Autonomous Teamwork and the Common Core

By Wade Sutton

“We live in a world that’s increasingly social, interdependent and transparent….the most innovative among us are breaking away from traditional structures to be more flexible, more collaborative and nurturing.” – John Gerzema, author of The Athena Doctrine at TedxWomen Talk 2013.

Imagine your child’s day at school: In History they read and examine forms of government, the next period he or she plays soccer after reading and discussing an article on the qualities of leadership and teamwork, in Environmental Science the class examines the needs of a balanced ecosystem and reads an essay on current issues and later continues to build a terrarium in shop. At the same time in English your son or daughter is reading The Lord of the Flies and discussing Democracy and Fascism. It all fits together and reinforces itself. In this imaginary school, each teacher is autonomous and expert yet nurtures the learning experienced by the students throughout their day. Imagine autonomous teamwork.

Traveling to MSNBC’s Teacher Town Hall and Common Core Teaching Institute in New York last October gave me the opportunity to revise a lot of what I thought I knew about Minnesota’s transition to the Common Core Literacy Standards. I like these standards, however, the basic truth remains that educational improvements (including the Common Core) must come from within a school where staff, students and parents work together. Mutual trust and teamwork is essential.

Of course we at Indus can always improve, and trust is built over time. But autonomous teamwork among teachers is what makes good education become great. In the 21st century, schools must be “flexible” and “collaborative.” Good leadership nurtures and encourages this, and, if it is the common practice, your school is serving you. Your son or daughter will benefit. When students, parents, educators, and administration commonly rely on each other’s strengths we become the real core of education.

Autonomous collaboration makes education work. Literacy standards begin at home and great student achievement is the result of school staff and parents working together. This has struck me consistently in my conversations with educators whom I respect from across the country working in schools I admire. As an educator at Indus School who values an extended team, I am not alone in feeling the desire for more parental involvement. This is not a criticism; it is a request that parents accept our respect for what they do. Parenting is difficult and a good school seeks involvement in the learning community. Parents are the foundation for successful literacy. I trust parents more than the Common Core because that trust is key to a successful education.

The Common Core itself will not raise standards of education, but excellent educators, trusted and trained, will. As Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, said at MSNBC’s Teacher Town Hall last October, “Teachers need training; teachers need respect; teachers need autonomy.” As an educator, every day I consider how I am working in unity with my peers. The responsibility that comes with professional trust within a school can drive me toward high standards far more than any directive could. Over the years I have experienced how a professional team of autonomous educators can leverage basic education and transform it together to meet literacy needs throughout the day. While literacy begins at home, the Common Core at least recognizes that reading is not isolated in English class but is taught “in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects.” A hallmark of a school implementing Common Core literacy well is a team that works together. Classes are not islands and teachers are not overwhelmed with classroom sizes so unmanageable that they are not able to be flexible according to the needs of your son or daughter.

As a parent can we evaluate whether teaching is done as a community? I believe yes. You can judge your child’s school by how well they listen to you and by how much time is created for educators to educate themselves, improve and work together. One of the exemplar educators at the MSNBC Common Core Workshop confided in me that her school does not provide time to work together. It is a major failure in her district while at the same time it is necessary to meet the literacy standards. At your next parent/teacher meeting ask your teacher what the atmosphere is like for them: Is there an atmosphere of professional trust? How do they collaborate with other subjects? How is administration nurturing and valuing time to collaborate among professionals? If your child’s school organization provides time for educators to meet, plan and teach together then they are on the right track and ready to work for you, the parent. If it does not, then speak to its leaders to encourage them.

Find out how often teachers meet to match the reading and exploration in their class with another: At Indus we keep learning. Our science teacher and FACS teacher collaborate on the topics of food safety and sanitation and scientific principles related to biology and chemistry. Best of all, they work together on the school garden project. We have created a working timeline in our hallway where students from all grades post responses to informational texts and topics in their classrooms. Our history teacher has recruited me to grade the essays on her World and American History tests according to what students learn in English and I organize my subject matter according to her timeline to streamline the literacy and student learning. In science students practice similar methods for reading and understanding texts as in other classrooms to meet Common Core Literacy standards. Our art teacher critiqued the rough drafts of the World Literature projects for visual communication and I use art to teach text interpretation. She is also having the seventh and eighth grade illustrate their own short stories for publication. And the ninth grade class at Indus is mentoring the 5th grade in composition which helps both grades. As a parent I like what I see. As a teacher I have learned that this works and hope to keep improving together.

Because autonomous education within a school team should be commonplace.

wadeWade Sutton teaches 7-12 grade English at Indus School in Birchdale, Minn. He was a member of the VIVA Minnesota Teachers Writing Collaborative that produced the report 360 Degree Leadership: Evaluating Minnesota Principals.


View the original postings on Wade’s blog, ProspectiveEducation, and The Journal 

International Falls Journal: Uncovering Common Core


VIVA Teachers at Education Nation 2013 (from left to right): Glenn Morehouse Olson, Wade Sutton, Mark Anderson, Katie Morosky, and Freeda Pirillis

Wade Sutton (VIVA Minnesota I) was one of five VIVA Teachers to attend Education Nation 2013 in New York City in October. He is writing a series of commentaries for his local paper, International Falls Journal. The first one is called Uncovering Common Core (published Nov. 9, 2013), and looks at how Wade’s opinion about Common Core has changed.

He writes:

Attending the 2013 MSNBC’s Education Nation in New York shifted me from “unconvinced” to partial supporter of the Common Core. It is an honor to be one of the few rural educators to have sat with the architects of educational policy, and parents are usually left out of the conversation completely. As an educator at Indus School, I do not think this is right; after all, this is not only my ninth year serving parents by teaching their children, but I also am invested as a parent. The difference is that I have been given the opportunity to have a voice. When you speak directly to the minds behind the national standards there is a lot to respect.

Go to the Journal website to read the full article.

Wade Sutton teaches 7-12 grade English at Indus School in Birchdale, Minn. He was a member of the VIVA Minnesota Teachers Writing Collaborative that produced the report 360 Degree Leadership: Evaluating Minnesota Principals.

A Shift Towards Trust: Voices, Ideas, Vision, Action

 By Wade Sutton, Glenn Morehouse Olson & Freeda Pirillis

“If the person you are talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.”

– A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh

From the center of the fevered storm to restructure education, a small voice speaks. It has always been there. It is still there. We might miss it for the crowd surrounding our institutions of learning. It is the voice of those working within the building…the voice of educators.

It is popular for policy makers to appear to be listening. While the power for change does not sit in the hands of the experienced educational professionals, the words of Dr. Ralph Nichols from the University of Minnesota offer a solution: “The best way to appear to be listening is to listen.” However, many teachers, worn out from raising their voices against educational doctrine, accept their minor role in policy. They endure and teach. Often their growing skepticism results in simply giving up on finding their own voice through the noise.

VIVA: Elevating Authentic Teacher Voice for Impact and Activism

In 2010, a new organization entered the throng to clear the clouds of obscuring politics. It seeks to trust to educators to answer the foundational questions we need to ask about education. We talk to doctors about health. We talk to lawyers about justice. But we talk to politicians about education. With patience, the conversation shifts toward trusting those who live education.

VIVA is a project of New Voice Strategies, a national nonprofit that operates online peer collaborations for teachers. They call these teacher-to-teacher conversations a VIVA Idea Exchange. ™ We have each participated in at least one of the 14 VIVA Idea Exchanges that have occurred since VIVA launched in late 2010. The innovation of these VIVA Idea Exchanges nails real solutions onto the doors of education departments across America.

VIVA arrived at a time when the “assessment era” laid bare the way policy has direct impact on our teaching practices, even if not a single classroom teacher is involved in crafting that policy. It is part of a small collection of nonprofit organizations and initiatives to give classroom teachers new avenues into broader policy debates in their districts and across their states. Together, these groups are opening up a new national dialogue between teachers and between teachers and policy makers about the broader education policies that reflect our expectations of public schools. To us, this phenomenon is both long overdue and a necessity.

Asking Teachers, Building Professional Collaborations

We are three teachers from different locations, different setting, different grades and different training.  VIVA connected us to hundreds of teachers in a problem-solving collaboration on a policy issue that we see as vital to our profession, it connected us to each other, creating a community of like-minded teachers who want our voices to be part of broader education policy questions but have no interest in leaving our classrooms and it connected our ideas to senior policy makers who can make real and lasting change.

Not only did each teacher present a report directly to policy makers, but VIVA became the vehicle for teacher voice to stretch beyond the walls of their classroom. From attending the Department of Education’s Respect Conference in Washington, D.C. to NBC’s Education Nation in New York, voices within the teaching profession continue to engage with the policies that affect educators nationwide.

VIVA Teacher Wade Sutton, 7-12th Grade English, Indus School, Birchdale, Minn.

Teaching in a rural Minnesota district bordering Canada can be isolating. Participation in VIVA’s Idea Exchange removed the innate barriers this location placed on my professional experience. Although I had taught under five administrators in seven years, I had no expectations of finding a platform to address principal competence. I had never been heard before. Schools maintain a culture not about listening and innovating, but structure themselves with division: between teachers and administrators, between disciplines, between public and charter, between rural, suburban and urban. While I thought voicing my professional conclusions about creating great principals would go unheard, I was wrong. The VIVA experience changed my perspective.

VIVA Teacher Glenn Morehouse Olson, 9-12th Grade, St. Francis, Minn.

When I first logged on to participate in the VIVA Minnesota Idea Exchange, I was not sure what to expect. As a journalism, theater and language arts teacher, I don’t have a lot of extra time between publications, productions and grading, but I cared enough about the idea of legislation regarding principal evaluation that I put in my two cents. One thing that struck me about this Idea Exchange was the diversity of experiences teachers expressed. It was hard to imagine how a rural teacher in a 7-12 school could relate to an elementary teacher from Minneapolis with a minimum of five different languages in one classroom. But what I found was an online community of teachers who were passionate about similar issues, and were able, with the help of a moderator, to discuss their ideas with a level of respect for one another.

VIVA Teacher Freeda Pirillis, First Grade, Chicago, Ill.

Isolated in one of more than 400 schools in the third largest urban school district, I am one voice drowned out by the noise and confusion of a system weighted down by turnover, misguided principles, and unprofessional practices. The VIVA Idea Exchange represented an opportunity to elevate my voice and those of teachers like me who rarely are included in discussion shaping policy in education. I had never heard of New Voice Strategies, participated in an Idea Exchange, nor been asked how educational policy could be changed to improve the quality of teaching and learning conditions in my classroom.  Participating in the Writing Collaborative with five teachers nationwide shifted my perspective from one teacher in a classroom, isolated from others, to a teacher with a voice, representing many others at the district, state and national level. Being part of the VIVA National Task Force, meeting with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and jointly discussing solution-oriented recommendations on the major issues facing the nation’s education system demonstrated it was possible to ignite systematic change with one meeting.

The Idea Exchange Process: A Conversation Begins

Using a central question, the VIVA Idea Exchange connects teachers with a policy maker, creating an incentive for participation. After the weeks of the open discussion, where educators across a specified geography speak from their experience and offer solutions, VIVA forms a writing collaborative from participants. These thought leaders distill the ideas and solutions into actionable recommendations for policy and deliver their report to a public policy official. VIVA’s first Idea Exchange, asking teachers for new ideas to strengthen federal teacher professional development policy, culminated in an in-person meeting between eight classroom teachers and Secretary Duncan and his staff. Their proposals can be found in elements of the department’s teacher effectiveness initiatives, including the Presidential Teaching Fellows program.

Since this first success, VIVA has engaged more than 5,000 teachers in one or more of the 13 collaborative, solution-oriented discussions resulting in actionable recommendations for policy makers. At the state level, New York teachers tackled the issue of teacher evaluation, Chicago teachers delivered a framework for restructuring the longer school day, Minnesota teachers developed recommendations for legislatively mandated principal and teacher evaluations, and Arizona charter school teachers laid the groundwork for the successful transition and implementation of the Common Core State Standards. (To access any of the VIVA Idea Exchange reports,

Impacting Policy: One Idea Exchange at a Time

Often, the impact of teacher voice is unclear to educators, therefore deepening the skepticism teachers feel about participating in discussions on educational policy. Amongst all the noise created in the media on what teachers need, want, or demand that is deemed fair, VIVA has worked to sift through the noise to identify actionable solutions and immediate change. VIVA has also strived to identify the impact on educational policy following an Idea Exchange and the delivery of a report to a public official. As educators, we look for the evidence of growth in our students, chart the progressions, gather the data, and synthesize the results. Similarly, with each Idea Exchange, VIVA has identified how teacher voice has shaped policy in the affected districts and states.

Wade Sutton

Since participating in the VIVA Idea Exchange, teaching in rural Minnesota is more relevant than ever. The educational event horizon expands the world every time a teacher is given a voice. While my students are the center of my career, it is encouraging that my experience has reached beyond my local community. From the Respect Conference in D.C. to Indus School in Birchdale, Minn., from NBC’s Education Nation in New York to the students in my classroom, I know that an educator’s professional voice needs to be heard. The health of our schools requires that more educators speak and that policymakers listen.

Freeda Pirillis

As a VIVA Teacher, I actively seek opportunities to elevate authentic teacher voice at all levels of my work. Serving as an Instructional Leader in my school building, a Common Core unit developer at the local level, attending NBC’s Education Nation Summit in New York in 2012 and 2013, and the U.S. Department of Education’s Respect Conference in Washington, D.C. have allowed me to stretch my thinking beyond the confines of my classroom, to collaborate with educators who share a vision: systematic change for teachers by teachers. I believe VIVA is the vehicle by which that can be achieved.

Glenn Morehouse Olson

In short, I was empowered by my first experience with VIVA. Since that time, I have participated in the Respect conference in Washington, D.C., blogged, written an article for MN Educator encouraging other educators to share their voices, and presented information to my local union. This summer, I was on a panel about bringing teacher voice to the table at the Learning Forward Conference in Minneapolis, with Education Researcher Ellen Sherratt and VIVA founder Elizabeth Evans. That led to Sherratt recommending me to producers at Education Nation, which resulted in my participation as a teacher panelist. Through these experiences, I have met and collaborated with people I would never have otherwise known and who, though geographically separated, I have come to consider colleagues in this great profession. As a journalism and theater teacher, I have always understood the power of the written and spoken word. As a VIVA Teacher, I have been able to put those skills to new use and actually connect with an audience who might not only dare to listen, but who has the power to take my voice, ideas and visions to a new level of action.

VIVA’s Place at the Table

With a growing number of teacher advocacy groups claiming to be the answer to education’s problems and represent authentic teacher voice, VIVA has something new to offer. Educators who have participated in the Idea Exchanges agree the difference lies in the process. VIVA addresses a central question and maintains short timelines with specific deadlines. Every Idea Exchange results in a solution-oriented, actionable list of recommendations, and a seat at the table with the people who shape educational policy.

VOICE “I hear and I forget.” IDEAS & VISION “I see and I remember.” ACTION “I do and I understand.” – Confucius, (551–479 BCE)

Wade, Freeda and Glenn collaborated to summarize their VIVA experience for the article “Educators Speak Out: Organizations offer teachers new avenues for influencing education policy” that appeared in the July/August edition of Harvard Education Letter

Wade Sutton profile


Glenn Morehouse Olson


Equal Opportunity in Kindergarten

By Beth Hillerns

We want all of our children to be successful in school. As a parent, I want that for my own children. As a teacher, I know the parents and families I work with want that for their children. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposed budget, along with two bills recently introduced in the State House (HF105 and HF821), would help our state’s students reach that goal by providing funding for all-day, every-day kindergarten.

As committed as parents are to their children, some students don’t enter school with the tools they need to be successful in the classroom. They may not have the exposure to language and literacy that children in homes with highly educated parents have. One thing we can do to counteract their lack of readiness is to provide students with a literacy-rich environment in preschool and kindergarten. And while pre-school programs are important, Minnesota needs to start by fully funding all-day, every-day kindergarten.

Currently, our districts are only reimbursed for a half day of kindergarten. This lack of funding means that districts generally have three options: 1) offer only half-day kindergarten (or full-day, every-other-day kindergarten); 2) offer full-day kindergarten but use part of the general-education fund to pay for it; or 3) offer both full-day and half-time kindergarten and charge for the second half of a full-day program.

All of these are problematic and only serve to perpetuate the achievement gap. Many districts in high-poverty areas choose to offer full-day kindergarten at no charge to parents, but they are reimbursed by the state for only about half of the cost. Imagine what they could do if the state fully funded kindergarten and they could reallocate those funds.

Five years ago when my son was four, we began looking at kindergarten programs and found that the district we lived in would charge us for a full-day program. Yet, even if we were willing to pay for it, there was no guarantee of admittance. All parents who willing to pay the fee were entered into a lottery, making the fee and the lottery barriers to educational opportunity and steeping the system in inequality.

As a working mother, I wanted my child in a high-quality, full-day kindergarten program. To make that happen, I ended up driving him 30 miles away to a district where we didn’t live. The long car ride through traffic to a place without his neighborhood friends was difficult, but I believe the academic and social benefits of the full-day kindergarten program were worth it.

Full-day kindergarten options should be the norm for all students. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, full-day kindergarten has numerous benefits, including better attendance, higher academic achievement, enhanced behavioral and social development, and an easier transition to first grade. Minnesota can and should provide those benefits to its students.

Most of us think of the K-12 experience as beginning at age 5, but the truth is it begins in unequal opportunity without a full-day experience for every child. We need our legislators to take another step towards equal educational opportunity: Fully fund all-day, every-day kindergarten for all students.


Beth Hillerns teaches Title I at East Central Elementary School near Sandstone, Minn. She has taught for the past 10 years in urban, suburban, and rural schools in Texas and Minnesota.




School Safety: Licensed to Teach

by Mary Cathryn Ricker

Crossposted from her Notes from MC blog

So I guess the NRA says the answer to stop school shootings is more guns, joining the smattering of elected officials who recently have promoted the idea of arming teachers and principals. This approach is wrong.

If a place like Ft. Hood, TX which has some of our planet’s most deadly weapons carried by some of our planet’s most deadly professional soldiers, can be reduced to carnage by a single armed assassin, then what makes The NRA think that arming a nation of just-right-book loving, denim jumper wearing, wooden apple bead necklace creating, white board marker toting school teachers (and the rest of us) will be effective?

You want to arm me? Good. Then arm me with a school psychologist at my school who has time to do more than test and sit in meetings about testing.

Arm me with enough counselors so we can build skills to prevent violence, have meaningful discussions with students about their future and not merely frantically adjust student schedules like a Jenga game.

Arm me with social workers who can thoughtfully attend to a student’s and her family’s needs so I. Can. Teach.

Arm me with enough school nurses so that they are accessible to every child and can work as a team with me rather than operate their offices as de facto urgent care centers.

Arm me with more days on the calendar for teaching and learning and fewer days for standardized testing.

Arm me with class sizes that allow my colleagues and me to know both our students and their families well.

Arm my colleagues and me with the time it takes to improve together and the time it takes to give great feedback to students about their work and progress.

Until you arm me to the hilt with what it will take to meet the needs of an increasingly vulnerable student population, I respectfully request you keep your opinions on schools and our safety to yourself NRA. Knock it off.

Mary Cathryn Ricker is the St.Paul Teachers Union President, and was an English and History teacher. This piece was featured on the Facebook page.  To read Mary Cathryn Ricker’s personal blog, Notes from MC, click here.

Teacher leadership: How about some autonomy?

By Kim Farris-Berg, Special  to VIVA Teachers
Let’s drop our assumptions about the nature of teaching jobs, and imagine something different

Sometimes we become so accustomed to the way things are, we cannot imagine a different way of doing things. In 1927 one of the Warner Brothers made a famously wrong prediction, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” When it comes to systems vital for our future, like K-12 public schools, this myopia can be disastrous.

Even some teachers who are working to imagine a better future for K-12 schools get stuck in the assumption that the ways in which they currently operate are “givens.” Many educators accept that the role of a teacher is to instruct, and that a teacher’s management domain is the classroom. They accept that teachers need a boss to guide their culture and activities, and that only administrators are qualified to conduct evaluations and judge a teacher’s quality. They accept that “achievement” is defined outside of schools, and believe that teachers lose their power without tenure.

These assumptions are not givens! These are just perceived as givens. Some teachers are tackling the job of school improvement without assuming any of them, keeping only the practices that they deem best for their schools. You could, too.

There are more than 50 groups of teachers across the United States with collective authority to make decisions influencing the success of their entire schools. Some of the schools they serve are district schools, and others are chartered schools. Some work as members of the union local, and others do not. The schools are in urban, rural and suburban settings, and serve students from preschool through age 21.

My colleagues and I studied 11 of these teacher groups in depth. They have a mix of full and partial autonomy to collectively make decisions in an average of 7.71 out of ten possible areas.

  • Selecting colleagues
  • Transferring and dismissing colleagues
  • Evaluating colleagues
  • Setting staff pattern (e.g., determining who is full-time and who is part-time, allowing teachers to take on teaching and administrative tasks, and choosing the ratio of aides to teachers)
  • Selecting leaders
  • Determining budget
  • Determining salaries
  • Determining the learning program
  • Setting the schedule (e.g., calendar year and daily schedules)
  • Setting school level policy (e.g., homework and discipline approaches)

These teachers use their authority to create different types of jobs for teachers and learning opportunities for students. Their management domain is the whole school. They individualize learning and use assessment tools to improve their practice. They put students in the position to be active (not passive) learners. They expect students to develop both academic and life skills.

Autonomous teachers also create school cultures that are similar to those in high-performing organizations. They accept accountability, innovate, and make efficient use of resources. They select leaders to handle aspects of management, but these leaders are accountable to them (not vice versa). Teacher quality is most often judged by peers, who are expected to coach and mentor one another.

Teachers with full budget autonomy even go so far as to reject the idea of tenure and automatic raises. Instead they choose one-year, at-will contracts because, in their view, they need budget flexibility and the ability to control the quality of the workers who affect their success as a team. These teachers see job protections as necessary when other people control their work, but not when teachers call the shots.

My colleagues and I described all of these choices in detail in Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots.
Is calling the shots easy? No! Pioneering is intense and difficult work, especially in a K-12 education culture that values “sameness.” Also, these teacher groups are not interconnected. Many feel they are islands without a system of support. Still, pioneers are known for their willingness to take on hardships for the promise of something greater. And the support can be developed as more teachers secure autonomy and cultivate their craft.

As with anything new, there will need to be early adaptors willing to commit to the idea, face any challenges that arise, and give it a serious try. Ultimately, the success of collective teacher autonomy as a strategy for K-12 improvement is dependent on whether groups of teachers seek the opportunity, face its challenges, and use it to advance teaching and learning. Until a large number of success stories demonstrate, on balance, an improvement over the current situation with our K-12 schools, teacher autonomy will remain largely a theoretical idea.

So, if you are a teacher and find the idea attractive, consider rounding up a group of colleagues and asking for autonomy to run a school or group of schools. Learn all you can from those who have gone before you, especially about how they secured autonomy. The “right” autonomy arrangement for your group will depend on many factors including state and local politics as well as your school board or charter school authorizer and the teachers’ union’s tolerance for “trying things”. It will also depend on the personal preferences of teachers in your group.

If at first you don’t succeed in securing autonomy, look for another path. And once you have autonomy, take care not to limit yourselves to any perceived givens, including any best practices from conventional schooling. Think creatively. Innovate. Change your jobs. Improve learning.

Just like actors proved Mr. Warner wrong, teachers could prove wrong all of the people who advocate for controlling teachers to produce better public schools. Teachers could be the social entrepreneurs we need to improve K-12, public schools. But not necessarily in the confines of the jobs you have now.
Maybe it’s time to drop our assumptions about the nature of teaching and imagine something different.

Kim Farris-Berg is lead author of Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots. She lives in Orange County, California. She is a Senior Associate with Education Evolving, a policy design shop based in St. Paul, Minnesota, and an independent education policy strategist. Her Twitter handle is @farrisberg.

Education Reform: Teachers Have Always Been at the Forefront

By Mary Cathryn Ricker

I was intrigued by Jay Mathews’ Washington Post column that proclaims “Teachers leaning in favor of reforms.” I do appreciate that he points out he has never once written about unions hindering reform, even if he back-hands the compliment withthat is not the same as saying the unions have worked hard to make all teachers more successful in the classroom.”

That is where I part very good company with him.

I appreciate the parsing of teacher’s feelings toward current education hot topics in the research he sites by Teach Plus and Education Sector. As the current president of my teacher’s union in St. Paul, Minnesota it is helpful to learn what teachers are saying and thinking both, individually and locally, and in the aggregate.

However, I have a fairly unique view, as a teacher serving as a local union president and a third generation teacher in my family, which leads me to a couple questions and a couple points I would like to make about teachers “leaning in favor of reforms.”

Supporting Education Reform

Because this research is a snapshot in time, it is impossible to say whether these attitudes captured by Teach Plus and Education Sector are new or not. In my family and in the historic local teacher’s union I have the privilege of serving, these attitudes are not new.

Someday we will have longitudinal research that either proves this group of newer teachers is somehow unique, or it will prove what I have experienced anecdotally: that teachers, and our unions, have always had a bias for improving teaching and learning conditions. Indeed, it was because I saw up close these examples of acting within a union to improve teaching and learning that I ran for president of my union, rather than get an administrative credential or take some other job, when I felt ready to lead with new ideas of mine and my colleagues’.

My Dad, Union President and Reformer

I saw my dad, and his generation, fight for adequate preparation time so I could build on that by advocating for increased professional learning time. His generation built salary schedules that honored years of expertise and graduate specialties so that we could come along and create leadership opportunities that don’t force a teacher to choose between leading or teaching.

The work done by teachers in their unions before me to recognize National Board Certification paved the way for others to design other differentiated pay structures. We can entertain a serious discussion about the AFT’s bar exam idea precisely because of the professional ideas to improve teaching and learning brought to the table year after year by many leaders who have come before us raising the bar for teacher standards over time from high school diploma to some college to a full credential. There wouldn’t be this notion of rethinking tenure, or due process, if there hadn’t been progress from capricious, political, sexist at-will status to fair due process in the first place.

Examples of Union-Supported Reforms

In the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers we have been doing things like:

  • Designing our own alternative licensure program to diversify our profession and fill hard-to-staff license areas
  • Expanding the professional development opportunities we started offering more than 25 years ago
  • Expanding our parent/teacher home visit project
  • Negotiating contract language to strengthen our peer assistance and review program and evaluation
  • Offering alternatives to seniority to protect the integrity of programs we offer our students.

We’re doing all of that with our ultimate goal of making our contract the most powerful document our district has to attract, support and retain a high-quality, diverse workforce that knows how to meet the needs of our students and families.

None of this would have been possible if it wasn’t for the teacher union leadership that came before us. None of it.

I appreciate the acknowledgement that Jay Mathews was trying to offer, but I caution him about painting the last 150+ years of St. Paul teachers (and others) as stagnant, versus a recently discovered fountain of youthful teachers suddenly leaning toward reform. The teaching profession has been evolving since it started. Each generation has added something, built on the work of the generation before.

Teachers have always leaned toward reform except, of course, for those times when we’ve been leading it.

VIVA Minnesota Project II – Strengthening Our Practice: A Classroom Teachers’ Approach to Evaluation

Download Full Report as a PDF

On October 26, 2012, members of VIVA Minnesota Teachers Idea Exchange II presented their report Strengthening Our Practice: A Classroom Teachers’ Approach to Evaluation to members of Governor Mark Dayton’s administration and the MDE Teacher Evaluation Work Group.

Download a copy of “Strengthening Our Practice: A Classroom Teachers’ Approach to Evaluation.”

Click here to read the recommendations from the report

What is a Good Teacher?

So much of the chatter in education policy these days is shaped by the goal of getting rid of bad teachers. While that is something we certainly should do, shouldn’t we spend a lot more time thinking about getting as many good teachers as possible into our nation’s classrooms? What about thinking about how to help good teachers become great, rather than the myopic focus on punishing lousy teachers?

The key, of course, is knowing what a good teacher is. I’ve been catching up on my reading lately and came across two recent(ish) studies that will help us make that shift to think about effective teaching.

In “Transforming Teaching: Connecting Professional Responsibility with Student Learning,” the National Education Association (click to download) published the work of its Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching. The report lays out an exciting vision for a teacher-driven public school system. It contains a clear call to elevate teachers’ professional leadership and responsibility and lists specific characteristics of effective teachers.

There’s a lot of food for thought in this report and we ought to spend a lot of time thinking about how we tap into the professional skills and judgment of classroom teachers–not just in their classrooms but in shaping our approach to public education.

Source: National Archives and Records Administration

In The Hangover: Thinking about the unintended Consequences of the Nation’s Teacher Evaluation Binge, the American Enterprise Institute tackles the incredible pace of change in our thinking about teacher evaluation. More than 20 states have put new teacher evaluation laws on their books in the last three years. And, the rhetoric around most of these legislative changes has been pretty dismal. The authors caution that there’s a lot of connecting the dots to be done to make these laws work well and actually have an impact on teaching practices.

Engaging Teachers

At VIVA Teachers, we think the more we engage classroom teachers in these conversations about what a effective teacher looks like, and how you actually measure effective teaching, the more likely our children are to have a good (or better) teacher in front of their classroom.

VIVA Teachers in New York and Minnesota have made some of the same points as the authors of these reports: that teachers’ professional judgment needs to be part of the calculus on effective teaching. That data is indispensable to evaluating effective teaching. In two detailed reports, these teachers outline a clear action plan for professional evaluation of teachers and principals that will help all of us understand what effective teaching looks like.

NBC Teacher Town Hall, a Meeting of Convergent Volume

 by Wade Sutton

“…And thus the Native hue of Resolution

Is sicklied o’er, with the pale cast of Thought

And enterprises of great pitch and moment,

With this regard their Currents turn awry,

And lose the name of Action.”

– Hamlet (Act III, Scene 1)

You would expect a national Teacher Town Hall to ask for change and action. You would think it would encourage divergent thinking. You would be wrong.

If MSNBC’s Education Nation had been honed to actually get 300 teachers to talk substance and seek resolution, here is the script I would have handed to Brian Williams:

Is it the place of the public school system to provide “wraparound services” that include medical care and breakfast? How does this really serve parents? Does it take away from the mission of schools? Are we creating dependence by filling these voids? Discuss.

Will structuring our teaching to a Common Core drive us further into a box and force us to teach to a test? What are other options that keep power at the state level? Discuss.

Why are universities failing to train educators fully? What needs to change? Should teachers only graduate and be licensed after at least three years’ experience in the classroom? Discuss.

Only master teachers with at least 10 years classroom experience should be allowed to begin an administrative degree program. How can we narrow the field to only accept the best as our instructional leaders? Discuss.

How does nurturing the culture of antagonism between teachers’ unions and administration harm our school system and our students? How can this vicious cycle be stopped? Discuss.

Why do teachers see unions as the strongest advocates for education instead of parents? Parents are the strongest advocates for their children, why the disconnect? Discuss.

But these questions demand time. These questions require careful thought and want divergent thinking. These questions depend on quiet contemplation and creativity. None of these powerful, progressive skills were in evidence at Education Nation. Instead, volume ruled the day.

The Pale Cast of Thought

Sitting in front of me were four teachers I thought cloned from one another. They exemplified the tone in the room: filled with what Yeats would describe as “passionate intensity,” the loudest and worst of the consensus, sadly more loyal to their union than to the art of education. They yelled and booed and cheered, entitled to be heard. One spoke to the camera and refused to stop. She solved nothing with her volume. The tone from the audience was not to hear and discuss, it was to display a unified direction. And to shout down dissent with “sound and fury signifying nothing” near to a solution. Good educators know that the loudest may not be the most dynamic. Their filibuster flares quickly and dies while we crave the silent solutions and strength that is caste in a slow hot fire.

And Lose the Name of Action?

This is why I walked away inspired to act with a consistent, powerful force in my own community to inspire change at the local level. I hope in the future that the national stage will mature to seek real solutions and next year I look forward to representing rural schools again. It is a game with a tone that limits our national dialogue on education. This must change. Progress cannot remain pressed aside in comfortable silence. Although quiet solutions were diminished and a real exchange was lost in the tempest, I am encouraged. It will be your unnoticed educator, the quiet and steady servant to parents, who will lead to change and actionable ideas.

Wade Sutton teaches 7-12 grade English at Indus School in Birchdale, Minnesota. He has taught in private and in public school and was a member of the VIVA Minnesota Teachers Writing Collaborative that produced the report called 360 Degree Leadership: Evaluating Minnesota Principals.