Teacher Talk: RESPECT Project

Do teachers get enough respect? Does the teaching profession need to be “transformed” in order be respected?

In this episode of Teacher Talk, VIVA Teacher Leader Kori Milroy and Chicago Public Schools teacher Erika Wozniak discuss the U.S. Department of Education’s new RESPECT Project [click to download] , a vision for the future of the teaching profession that seeks to make teaching the most respected profession in America. Kori and Erika both teach elementary grades at public schools in Chicago.

Download the episode here or stream it below. to listen in on Kori and Erika’s conversation about the vision, and add your own voice to the mix by leaving a comment here on the VIVA website.

This is the second installment of Teacher Talk, an ongoing series of conversations between teachers talking about education policy. This full interview is now up!

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?

One Teacher’s Take on How to Stop the Violence

VIVA Teacher Leader Karon Stewart is a middle school math teacher in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Chicago. Her students face significant challenges, not the least of which is surviving the violence in the neighborhoods. Stewart talks eloquently about the violence and how it affects her students and herself. It was the centerpiece of her speech when she was invited to introduce Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at a recent meeting of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

One of Stewart’s students was shot  while Duncan still served as head of the Chicago Public Schools. She reminded him of that incident and told the audience of Duncan’s personal response to her email asking for help in getting information about the condition of the student, who at the time he was presumed dead. After his speech, Duncan asked Stewart to share her ideas for combating the overwhelming and seemingly intractable challenge of ending violence against youth in America. This is what she told him:

Dear Secretary Duncan,

It was an honor to introduce you to the “Teacher Voice” conference participants.  At that time, you charged me with the task of suggesting ways to stop the violence in the Chicago. I really wish I had the answers. We feel each other’s pain. I am always devastated by the level of violence I see. Unfortunately, I cannot allow my emotions to sidetrack me from what I am paid to do: teach middle-school math. Even in saying that, I am in danger of becoming as anesthetized as my students, and I applaud you for always bringing this travesty to the forefront.

I will share my opinion.

Urgent /Long Term

Parents are the key factor and we have to find ways to support them in their efforts to raise their children.  I also believe that when students have chronic behavioral or discipline issues, their parents should be mandated to attend regular conferences that include a community service component. Finally, something has to be done to help children in homes with parents who are substance abusers. It appears that children who commit violent acts are more likely to be in this demographic.

Short Term

Expand the Chicago Park District programs, but you have to make it a safer place in some areas. Increase police presence in more positive ways. For example, have Police District teams challenge teams of teachers from the schools in their district to bi-annual basketball games. The “MVP’s” from these teams would then play student stars.

Expand the G.R.E.A.T program (Gang Resistance Education and Training). It was very effective at my school. The woman officers squashed a really violent series of altercations between about 16 7th and 8th grade girls.

Bring back Camp Hastings, the YMCA camp that gave students a chance to get out of the neighborhood for a week and participate in a plethora of outdoor activities.

Mentoring Programs

One of my students was selected in the Barbie I Can Be…Mentee Search and attended the White House Project awards ceremony in New York. She returned more purposeful. She became a classroom leader and inspired several other students to be successful.

I have also heard very good things about the Steve Harvey program. That program offers a Mentoring Weekend to break the misguided traits of manhood and introduce role models who provide positive examples of manhood.

Socio – Emotional Learning and Arts Programs

Parents, students, and teachers in challenging communities need to participate in programs that include an effective conflict resolution component.

Empower Communities

Campaign to end the “Snitches get Stitches” mentality so people will not be afraid to fight against abusive conditions. Utilize veterans in these programs. They are not afraid of the gangs and they push back!

Challenge potential gang members to make a positive impact on their communities. Penalties for petty crimes should include more extensive community service options, like cleaning vacant lots, assisting victims of violent crimes, etc. Many students, unfortunately, identify with a gang without actually participating in criminal activities. I understand this, but the gang mentality has to be replaced with something positive.

Update on my student who was shot:

My concern for this student began right after I added a picture of him and  two other boys to my Donors Choose web page. Another teacher said he was going to be a hoodlum. Unfortunately I understand why the teacher said that. But my student was facing major obstacles. His mother was sick (she has since died and while his family was at the memorial, his house was robbed) and he had an enormous amount of unsupervised time. This is the biggest problem with children in depressed areas. I began tutoring that student and another Bond alumni every Wednesday, after school for three years. I, along with several other teachers in the building began rewarding them with gift cards when they received good grades, and eventually, making the honor roll.  They were successful at a school that was voted one of the worst schools in the US.  I am very proud of him. He overcame tremendous obstacles and setbacks, but it took THE WHOLE VILLAGE.


Karon Stewart, National Board Certified Teacher

Listening to Teachers

I had a twinge of pride when I read about Secretary Duncan’s recent trip to New Haven, Connecticut to announce granting eight more states NCLB waivers.  It had nothing to do with New Haven (never been there) or even the NCLB waivers.  I was drawn by the conversation he had with teachers as part of his visit.

That’s because our abiding passion at VIVA Teachers is “elevating teacher voices.” Why? Because we believe–correction, we know–that public education would work better if classroom teachers were the drivers of both their work in the classroom and the systems that support that work. Those who work in the classroom have the frontline view. They know what’s needed to set up all of our public schools for success.

Our very first VIVA Teachers project, way back in 2010, resulted in a meeting with Duncan. Eight teachers who worked in classrooms from Seattle to New York met with him in his Washington DC headquarters personal conference room. The teachers spent 90 minutes with Duncan, the DOE teaching fellows and members of his staff.

Meeting with a Cabinet Secretary was awesome in and of itself. But equally thrilling has been seeing the teachers’ ideas turned into policy.

The national VIVA Teacher Leaders told the Secretary that teachers need better training (a sentiment that was repeated by the teachers with whom he met in New Haven). The department has since created the Presidential Teaching Fellows program, a $185 million program to give teaching students better training.

VIVA Teachers have had similar success in other venues, most notably Chicago. There, Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Cluade Brizard accepted the recommendation of VIVA Teacher Leaders to eliminate two school holidays — Columbus Day and Pulaski Day (know your Revolutionary War history?) — because the teachers said they need more days in school with their students.

Thanks to all the (extremely) busy classroom teachers who’ve taken time to join in a VIVA Teachers Idea Exchange.  And congratulations. You’re changing the world!