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.

A Call for Investment: Our Schools, Our Children, Our Future

By Kathleen Sullivan

Teaching is challenging, rewarding, exciting, exhausting, and never boring. Actually, every day is a new adventure. Lately, I’ve been struggling; Not with teaching students, but with everything else that goes along with being a teacher in a needy urban district where resources are stretched thin.

I am struggling with teaching well over 100 children a day while wearing so many other hats. Our students walk through our doors saddled with burdens. Some children are from difficult home lives, some are homeless. Others have arrived on our doorstep from war-torn nations, refugee camps, or from countries of sheer chaos. Students often show up hungry. Others are in need of shoes and clothes. Some are grieving the loss of a parent, which vary from parents who have no contact with their children, to parents who have died or been killed, to parents who have been lost to addiction, mental illness, or incarceration.

Even so, teaching is easy compared to the mental anguish and emotional drain of serving as counselor to children who are emotionally scarred. Our social worker/adjustment counselor oversees 600 students four days a week. She has a consistent caseload of 40 students, and an additional 10 plus extra students each day to tend to as each daily crisis arises. If you do the math, you will understand that teachers absorb much of the pain and agony some students bring to school with them each day.

In addition to students in crisis, we are also teaching students with intellectual, emotional and mental disorders with limited special education support in our classrooms. I love my job, I love my students, but I am exhausted and drained. If teachers are to prevail at making every child successful, we need help in our classrooms. We need help to meet the needs of our kids who are experiencing personal and emotional crisis. We need special education assistance for our students who need individual support.

When I think about what our struggling students lack, I have come to realize that no matter what their burdens are, they are each lacking consistency. School is their safety net. School is their refuge. Each day, for eight hours, they are safe. They have structure and they are surrounded by people who want them to grow into productive, conscientious, caring adults. For our students to succeed, they need assistance within the walls of that refuge.

Teachers will teach all students. Teachers will accommodate workloads and differentiate instruction to reach all types of learners. We will provide kindness, empathy, and respect. We step in when counselors are not readily available to children in crisis. When special education students are not getting enough individual attention, teachers spend extra time to meet the needs of these students and give them the academic support they need to make gains. How do we continue to spread ourselves to meet the needs of all our students?

Should we invest in staffing counseling within our schools so that counselors have reasonable caseloads of students and teachers can teach? Should we rethink how special education services are delivered by special education teachers so that students are properly supported, and budget appropriately?  Should we have additional staff to teach and support the large number of English language learners so that they are successful in meeting standards?

The answer is yes. We need to invest in our kids by providing them with access to counseling. We need to invest in our kids by providing our special needs students with specialized teachers working alongside general education teachers in their classrooms. All children can learn with the proper emotional and academic support no matter what their challenges. Some may learn differently, at a slower pace, or at different levels, but they can achieve if we provide the proper support.  We must support our students.


Kathleen Sullivan teaches 5th grade science at a public school in Malden, Massachusetts.

School Safety: Is a teacher with a gun an oxymoron?

by Melody Rivera

“The mediocre teacher tells, the good teacher explains, the superior teacher demonstrates, and the great teacher inspires …”
Tim Daly, actor and president of the Creative Coalition at a recent Sundance Film Festival luncheon.

I’d like to ask Daly, our communities and policy makers, what does a teacher with a gun do?

To me and to most of the colleagues I’ve spoken with, the idea of a teacher with a gun in the presence of students violates our educator code of ethics.

In the forlorn aftermath of the Newtown shooting in CT, we teachers have been on edge. Approximately 2 months ago, teachers were praised all over the media for their bravery, hard work and commitment to education. The media was plastered with signs supporting the work of teachers in the classroom and in life-threatening situations. Today, those same signs of support have a lethal weapon attached to them.

The reality of our urban school systems in the United States is that guns are already very much present within our youth. So are gangs, knives, brass knuckles and just about every other attack weapon a person can think of when violence and hatred are on the agenda.

I’ve been teaching in urban schools systems since 2009. The first 3 years of my career were spent in the Springfield Public Schools System in the state
of Massachusetts. Numbers from FBI data suggest the city of Springfield to be among the top 12 most dangerous cities in the nation, according to the
Republican Newspaper’s article in May of 2011. A 2010 Northeastern University study, ranked Springfield, MA as the second most segregated city in the nation for Hispanics, trailing behind only Los Angeles.

These statistics only hint at how grim and challenging the situation is for teachers in the area where I teach. The reality behind the statistics is this:
In my second year of teaching the 4th grade at a local elementary school, I had 2 of my students bring deadly weapons into my classroom and threaten to use them lethally against another peer. The first weapon was a set of adult- sized brass knuckles. The second was a blade the student used to threaten to kill another of my students while flailing and lunging upon him, and was provided by his father. Both students were 8 years old.

Now let’s fast forward to the middle and high school levels in the same district. There you will find gangs that have overtaken schools with their power and influence and have made the metal detector an archaic monument. My mother, a veteran teacher of almost 30 years in this school system, has been approached by her student gang members offering her protection from any imminent danger. This is the reality of the America’s urban classrooms. The students are experts at violence, guns and hatred. How wise does it make us to propose more violence and inexperienced teachers with guns as a solution to the problem?

Instead of more violence and less education, here’s a thought: let’s educate ourselves on the reason and solution for the increased violence, suicide and
mental health problems prevalent in our youth today. The questions should be: why are these shootings on the rise? Why is the suicide rate among our
young also escalating? And why is cutting back on educational programs and professional staff such as school psychologists the go-to answer if we want positive results?

The federal government didn’t trust teachers to just teach, thus the new teacher evaluation systems became a federal mandate in order to ensure that every educator was proficient in their craft. In addition to the Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctoral degrees most teachers possess, teacher evaluation systems also encompass a plethora of data, performance notes and evidence-based on administrative observations of the educator to ensure a qualified and proficient teacher in the classroom. Yet, some states and their legislation are giving teachers the green light to hold a lethal weapon and to bring it into their classrooms after a miniscule 3-day training? How will I be proficient at handling a lethal weapon in a high-stress and emotional environment with only 3 days of training under my belt?

I believe in protecting our schools. Yet I believe that protection should be provided by highly trained staff capable of using weapons effectively on a daily basis. I also believe in changing the world for the better, preferably by non violence and by imbuing ignorant, violent minds with education.

Melody Rivera is a World Language Teacher in the Chicopee, MA school district.

If you are a member of the National Education Association, please visit http://bit.ly/VivaNEA to share your thoughts on school safety!

Teacher prep: Let’s get clinical

by James Kobialka

Teaching is not a profession which can be taught through lectures and reports. Just  as doctors must be trained in hospitals, in practices, so must teachers be trained in classrooms in what is called the clinical model of teacher preparation.

I remember student teachers coming into my high school class. They would sit at the back of the class, scribbling in notebooks. After two weeks of this, they’d teach one lesson and disappear, presumably off to present a signed form and get a degree.

I finished my own teaching degree in May of 2011. I spent well over 300 hours teaching. I designed lessons, units, and curricula. I watched others teach. I videotaped classes; I wrote reflections; I received critiques; I did research; I earned my degree with ink and tears, as did the rest of my cohort.

I feel privileged to have been taught by great teachers. Every step of the way I was supported and challenged.

Not everyone made it. Some quit. They couldn’t hack the long hours and the stress of teaching. While I feel for them, I also am thankful. Their leaving did not hurt students – if they had burned out in their first year of teaching, it would be a different story.

Those of us who graduated did so knowing who we were – not as people, but as educators. We had a feel for our classroom persona, our strengths and weaknesses, our goals.

A lot of eyes are turning towards teacher preparation right now. 25 state school chiefs recently agreed to “take action” towards renovating their states’ teacher licensure and preparation programs.

Their recent report identified “Licensure” as a main area to change. I hope they will focus on the clinical model of teacher preparation that mimics how doctors are trained.

The state chiefs aren’t the only people asking these questions. How do we train good teachers? How do we know whether a first-year teacher will have a high- or low- performing classroom? How do we train what TNTP called the “irreplaceables”?

Here are your answers:

Stop hiring people who worked in industry for fifteen years and think that qualifies them to teach high schoolers.

Stop hiring subs who have been in the system for ten years but never designed their own lesson.

Stop hiring people who majored in Education but have never stood in front of a class.

Call up Clark University, my alma mater. Call up the Urban Teacher Residency United. Call up any of a long list of schools. . Ask them which of their recent graduates need a job – because many of us still do.

Start hiring people with classroom experience. Start hiring people with portfolios, with lessons, who can show you videos and student work samples. Hire people who know their weaknesses as educators and are willing to improve them.

Learn from the programs that work. Stop sending low-performing teachers to endless Professional Development lectures; set them up with a mentor instead. Have them reflect, read, write, and think – just like we want our youth to.

I wouldn’t trust a doctor who has never been in a hospital. I would never trust a pilot who hasn’t flown.

So why do we think we can trust teachers who’ve never been in front of a class?

James Kobialka teaches Science and English in Worcester, MA

Driving Lessons: Putting the Data-Driven Map in Perspective

By Kathleen Sullivan

Data is defining the self worth of our children, the value of a dedicated, compassionate caring teacher, and the marketability of our homes. Data has proven to be invaluable as a tool to identify weak spots in curriculum and also as a way to identify students in need of academic intervention. But with the focus on data, something else happened. Education leaders, administrators, and teachers stopped talking about students as individuals; instead we began to hold data meetings and we started to refer to students simply as “above grade level”, “at grade level”, “progressing, but below grade level”, or “needs improvement”. At the same time, new students test scores began to be the first thing we checked to see how their scores would affect overall data for the upcoming testing season

Michelle Rhee of StudentsFirst, an aggressive education reform organization, appears to believe the only way to measure student and teacher success is through test scores. StudentsFirst recently released a report grading states on how they are working to elevate the teaching profession, empower parents, spend wisely, and govern well. Florida and Louisiana were at the top of the list. The problem is that the initiatives being promoted by StudentsFirst sounds great in theory but education reform goes well beyond test scores and data.

We need an education reality check. I recently “liked” a Facebook posting that read “I Care More About the Person My Students Become Than The Scores On The Tests They Take”. This doesn’t mean I don’t care about test scores and data. It does mean that society needs people who have integrity and character. Test scores are important as a way of measuring what students are learning. Does it measure smart? What does smart mean? Does it strictly mean a high test score? Personally, I think data and test scores are part of the puzzle. Students can explain a concept but often can’t write it. Students can demonstrate a concept by creating a project but they may not be able to read a word or understand a word on a standardized test and lose points.

We need to broaden the way we think about and use data so we can make sure we’re giving each student what they need to succeed. Some students need extra academic supports to increase their capacity to learn. Students with learning, physical, and emotional disorders also need special supports.

If we invest in supporting our children academically and emotionally, we will invest in children who can not only answer questions right but also can face challenges and seek solutions. Let’s figure out how to measure those skills too.

Kathleen Sullivan teaches 5th grade science at a public school in Malden, Massachusetts.

Press Release on VIVA Report from Massachusetts Teacher Assocation

Classroom teachers recommend ways to narrow achievement gaps in Gateway Cities

CONTACT: Laura Barrett, MTA, 617-878-8267

Download the Report

The state’s largest teachers union has released recommendations from teachers in low-income urban districts about ways to help narrow student achievement gaps, including replacing “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies that lead to high suspension rates with programs aimed at improving behavior within school settings.

The teachers’ recommendations stem from a collaborative project of the Massachusetts Teachers Association and New Voice Strategies, a nonprofit that has engaged in similar “idea exchanges” elsewhere. They are contained in a report titled “Addressing Educational Inequities: Proposals for Narrowing the Achievement Gaps in Massachusetts Gateway Cities,” which has been endorsed by the MTA.

Through the initiative, more than 300 teachers in 24 Massachusetts Gateway Cities plus Cambridge and Somerville shared their views in a freewheeling online discussion. Active participants were then asked to join a writing collaborative to craft the recommendations.

“We hope that the MTA VIVA project inspires discussions at the local level about what schools and districts can do about the critically important issues that our teachers have raised,” said MTA President Paul Toner. “The wide variety of opinions expressed during this project reminds us all that there is no single solution. Rather, there are a variety of strategies that can be effective if teachers, administrators, parents and community members all work together on behalf of students.”

The recommendations include:

  • Breaking the school-to-prison pipeline by reducing suspensions and promoting positive student behavior through in-school initiatives.
  • Offering both bilingual education and Sheltered English Immersion instruction to English Language Learners and promoting second-language fluency among native English speakers.
  • Transforming teacher preparation and professional development to address the challenges of a diverse student population.
  • Strengthening school-community relations.
  • Using flexible staffing schedules and collaboration with community-based organizations, among other methods, to lengthen the school day to provide enrichment and academic support for students and common planning time for education staff.
  • Encouraging Gateway Cities to collaborate on initiatives and jointly seek grant funding.

Gateway Cities are midsized urban centers that often serve as the “gateway” into Massachusetts for immigrant families. Many of these communities, including Holyoke, Springfield, Lawrence and Lowell, were former manufacturing centers. They have faced significant social and economic challenges since manufacturing has been in decline in the United States.

Education is often seen as the best means for building stronger economies in these communities, yet – as in Boston – student performance and graduation rates are significantly lower in Gateway Cities than in the rest of the state. For example, the five-year graduation rate for high school students is just 69 percent in Gateway Cities as opposed to 72 percent in Boston and 91 percent in the rest of the state.

One of the biggest challenges for school districts in Gateway Cities is that they serve a relatively high percentage of English Language Learners. Among other recommendations, the MTA VIVA teachers recommend a change in state law that would allow bilingual education services to be offered as well as the currently mandated Sheltered English Immersion. They also call on districts to do a better job of identifying ELL students who have learning disabilities so they can receive appropriate services at a young age. In addition, they encourage districts to provide early and effective second-language instruction to native English speakers so that they can become fluent.

On the issue of suspensions, the report recommends, “End all ‘no excuses’ or ‘zero tolerance’ disciplinary programs and policies that criminalize minor infractions of school rules and limit both in-school and out-of-school suspensions to only the most serious disruptions.”

The report also recommends strengthening school-community relations by, among other measures, extending school building hours “to allow students to have a safe place for before- and after-school activities” and establishing “home-school visitation programs,” such as one  in effect in parts of Springfield.

The authors recommend that Gateway Cities administrators work more closely together to share ideas and professional development opportunities and to apply jointly for grants.

The teacher-writers for the MTA VIVA project and the districts in which they teach are: Nancy Hilliard and James Kobialka, Worcester; Joel Patterson, Cambridge; Chelsea Mullins, Springfield; and Kathleen Sullivan, Malden. To reach any of these participants, contact Laura Barrett at MTA at 617-878-8267.

Public Education in a Global Economy: An Agenda for Massachusetts Public Schools

Download Full Report as a PDF

On June 23, 2012, members of the VIVA MTA Writing Collaborative presented their ideas to the Board of Directors of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. The process continued on Aug. 5, when the teachers presented a revised version of their report, incorporating suggestions from MTA Board members.

Download a copy of “Public Education in a Global Economy: An Agenda for Massachusetts Public Schools.”

Executive Summary

Massachusetts Gateway Cities have a high percentage of residents living in poverty, growing immigrant populations and multiple language-minority residents. The tremendously dedicated classroom teachers in these communities and the Massachusetts Teachers Association recommend that Gateway Cities work together to share resources, address common challenges and advocate for more financial support.

Our goal as teachers is the education of creative and critical thinkers. Our students deserve to learn the skills that we use to be successful: critical thinking, adaptability and a whole host of others. Our current system makes choices for students: what they learn, when they learn it, and even how well they are capable of learning in general. A powerful education system should have different characteristics. Instead of making choices for our students, we should be empowering them to make their own choices. Students are not buckets to be filled with information. They are fires to be lit.

Teachers are already working on this change. There are thousands of dedicated teachers who strive every day to get their students to read, write, think and apply their knowledge. They are not always supported. Some teachers need to bend the rules, sneaking in labs or writing projects in circumstances where they have been instructed to give practice tests and multiple-choice exams. When every teacher in a district is directed to follow the same timeline
and scripted curriculum, then student questions and student engagement are not driving instruction. This is not a sustainable model of education. If we hope to help our students, to narrow the achievement gaps and to improve the quality of life in our Gateway Cities, we need policies to reflect the intensely personal and provocative nature of education. We need our schools to be growth-focused communities of learners.


Expand language acquisition programs by valuing the existing multilingualism in our Gateway Cities schools and enabling all students to achieve fluency in a second language.

Break the school-to-prison pipeline through student engagement programs focused on positive behavior outcomes.

Transform teacher preparation and professional development to ensure that all teachers are prepared to address the challenges of a diverse student population; then give teachers the autonomy to apply professional knowledge and skills in their classrooms.

Strengthen school-community relationships.

Lengthen the school day and reorganize the school year to better serve students.

Focus the existing Gateway Cities Coalition on identifying and sharing resources to support the recommendations in this report.

Ed Policy: Fiscal Cliff or a Precipitous Abyss?

By: Melody Rivera

“A number of nations are out-educating us today in the STEM disciplines—and if we as a nation don’t turn that around, those nations will soon be out-competing us in a knowledge-based, global economy.” This was the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan’s recent statement on the results of the 2011 TIMSS and PIRLS Assessments and their potential impact on our nation’s future.

Mr. Duncan’s concern comes at a time when the U.S. is facing the fiscal cliff and its potential to evoke economic disaster across the U.S. Although some financial gurus say the fiscal cliff is more of a slope, the fact is that in the world of education this is set to be a precipitous abyss laden with failure.

According to Dennis Van Roekel, President of the National Education Association, the federal cuts in education of 8.2% and $4.8 billion will affect 9 million students. The budget cuts to all federal discretionary spending programs will mean even less help for an already struggling American learning system. Van Roekel also said the cuts in education will impact 98% of American public school students so that the wealthiest 2% can have a tax break.

Programs that would be cut include:

• Title 1 education programs that aid low income students
• IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), which supports the education of special needs students
• Language Acquisition state grants, which aid English language learning students
• Rural Education Achievement Program, which helps small, rural school districts
• Improving Teacher Quality Education, which contributes to the professional development of our teachers.

It’s time to ask lawmakers: At what cost is this nation ‘saving’ money? Is an ignorant nation with only the wealthiest 2% receiving the chance at equal
education the price we must pay to get America out of this fiscal gorge?

Let’s ask Finland, Singapore, Canada and South Korea whether these were the fundamental steps they took when they decided to improve their educational
systems and surpass us in global education rankings.

Since teacher professional development is crucial to implement the new federal mandates of the Teacher Evaluation and Common Core Standards, I feel pinned against the wall as an educator. I am mandated by federal law to adhere to both federal mandate laws and although I was promised professional development to ensure my success and transition to comply with these programs, funding for help with such transition may be eliminated.

The kind of loss in education funding the federal government proposes to “fix” our economic turmoil, will continue to yield ignorance across our nation. As a world language classroom teacher, I will face the reality of the cuts first hand, as some of the proposed cuts would affect language acquisition programs in my home state of Massachusetts. It’s an understatement to say that I am deeply concerned and appalled at the prospect of cutting back funding on education at a time when we need it the most.

What saddens me the most is that once again, the students negatively affected will be those in our urban and rural school systems who depend on federal funding for their education. And here we are again, back to the topic of poverty and its impact on the success or failure of U.S. education.

Melody Rivera is a World Language Teacher in the Chicopee, MA school district.

Video: Ms. Playford’s class connects culltures

Our Teacher leader Kathleen Sullivan sent us this video of her colleague’s class. Watch it and be inspired by her students!

Sullivan explains that Rebecca Playford’s second grade Sheltered English Immersion class represents the cultural collaboration taking place daily at the Salemwood School.  These students featured in the video reflect the full diversity of their Malden community.

These students demonstrate what happens when barriers between people are removed so they see can each other as friends, classmates, and neighbors. They remind us we are one world, one people, and one city all reflecting a common vision of  community, a hometown for us all.

Showing Evidence: What Makes Me Sad

By Kathleen Sullivan

As teachers, we are navigating our way through a new evaluation model meant to “prove” that we are conducting ourselves as reliable and responsible professionals and that we are using best practices to deliver content to our students.

Evaluating teachers and administrators is not a bad thing. We do need to show evidence to parents, administrators, and the general public that we are delivering the best possible education to our students.

So why does it make me sad that we are now expected to show evidence that we are doing good work? Because it means that teachers who are innately giving, kind, and compassionate people are forced to gather up evidence of each act of humanity and save them in an evaluation binder.

In one section of this binder, we are expected to gather evidence that “proves” we not only care deeply about our students and colleagues, but that they appreciate us as well. How? By keeping a record of all of our kind acts toward our students and colleagues and collecting hard copies of any appreciative comments directed towards us as teachers.

We must keep a record any time we assist a colleague who needs some help. This shows collaboration. We must save any email thanking us for coming to a school event or doing something we do every day as teachers–staying late to help students, planning a fundraiser to support our community, dropping off supplies and food for a school family living in a shelter. This will be proof that we participate beyond our regular school days.

Not the way I was raised

Why does this part of the evaluation tool bother me so much? It goes against my grain as a person. In my family, we were brought up to do things for others because it’s the right thing to do. The only real “thank you” one truly needs is the great feeling that comes from doing good for your family, your friends, your colleagues, and your community. In my stoic, blue collar family, no one boasted about their achievements or what they did for others.  If someone did, they heard: “Don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back.”

My dad was a quiet guy who quietly made a difference in many lives throughout his 79 years. “Proof” came at his death when people lined up to tell us what a wonderful man he was by always doing kind acts quietly, out of the limelight.

It makes me sad to think that teachers now have to ask students to write down any compliments so they can have a record of building student-teacher relationships to “prove” they are reaching their students academically and personally.

We already have reduced students to a list of data points. Now we are doing it with teachers–data that “proves” we are good people, good teachers and good human beings.

“Proving” I am teaching our students well is one thing. Being asked to “prove” that I am a good person simply depletes me.

Kathleen Sullivan teaches 5th grade science at a public school in Malden, Massachusetts.