Teacher Voices for Education Reform: Making the Most of Time in School

For classroom educators, the issue of time in school is more complex than simply extending the daily schedule or changing the annual calendar. Those factors are significant, but what ultimately matters is how we use the time in school to the greatest benefit of our students. Recognizing that classroom educators possess the practical experience to envision the most creative, thoughtful and meaningful solutions on how to utilize time in school issue, the National Education Association invited its members in seven states to envision how they would restructure time in school to best meet the needs of today’s students.


If you could redesign the school structure to best fit the needs of your students at this moment of rapid change, what would the school day, week and year look like?

NEA invited its members in seven states — Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Washington — to participate in this VIVA Idea Exchange. A total of 348 members posted 145 ideas and shared 348 comments with one another.

“For me, the idea to get teacher voices from multiple perspectives and experiences to influence education policy is transformational,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “The length of year may be part of the answer, but what do we do from the first to the last day of a student’s experience? The ideas and decisions have to be generated by the expertise and thoughts of teachers in the classroom.”


  1. Develop educational program recommendations that integrate with a revised school calendar to promote increased teacher collaboration.
  2. Group students by ability, not by age, to create an academic environment in which they are more likely to succeed.
  3. Lengthen the school day and the school year.
  4. Restructure the school day so that activities and instructional time take place when it is developmentally appropriate for elementary, middle and high schools.
  5. Enable local school districts to provide equitable and ample resources and make better use of existing resources to address their diverse needs.
  6. Revise federal policies to better support a balance of strong local control policies with civil rights and equity for all students.
  7. Conduct a campaign to promote awareness of the importance of reforming the school calendar.

Another view of students, teachers, guns and schools…

By Charlene Mendoza

In the wake of school shootings that have plagued us at least since the late 1990s, the debate about protecting students and teachers while at school rages.  In my home state of Arizona, one possible solution being bandied about is arming teachers – or just the principal.  After all, having a single armed adult on campus, rather than many is safer, right?  If there are too many teachers with guns, students might gain access to them, increasing the likelihood of accidents.

Then, there are all the logistical considerations of having armed personnel in school.  Safety protocols would seem to necessitate gun safes and separate lock boxes for ammunition, as well as questions like what to do with your weapon when you have to go to the bathroom.  I don’t mean to make light of this, but, really, what am I to do, leave it in the top desk drawer with the spare pencils and dry erase markers?

Another suggestion is to assign an armed posse member on campus to help ensure students and staff are safe.  Is this the Wild, Wild West of old movies? (Although, in my recollection, posses were put together after a crime had occurred, in order to assist the law enforcement personnel in catching a suspected criminal.)

I continue to be amazed that suggestions such as these merit discussion among logical, thinking people.  I believe that everyone is intent on making schools and college campuses safer.  Nevertheless, these suggestions, and others like them, generalize and objectify real, live human beings in a way that is all too common today.

I have been a classroom teacher since 1998.  During that time, I have helped real, live students process and cope with a litany of tragedy: the Columbine shootings and others that followed; 9/11; wars; a classmate being shot and killed in front of her own home; the January 8th shooting in Tucson; a classmate committing suicide with a gun; a family member of a student killing another family member with a gun and then himself; and innumerable accounts of youths witnessing or being victims themselves of domestic violence, gang activity and sexual assault — many of which involved a gun.  Still, even in the face of these challenges, the great majority of these young people have shown an amazing capacity for resilience, remaining focused on academic achievement and optimistic for a future full of bright possibilities.

It’s difficult for me to imagine those same faces being so hopeful surrounded by adults who are armed with guns.  For a lot of us, guns don’t make us feel safe, guns make us feel scared.  Guns are objects used to intimidate and inspire fear, not create security and safety.  Guns are used to hurt, not help.

Thinking back to my own training, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs comes to mind.  In order to be able to reach and teach youth, their basic needs must be met.  These include adequate food and sleep, as well as the ability to feel safe and open to learning.  The proposition of arming the teachers and administrators on school campuses runs the risk of making sure school is not that safe and secure place for teachers and students.

Put that in the context of placing trained, armed posse members on campus.  The tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s trial should give us all cause to consider if this is a wise or practical solution.  When we know that trained professionals can make mistakes and might observe something that is not what it appears to be, I can’t help but worry about more people with guns on school campuses.  My concern goes back to the fact that for many of us, men and women with guns are dangerous to us.  Sometimes those people are criminals intent on committing heinous acts of violence.  Sometimes they are well-intention human beings who make a mistake.  As we have all learned, a mistake made with a gun is nearly impossible to correct, and the effects are life-altering for us all.

I am a teacher!  I say that proudly with the faces of my students, current and past, running through my mind.  When I imagine myself faced with the proposition of a person on campus who is armed and bent on harming the students and teachers with whom I have the honor to work, I know I would do whatever I could, whatever was possible to protect them.  I believe this is true of all of the teachers I know and many I don’t.  However, when I imagine myself or any other educator armed with a gun in the name of protecting the children, I know it is time to speak out.  These are not common sense solutions.  We can do better.  We must do better.

Charlene Mendoza teaches AP English Language and Literature at an Arizona charter school. She’s been a teacher for more than 15 years, and was a member of the VIVA Arizona Idea Exchange Writing Collaborative.

A teacher on Newtown shooting: Ensuring all voices are heard

While flying home from a meeting other educators at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, I find myself looking down over the snow-capped mountaintops and fluffy clouds thinking about teachers and voice.

I am filled with empathy for voices recently and violently snuffed out – teachers, a principal, and 20 children at an elementary school in Connecticut. This hits very close to home. I am a teacher and a principal. My life is filled with students, those with whom I work and my own children.

This is also taking me back to the horrible days following the 2011 mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona, where I live. It is true that I cannot truly understand the pain of losing a child or a parent to gun violence. But I can understand how deeply a community is injured by this type of act. The violence of January 8 remains an enigma to me, as I am sure the violence of these past days will be to the community of Newtown, Connecticut.

So, the question becomes: How to respond? My answer, at least a part of it, is using my voice.

I have been fortunate to have had a number of chances lately to use my voice. Through VIVA Teachers, two presentations at national conferences, and on the local news, I have been able to make sure my voice is heard.

Promoting Student Voice
When thinking about the students and teachers with whom I work, I often find myself wanting to create opportunities for them to use their voices. I certainly hear this phrase frequently around the education community. Nevertheless, my thinking keeps going back to the idea that every one has a voice of his or her own.

It is not up to me, as a teacher, to give students a voice. Instead, it is up to me to make sure that I do not silence the voices they already have. To paraphrase the words of one of my educational inspirations, Louise Rosenblatt, it is important for us as teachers to make sure we are creating opportunities for students to imagine beyond their lived experiences. That means getting them to read both deeply and widely, to think critically, to use their voices. All of those are necessary for them to evolve into the kind of thinking, empathetic, participatory citizens we all need to make our democracy work.

Speak Up to Make a Difference
I continue to learn that it is important to introduce my voice as a teacher into the conversation frequently and with purpose. This is true whether I am in line at the grocery store and hear people talking about teachers, students and schooling or representing VIVA Teachers when meeting with policy makers.

Much like our students, our voices are ours. Our voices need to be part of the larger conversationn happening around education in a way that is real, experienced-based and practical.

There is nothing preventing us, except perhaps the belief that it won’t make a difference. I don’t know that our voices will always make a difference; but, I know for sure that standing silent ensures that will be true.

My “It” Moment at VIVA Teachers

By Charlene Mendoza
VIVA Arizona Teachers Idea Exchange

As teachers, we know that moment when “it” happens. That moment when we know the bait was taken, the interest engaged, the inquiry begun or the spark ignited. That moment when the energy begins to flow and the classroom transforms into an active, engaging learning environment. For me, that describes my experience participating in the VIVA Arizona Charter Teachers Idea Exchange.

When I first saw the invitation to participate, I was mildly interested. As a teacher, my inbox is flooded with messages that appear to be similar in nature. Check this out! Buy this resource! Tell us what you think! Stop this! Start that! I am accustomed to being asked for a “teacher’s perspective” which often seems to give credence to another initiative or plan which typically does not really represent what I said, wrote, feel or believe. It is more like a celebrity endorsement…I talked to a “real teacher” and so my (fill in the blank here) is valid. Needless to say, I was skeptical.

Joining the Idea Exchange Conversation

I participated in an Idea Exchange about implementing the Common Core Standards in Arizona. As the topic was relevant to me, I logged on. At first, there were not a ton of responses, so, I decided to make a post that was relatively benign. Then, I began to get notices of responses to my post, questions from other teachers, ideas from other teachers, challenges from other teachers and suggestions of resources from other teachers.

I began to read other posts and respond to them. I was hooked! I had discovered a forum where a group of interested, articulate teaching professionals were engaged in a collaborative, collegial, constructive, critical conversation on my own schedule!

Although I was intrigued, I did not recognize at the time how valuable that experience was and still is. I continue to be enriched by the experience. Too often, talk in education devolves to complaints about what is being forced upon us or why whatever “it” is really is not much different than whatever “it” was before.

Rediscovering My Voice

By participating in the Idea Exchange, I rediscovered my voice and reignited my passion and found a place to use both.

This certainly does not mean that we all agreed about everything or even that we all became lifelong friends or anything like that. What it does mean, though, is that participating in the Idea Exchange connected me to others who were willing to be interested and engaged in real life conversations that pushed my thinking, sparked my interest and helped me to work more effectively with my students and colleagues.

I hope you accept the invitation to participate in the VIVA New Jersey Charter Teachers Idea Exchange! The experience is more than worth it.


Where Will We Find the Trust Our Students Deserve?

Today’s blog topic: Trust.

It’s a tall order in short supply, particularly at this point in our political calendar. The presidential candidates spend far too much of their time attempting to undermine our trust in their opponent and not nearly enough time shoring up our trust in them.

Likewise, when teachers’ unions and school districts play their respective roles in the important work of running our nation’s public schools, they display precious little trust in the public. Worse, when the two sides head to the negotiating table to figure out how to work together in the interests of our children, they display even less trust in one another.

If we are going to achieve our national goals of ensuring that every student has a real opportunity to succeed, we have to be able to trust one another enough to speak the truth. About money. About what we need our children to know and how we can tell if they get it. About the definition of a great teacher. About how to get rid of the not-so-great teachers.

These aren’t easy conversations. But they are issues that great teachers–the teachers who have participated in our VIVA Teachers online conversations in Chicago, Arizona, Massachusetts, New York and Minnesota–have talked about openly and honestly.

VIVA Teachers exists to give teachers a place to talk amongst themselves and build the trust to speak the truth. To collaborate with peers and bring their experience to bear on the administration of public education, not just the delivery of material in the classroom. To grapple with the hard issues and come up with pragmatic, workable solutions. Maybe not the ideal for them, maybe not the ideal for their students, but solid, defensible actions that will deliver on our promise to children and not undermine their profession.

And, VIVA Teachers has caught the ear of some important listeners, including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton. Even Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel–not generally the Jeopardy answer to “The best listener among America’s politicians”- -was willing to listen deeply to what teachers had to say.

I’ve seen the results of those conversations in policy steps each of these public officials has taken. It’s electrifying to know that a bunch of hardworking classroom teachers have spoken truth to power and been heard.

But, we’ve only just now celebrated our first year (happy birthday to us) and those conversations between teachers and leaders are still far too few. The depressing fact is the vast majority of what passes for dialogue in the public sphere still consists of shouting past each other, sometimes literally!

So let’s stop arguing about personal values and personality issues and start talking, respectfully, about how we deliver on our promise of a great education for every American child who wants it, regardless of their household income, their ZIP code or their roots.

All it takes is a little trust.

What would make you give an extra dose of trust to a public official or leader?

VIVA Arizona Teacher leaders in the News

From Arizona Sun’s Classroom Daily Briefs

Heritage Elementary School’s Williams campus principal Kaytie Thies was among a select group of charter school teachers chosen to present an action plan for implementing new Common Core Standards for education to Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal and Arizona State Board of Education President Jaime Molera.

The action plan is based on a collection of ideas submitted by nearly 200 Arizona teachers during Phase I of the three-part VIVA Arizona Charter Teachers Idea Exchange.

The exchange is a collaboration between the Arizona Charter Schools Association and the online teacher’s forum The VIVA Project (VIVA stands for Voices, Ideas, Vision, Action). Its goal is to help Arizona charter school teachers collaborate on the new Common Core Standards, a state-led effort to establish shared academic standards in K-12 English/language arts and mathematics.

Thies and six other teachers who participated in Phase I were invited to continue on to Phase II and III of the program. During Phase II, they summarized and synthesized the ideas presented during Phase I into 36 distinct, workable recommendations for implementing Common Core Standards in a way most likely to result in improved student learning.

Phase III took place on June 13, when Thies and the others presented the action plan in a meeting with Huppenthal and Molera.

Click here to read more

How to Successfully Implement Common Core

Source: AZ Charter Teachers’ Association

In a meeting with Arizona Superintendent John Huppenthal and State Board President Jaime Molera, VIVA Teacher Leaders offered their advice for smoothing the transition to Common Core State Standards for all schools in Arizona.

Two hundred VIVA Teachers who teach in Arizona’s charter schools, where they already are implementing the new, higher Common Core State Standards in their classrooms, participated in the first phase of the VIVA Arizona Charter Teachers Idea Exchange, from April 16-May 13, 2012. They shared 50 ideas for ways to ensure the transition to Common Core. Then, seven of those teachers distilled the ideas into the 36 recommendations they delivered to Huppenthal and Molera on June 13, 2012.

Read an executive summary of the report, or download the full 32-page report, “Arizona Charter Teachers’ Guide to Common Core Implementation: Advice from the Classroom,” here.

Read the press release here.


VIVA Arizona Project – Arizona Charter Teachers’ Guide to Common Core Implementation: Advice From the Classroom

On Wednesday, June 13, members of the VIVA Arizona Charter Teachers Idea Exchange Writing Collaborative delivered their report, Arizona Charter Teachers Guide to Common Core Implementation: Advice from the Classroom, to Arizona Superintendent John Huppenthal and State Board President Jaime Molera.

Teachers are significant stakeholders in the implementation of Common Core Standards and should be key players in the process. These recommendations will foster the environment necessary to ensure successful implementation of Common Core Standards, promote the development of professional knowledge and expertise of teachers, and maintain high expectations and academic achievement on the part of Arizona’s students.

Download the full report as a PDF

Click here to read the executive summary and recommendations

VIVA Arizona Press Release

Contact: Megan Gilbertson
O: 602.944.0644 ext. 312
C:  602.688.9435
E: megan@azcharters.org


Charter Teachers Share Thoughts on Implementing New Standards

Arizona teachers need more training, parents need a heads up


VIVA Arizona Press Release

Download as a PDF

Phoenix, Ariz. (June 8, 2012) – In order to ensure a successful transition to new, more rigorous K-12 curriculum standards, Arizona must provide additional training and tools to educators, launch a public awareness campaign about the new student achievement standards, and ease the transition to new tests, according to a report prepared by Arizona charter school teachers.

In a first of its kind online collaboration in Arizona, nearly 200 charter teachers across the state spent four weeks exchanging ideas about what teachers and schools need to ensure a successful transition to the Common Core State Standards, the new mandated standards all public schools — district and charter — must meet beginning in the 2013-2014 school year.

A group of seven teachers from the initial phase of the VIVA Idea Exchange worked to summarize and synthesize the ideas, and developed a report with 36 specific action steps for Arizona to use when implementing the Common Core State Standards. The teachers will present their ideas to Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal and Arizona State Board of Education President Jaime Molera on June 13.

“Our teachers want to see their students succeed, and this report provides policy makers an in-depth look at what all public schools need to make the transition to the new standards successful,” said Association President Eileen B. Sigmund. “Although charter teachers are innovative and creative, they face the same challenges as all public school teachers are facing in Arizona and across the country.”

The Arizona Charter Schools Association partnered with New Voice Strategies’ VIVA Teachers Project to engage Arizona charter schools teachers in an effective conversation about the new standards.

Find out more about the project and Common Core State Standards at https://azcharters.org/viva-teachers-project. Please contact Megan Gilbertson for a copy of the embargoed report.


About The Arizona Charter Schools Association

The Arizona Charter Schools Association is a non-profit membership and professional organization that serves more than 80 percent of the 524 charter schools in Arizona that enroll 133,890 students. Fully 25 percent of the state’s public schools are charter schools, and 12 percent of all public-school students are enrolled in charter schools—the highest percentage for any state, and second only to Washington D.C. With a common goal of providing the best in free, public education for Arizona’s children, the Association works alongside schools, parents, policymakers and the media, continuously advocating for high quality schools, student equity, and charter school autonomy. We are dedicated to high student achievement and aggressively seek to provide the best in comprehensive support and services to Arizona’s charter schools. For more information, visit www.azcharters.org or call 602.944.0644.

About VIVA Teachers

VIVA Teachers (VIVA stands for Voice, Ideas, Vision, Action) uses an innovative online platform to empower them to share their professional wisdom with each other and connects them directly to the people who have the power to enact change. Already, VIVA Teachers have submitted their recommendations for change to government officials in Washington, D.C. Chicago IL, Albany NY, and St. Paul MN. For more information on how VIVA elevates the voices of teachers, from the front lines to the bottom line, visit www.vivateachers.org.