lived in a world without Google. And through the increasing prevalence of technology, they possess unprecedented access to knowledge and exposure to divergent opinions. At the same time, they live in a world in which global problems abound, and many of these call for interdisciplinary solutions.

In charting this terra incognita, the role of the teacher leader seems more essential than ever for mapping a curriculum for the 21st Century and beyond—one that not only empowers students with relevant learning experiences, but also empowers their teachers.

Specifically, as teacher leaders, we work collaboratively and diligently with our interdisciplinary teams of teachers to remove the unnatural divisions between academic disciplines at the middle- and high-school levels.

  • How can an ordinary person change society?

  • Why do leaders sometimes lie?

  • Is it possible to solve a problem as big as child labor or poverty with just a peace treaty or agreement? Or does there always have to be violence?

  • How can children show leadership in a society?

  • Do you think that the way we are currently living is “civilized?”

As veteran seventh-grade English Language Arts teachers and teacher leaders of our grade-level teams, we know that we do not have all the answers to these questions. In this digital age, we also know that our students shouldn’t be expected to leave us as walking, talking encyclopedias, either.

In fact, for us, the mark of true learning is when our students leave us with questions—interesting questions that indicate authentic mulling over of academic content, important questions that seem to drive further exploration.

In June, our seventh-grade students filled out a Google Form in preparation for a Socratic Seminar that would culminate our annual interdisciplinary capstone project. They were asked to provide new questions to prompt discussion, but their questions also revealed meaningful reflections on our shared instructional practice.

For example, Tyler’s response demonstrated that his questions weren’t for the teachers, but for his peers:

I have one major question for the class and that is: Is it okay for someone to commit a crime if it’s for a good reason? Why or why not?

Nathalie’s question elaborated on a theme from our Shakespeare unit:

Does being born into power make you a leader?

Omar’s question evoked research he conducted in Latin class on the effects of deforestation in Ancient Rome:

What can cause a global issue to become extreme enough for civilized people to react?

Jenny’s questioning seemed to indicate that an earlier debate in Humanities class had hit an emotional nerve:

How do you think life on earth would be impacted if everyone had an opportunity to earn more than 10 dollars a day? If those who need a job can’t get any and actually wants one, whose fault is that if they’re always told to get one?

And so, in 2008 we felt ready for change, spurred by our beliefs that early adolescents:

  • want to understand and imagine a world beyond their everyday existence,

  • should be encouraged to actively explore ideas that are important to them,

  • can apply their learning in school in order to engage in rigorous and creative problem-solving around global issues.

Thus began the design of an interdisciplinary, thematic curriculum that deepens students’ understanding of essential concepts and poses questions that challenge students to synthesize their learning across content areas.

Re-creating curriculum for students required teacher leadership in order for grade-level teacher teams to embrace this unconventional instructional approach. The result has been the development, over time, of a divergent school culture that embraces risk-taking, collaboration, shared leadership, intellectual curiosity and persistence: a culture that drives both teaching and learning across the entire grade level and is used as a model for other teacher teams.

So, for the past seven years, we have been developing our roles as teacher leaders of this interdisciplinary and, some might say, disruptive approach to learning–a vision which has recently been validated by the Common Core. We have found that this type of learning requires leadership and collaboration from teachers who are willing to break away from the traditional curriculum and forge a new path.

Through our personal journey, we have discovered key attributes necessary for teacher leaders and collaborating teachers embarking on this work, as well as strategies for modeling them. There are too many to mention in one blog post; however, being a reflective and open practitioner who is willing to embrace feedback and change is the most critical to beginning this process.

As accomplished teachers, we know that feedback and reflection are necessary components to our work, which consequently leaves us destined to a recurrent state of flux. The fluidity of curriculum as a result of change–both self-initiated and brought upon by outside forces—has been a constant of our work together.

One of the greatest obstacles we have encountered as teacher leaders is that this kind of dynamism isn’t always welcomed by all of the teachers, nor administrators, with whom we have worked over the years. Once a curriculum is established, many educators tend to prefer editing and simplifying to any kind of robust change, and sometimes effective teacher leadership requires implementing this type of tailoring, too.

However, if we constantly seek feedback and are consistently reflective about the feedback provided to us—which is one aspect of our leadership—it becomes essential to develop and learn how to foster a certain comfort level with variability in the curriculum.

As a collaborative team of lead teachers, our shared reflection, mutual trust and honest feedback with each other eases us through the more stressful moments of making this happen.

Despite the challenges, we know that this is work worth doing because we know that what we do with feedback determines our success as teachers. It is critical for teachers to both seek feedback and to reflect on it actionably.

Feedback should come from a myriad of inputs: from students, parents, assessment data, administrators, other teachers, and any person or organization with a vested interest in the classroom. The goal of feedback is for us to stand back and be able to articulate our successes and failures.

Successful teachers communicate with their students and develop relationships with them and their families that invite them to get a pulse on how effectively things are going, or perhaps on how ineffectively things may be going.

In addition, when another content area teacher provides anecdotal evidence of a student making a connection to something learned in our content area, or when a student connects content learned in another class to ours, we know that that student has begun to successfully think and problem solve in the interdisciplinary manner we believe will help that student achieve.

Furthermore, most successful teachers we know possess a heightened awareness and curiosity about what is happening in their classrooms, what is happening in the world outside their classrooms, and what their role should be in bridging these two worlds. For this reason, we also feel successful when we find that what we uncover through our reflective practices aligns with current educational research.

It is our goal as successful educators to both maintain and model high expectations, pushing our students as well as ourselves to think creatively and to develop a willingness to take intellectual risks. Yet we also see success when our students appreciate how much fun can be had in life and learning, and when they are able to connect the two in a way that inspires them to engage in rigorous problem-solving and thinking—viewing learning as a challenge worth their time and effort.

Feedback can be found through the kinds of questions our students ask us and the kinds of questions we ask of them and those that we ask each other as colleagues. Our collaboration begins with our work together as leaders and then translates into a consistent approach with our interdisciplinary teaching teams.

This builds the foundation for our work as reflective practitioners–something both of us learned during our process for becoming National Board Certified teachers.

This approach models the role of being a lifelong learner: one who reflects on the surrounding world and draws from knowledge and information provided from many directions in order to problem-solve through life’s issues, and, moreover, interact with and even change our society and culture in meaningful and impactful ways.

Kellyanne Mahoney and Catherine O’Flaherty are both National Board Certified teachers who work in the Boston Public Schools. They can be reached at kmahoney@bostonpublicschools.org and coflaherty@bostonpublicschools.org

mahoney

Kellyanne Mahoney

cathy

Catherine O’Flaherty

 

Teachers: Stand Firm on AP US History In Oklahoma


by Nancy Kunsman

What do Ralph Waldo Emerson and Oklahoma Representative Dan Fisher (R) have in common? Absolutely nothing, except that they were both on my mind last week.

The first time I heard anything about AP US History’s near-death in Oklahoma was when the state’s education committee was preparing to vote on Fisher’s bill, which would effectively remove AP US History—a proven course—from Oklahoma high schools.

No worries, I thought, that is ludicrous. And I went about my business. In fact, I didn’t even bother mentioning it to my AP history teacher husband, because there’s no way educated officials would vote to ban a proven program.

And then I remembered—I live in Oklahoma, where our legislature considered outlawing hoodies. This might be more serious than I thought.

The second time I heard about the bill was when the committee voted to approve the bill, 11-4, straight down party lines. No wonder Oklahoma ranks 47th with a whopping D+ in Education Week’s annual rankings.

We have leaders in Oklahoma who base education decisions not on what is best for students, but on how they can support their own party’s agenda. We can’t fault Rep. Dan Fisher for following what he is expected to do in lock-step fashion, can we?

As an official member of the Black Robed Regiment, Fisher feels obligated to protect Oklahoma’s youth from ugly, negative facts. There should be enough pretty, positive facts around to fill a high school history course without adding in all the gory details, right? Why should students learn about anything that paints America in a negative light?

Ironically, while Mr. Fisher and all 15 members of the legislative committee were voting straight down party lines to ban the revised AP US History course, I was introducing my English III students to Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Romantics’ belief that “Whoso would be a man would be nonconformist.” Emerson was not—could not—have been speaking about politicians who support the removal of a curriculum that encourages critical thinking and open debate.

Mr. Fisher and his fellow Republican committee members are definitely not nonconformists. They are following the lock-step formula laid out in the Republican National Committee’s Resolution Concerning Advanced Placement U. S. History (APUSH).

Will AP English Language and Composition be next, Mr. Fisher? I mean, why do our students need to learn to challenge authority?

Maybe Mr. Fisher thought Oklahomans—with our D+ educations—would be easily bowled over. After all, we were willing to send Common Core on its way without so much as a handshake. But what he found out is that we Okies know when to take a stand.

And today we stood up to those politicians who serve their own agendas. We stood up for our students’ right to learn about America’s history, whether ugly or nice. We stood up for our students’ ability to compete for college acceptances all across the country. We stood up for truth—clean or dirty.

Currently, Mr. Fisher is looking to reword his bill. I predict it will never again see the light of day in Oklahoma. But heed the warning: Those who tried to get a toehold in Oklahoma will try to find softer ground to plow elsewhere.

Stand firm, fellow Americans in other states. You will have your own Representative Fisher trying to get this movement started. Stand firm for your children, America’s children.

Critics complain that our education system is not as strong as others around the globe. What they should complain about is our politicians’ role in education. Let’s remind ourselves that when educational decisions are based on political agendas rather than proven academics, our children are the ones sacrificed.

This episode shows why teachers should have a place at the table when education policies are being decided. Local and state school boards should have teachers holding non-elected seats on school boards. And even at the school site level, teachers should be included in curriculum decisions. We have the experience and expertise to know what is best for our students.

Teachers, be proactive. This is a wake-up call for all of us. I have learned from this incident that I don’t want to hear about the latest education conversations on the news. I intend to pay attention to what is going on in the legislature.

When this bill passed the committee, Oklahoma teachers spoke out and went to the news media and to the communities and even to former students making them aware of this vote. And these actions led to many more people speaking out against this bill. Teachers, I don’t have to tell you how much your former students look up to you, especially concerning education matters. We continue to be their role models, even after graduation. Let’s be on alert to changes in education policy.

I encourage teachers to monitor state legislatures, contact congressmen, write blogs, write letters, send emails, and join social media groups designed to follow education legislation.

We are the ones that are really “fighting the fine fight” that Mr. Fisher claims to be embattled in.

Oklahomans—Americans—stand firm and share your voice.

KunsmanNancy Kunsman is a National Board Certified Teacher, currently in her 16th year teaching English. She participated in the VIVA NEA 360 Idea Exchange. 

Test, Test, Test. Why Can’t I Just Teach?

by Joy Peters

Test, test, test. All I ever do is test. When do I have time to teach? Why are these students taking all these tests when the results never change?

What are the results, you ask? The results always say that ESOL students in the beginning levels are at the bottom of the range of scores. When I do a breakdown of the reasons why they don’t score well, it always comes back to the fact that they don’t know enough English to comprehend what they’re being asked. And guess what? I already knew that.

Personally, I like standardized tests. They usually give accurate results for those students who understand English or do not have special needs. If the test is geared toward ESOL or Special Ed, the results are accurate enough as well. My problem is the number of tests that we give. I don’t mean the weekly or biweekly tests that a classroom teacher gives to check for learning. I mean the tests that require students to sit for hours and answer questions in a bubble sheet or online. These are the tests that effect how schools and teachers are evaluated at the end of the year, the tests that make students hate testing.

We have been in school since August. It is now December, and we’ve given 1 to 3 of these tests each month. In January, my district will give 4 major tests that will require our class schedules to be changed for 2 weeks. If you’re an ESOL student, you get to take the longest test of all, WIDA ACCESS for ELLs, and it takes 2 half-days and part of a third day to complete.

By the way, this is the only test that determines where the student will be placed in future classes. It is the only test that shows growth and progress 100% from year to year. The other tests show growth and progress, but not to the degree that ACCESS does. By the end of January, my students will be burnt out on testing, and they’re not even done yet. March, April, and May will bring more tests each month.

Where does that leave us? Changing the Story: Transformation Toward Accountability and Responsibility in Public Education makes several recommendations for testing. One recommendation is to limit the number of tests given to ESOL and SPED students. Too much testing takes away from instructional time that is desperately needed by these students to learn enough to succeed at the tests that will honestly help their teachers drive instruction.

PetersJoy Peters works as the only middle school ESOL teacher in Prince George’s County public schools in Maryland. She participated in the NEA 360 Idea Exchange. 

Teacher autonomy is the secret to student success

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By Amanda Koonlaba

During my work with VIVA on the Accountability 360 Idea Exchange–and with the Writing Collaborative for “Changing the Story: Transformation towards Fair Accountability and Responsibility in Public Education”–I kept coming back to the theme of how essential it is for teachers to be a part of all decision-making processes. This theme oozed out of every idea and comment in the Idea Exchange, and was a central aspect of every recommendation written for the report:

Teachers are in the BEST position to make the BEST decisions regarding what is BEST for students. (Period and amen!)

This includes all levels of decision-making, from classroom decisions like what text to use for teaching specific skills, to district decisions like textbook and resource adoption and acquisition, as well as state- and national-level policy decisions like what curriculums should be adopted and how students should be assessed. All of these things fit together like pieces of a puzzle, and teachers know better than anyone how to make the puzzle whole.

One Idea Exchange participant stated, “Give teachers back their autonomy and respect, and watch us work even harder than ever to reach and teach each child.” This is an incredibly relevant statement in today’s current educational climate where teachers are reporting high levels of dissatisfaction with their careers and leaving the field at alarming rates.

How would you feel if you were depicted on the cover of a national magazine as a bad apple? Or constantly berated in other media? Maybe that sounds like we’re taking it all too personally. But we have to take it personally. When the discussion about teachers implies that we’re all lazy and self-serving, it’s personal. When our students are catching the effects of negative media, it’s definitely personal. Because after all, teachers are in this for their students. I believe that with my whole heart and mind. I don’t know any bad apples in the teaching profession.

I know teachers who want the respect they deserve as educated and dedicated professionals. I know teachers who want back their autonomy and ability to make decisions about their students. I know teachers who care so much about their students that they would rather leave the profession than participate in a top-down policy that forces them to do something that could ultimately be detrimental to their students.

In Recommendation 4 of “Changing the Story”, our statement of the problem clearly identifies that the exclusion of teachers from decision-making processes is not working for students. It is a witch hunt, a blame game, a finger-pointing debacle, and it is time to end it.

We proposed six solutions to this problem. We held our students at the heart of our problem-solving at all times. Everything we put forward in this report was done for the betterment of America’s public education system, and that includes every single student. If America is truly serious about student success, it will get serious about giving teachers back their autonomy and respect. I, for one, can’t wait to see the results!

KoonlabaAmanda Koonlaba, M.Ed., NBCT is a Visual Art Specialist at Lawhon Elementary School. She participated in the VIVA NEA 360 Idea Exchange. 

The 5 Attributes of a Teacher Leader

By Josh Agpalza

This past weekend I had the privilege of attending the Teach to Lead Conference in Denver with other teachers and educators from around the nation. As I was listening to stories and presentations of teacher leaders making a difference, I realized they all had 5 things in common.

  1. Teacher leaders are innately progressive. This should not come as a surprise because teachers are professionally trained to reflect and refine their lessons every day. So teachers being empowered to make changes is inevitable and built into their gut. At the conference, one teacher leader after another kept reiterating their natural urge to improve systems that would help student growth. They also spoke about their passion to revolutionize professional development, education policies, and their communities. This innate progressivism empowers teacher leaders to keep moving education forward.
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  2. Teacher leaders are committed to their ideas. I had the opportunity to work with a 12-year veteran teacher from Arizona. She came to the conference to share her ideas on building positive relationships between teachers and administrators within her district. I asked her how long she had been working on the project, and she said, “Well, for 12 years now.” It took me a second to realize that she had that idea the day she started teaching. She further explained that she wanted to improve on the idea of building positive relationships, despite the growth and progress that the district had already made. She was also determined to expand her project at the state level. Her relentless commitment exemplifies the unwavering spirit that is common among teacher leaders.
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  3. Teacher leaders are not afraid to fail. Unfortunately, we often see people, including our students, give up on complex ideas or difficult tasks on their first try. However, a teacher leader is willing to learn from their mistakes, improve on their ideas, and try again. During a breakout session, a teacher from the state of Washington shared his experience with an administrator who shot down his innovative plan for student growth. He said he wanted to give up, but he was just too passionate to let it go. Through trial and error he learned who to go to for the proposals, what to say to people, and how to effectively implement the project. No matter how many times he failed, he kept on trying, and eventually his idea became a reality. Teacher leaders learn from failure.
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  4. Teacher leaders never do it alone. Throughout the conference I never heard a teacher leader say they successfully implemented an idea all by themselves. In fact, teachers acknowledged that their success couldn’t have happened without the support of other teachers, educators, parents, students, and the community. Furthermore, the collaboration framework of the conference provided teachers with the opportunity to seek help, ask for support, and learn from one another. This structure gave teacher leaders the confidence and expertise to make their ideas real. It also supported the concept of making sure teachers never do it alone. Teacher leaders understand the significance of “power in numbers.”
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  5. Teacher leaders do it all for their students. I am a diehard Seattle Seahawks fan. I could have chosen to stay home for the weekend to watch the Seattle Seahawks defeat the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Playoffs, but I didn’t. I chose to go to Denver to share my experience, my story, and my life as a teacher leader. I did this because I am passionate about creating change in a complex education system. I did this because I learn a lot about other teacher leaders making a difference in their communities. But most importantly, I did this because of my students. My energy to move education forward draws from their stories of struggle and success. Everyday I am inspired by their lives, their thoughts and dreams. It’s the students that push teachers like me to give a presentation on leadership. It’s the students that inspired the teacher from Arizona to keep building relationships with administrators. It’s the students that helped the teacher from Washington persevere and commit to his idea. It’s the students that made it possible for the 200-plus educators from around the nation to come together to make a difference and inspire change in education.

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These 5 attributes of a teacher leader were a common theme this past weekend. I challenge teachers and other educators to identify other attributes of a teacher leader. Share your story or a story of another educator trying to make change by leading.

Email your stories here: joshua.agpalza@gmail.com

Joshua Agpalza PhotoJosh Agpalza is a Cambridge World History and AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) teacher at Federal Way High School in Federal Way, Washington. He participated in the VIVA NEA Time in School Idea Exchange.