“Now is the time” to take steps towards education reform.


By Janet Foster

It started with an email. My inbox is replete with things that are sent to me without my permission. The fact is, I often don’t read them fully. I had my finger poised over the delete key while I was scanning an email from the NEA in October, when I read about the formation of a writing collaborative through an organization called VIVA (Voices Ideas Vision Action). I read on. For me, it’s kind of like walking into a book store with an unlimited gift card—I’m a sucker for a writing project.

I took a few minutes to compose my response to the question and sent it. I went back to the website a few times over the course of the next couple weeks to see what other people had written, and was encouraged to see so many other teachers writing about the same topics I did. Then I got another email; this one invited me to join VIVA. I hesitated briefly, then jumped in.

Along with my interest in writing, I decided to join because I wanted to see the people who are at the heart of the National Education Association (NEA). The picture I had in my mind was a smoke-filled room with grumpy, old men scowling, smoking cigars, and cooking up impossible ideas for the teachers of America. Teachers, the professionals who should be a part of their conversations, are never present when I imagine this scene. I’m not sure why; something to do with Jimmy Hoffa and union bosses in control of the ignorant masses. So I decided to join this writing group to develop ideas and suggestions to present to the union, to meet some of the movers and shakers of the NEA, and to refine my notion of the union’s intention.

When the VIVA writers finally met in Washington, D.C., we already knew something about each other, but that isn’t the same as being in the same room. We quickly became a cohesive group and we worked on last-minute adjustments to what we planned to say. Maybe it’s the teacher in me, but even as we walked through the NEA headquarters’ doors, I wondered just how things would work since we had never rehearsed as a whole group.

Ultimately, rather than the original 90 minutes with three people that we had been told to expect, we spent four hours with a 12-person task force. Not only did we present our information, but we were also given time to join them at the table, literally, and speak directly with them and expand and discuss what we had written.The time passed quickly and some intense conversations on contentious topics drew passionate responses from both the NEA and VIVA groups. For a time during this discussion, the VIVA group dominated the conversation with specific comments and guided the talk toward some significant changes that we believe should be implemented. It seemed that we were being heard, and it was encouraging. In the end, the momentum of VIVA’s influence waned and it seemed that the NEA had reverted to ingrained, traditional thinking and it didn’t sound like they would seriously consider our suggested solutions. But they had just been handed our report and they hadn’t had time to read it yet. I believe that they did hear us, and that when they read and digest our full 50-page report, they will consider our recommendations. The NEA task force members are teachers, too, and they, like most of us, sometimes forget to question the status quo.

My trip to Washington, D.C. was short and I only had about two hours to walk and see the White House and the National Mall. As I stood at the base of the Lincoln Memorial, facing the reflecting pool, I thought of the footage I have watched with my students many times of Martin Luther King, Jr. standing on this same spot, giving his “I Have a Dream” speech. We study his speech because it was a significant turning point for many Americans because he was speaking to a national, multiracial audience, many of whom had heard of him, but had not heard him speak directly.

When my class reads and then watches the old black-and-white footage of this speech, we discuss the marked change in King’s presentation. He begins slowly and methodically, and he seems to have no passion for his audience. Then we notice the distinct point when he breaks away from his scripted speech and begins his impassioned plea to the crowd. One phrase that he repeats to make his point is, “Now is the time.” This inspirational mantra can be used in a new context for us today in the realm of public education in the U.S.

Now is the time for teachers, the union, and the public to work together and reverse the direction of a one-size-fitsall approach to teaching. Now is the time for the voices of teachers to be heard above the din of corporate, profit-making, non-education-based organizations. Now is the time to remember that we’re talking about the hearts and minds of our children.

This writing collaborative has been an incredible journey for me—both personally and professionally. I met my personal objectives by completing the writing task, presenting it to the task force, and taking a walking tour of some of the most iconic symbols of my country. My hope is that the task force will glean some ideas from our writing that will help them suggest specific steps that the NEA can take in the coming year. It will take much more than a single report from the writers of this one report to institute the changes that need to be made in public education, but one step is a beginning.

Fortunately, I found the NEA task force totally contrary to my imagined group. They were engaged and anxious to hear what we had to say. They were led by a vivacious, engaging leader, Becky Pringle, who questioned and prodded us to clarify our writing. The task force not only gave us an opportunity to present our findings, but they also showed a very down-to-earth, compassionate approach to what they were hearing. They did this because they are just as concerned about the future of schools and students as we are in the VIVA writing collaborative. I am glad to have a revised picture of what the NEA actually does behind closed doors.

Though the work is only beginning, I returned home to Oregon with a new appreciation of what it takes to make change happen—especially on a national level.

And incidentally, as I walked away from our presentation at the NEA building that crisp December evening, I am pleased to report that I did not see a single cigar.

FosterJanet Foster is a Language Arts teacher at Jefferson Middle School in Jefferson, Oregon. She participated in the VIVA NEA 360 Idea Exchange.

Listening to Be Heard: Elizabeth Evans at TEDxWellsStreetED

At the TEDxWellsStreetED event “Teacher Voice Beyond the Classroom,” on Sept. 28, 2013, New Voice Strategies Founding CEO Elizabeth Evans shared her vision for VIVA: to give teachers the opportunity to raise their voices and work together to elevate their profession and practice to make public education better.

At the event, Elizabeth joined nine teachers, one principal and five other community members to share stories, ideas and proposals about teaching and learning, and the role of teachers’ voices in education policies. The event sponsors have posted the talks on Youtube to “better inform the public and decision-makers about the important work teachers do and the impact of practices and policies – existing ones or those proposed by the speakers.” They hope the talks will “encourage more educators to speak out and join the local and national conversations on public education issues.”

To access videos of the talks, visit www.TEDxWellsStreetED on Youtube.

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, visitwww.vivateachers.org.)

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


My Journey from Teacher to Teacher Leader

By Kelly Waller

Who would have thought that one simple favor would turn into a life-changing event?  Four years ago, when my principal asked me to volunteer for the MET program in Hillsborough County, Fla., I never thought it would lead me to discussing policy at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington D.C.  My task was to record and post personal reflections on selected classroom lessons.  The experience was so easy that I immediately volunteered for the MET extension program that was offered two years later.  The difference and most beneficial part of the extension program was that I managed the cameras in my classroom, and controlled which lessons to document and how often to record and submit them for review.  Yet, my biggest take away from this experience was what I learned about myself personally and professionally.

First, not every lesson turns out the way you envision it.  Second, the more times you record, the easier it gets.  So, when the VIVA presented the opportunity to blog about our MET experience, I jumped at the chance to write about “getting over the fear of videotaping.”  My reflection turned into collaboration with nine other teachers from around the nation, a trip to Seattle to present our ideas to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and that follow up meeting at the Department of Education.  What a revelation it was to discover that even though we are all educators held to the same standards and public opinions, we are each evaluated differently depending on the district where we teach.   This realization led to a potpourri of ideas on what changes need to be made at the state level to ensure teacher accountability and improved student learning.

In Hillsborough County, we already implemented an evaluation system that incorporates scoring criteria based on a principal’s observation, peer evaluator observation, and state test scores.  After collaborating with this small group of teachers and presenting these ideas to the Gates Foundation and Department of Education, I felt empowered as the spokesperson for the teachers in my school, district, and state, who have concerns about where we are headed as a nation and how we can continue support our students with effective teaching.  Our evaluation system has gone through some growing pains, but most teachers agree that the feedback received from their principals and peer evaluators is meaningful and, when approached with an open mind, can catapult even the most seasoned educator to a whole new level of exemplary teaching.

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

Do You Complain and Suffer in Silence, Too?

By Kwesi Ndzibah

Every teacher I know has complained about the “higher ups,” and how things would be different if they “just listened to us.” Too often, feeling over matched, they acquiesce and then fall back into cynicism, certain “they” wouldn’t listen anyway.

Several years ago, while teaching 8th grade math in New York City, I had an opportunity to participate in the Measures of Effective Teaching study — MET for short — sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The first step was for all participants to film ourselves teaching lessons several times during the year. After this vast video archive was compiled, I and various other teachers were asked to give feedback on our experiences participating in the study. This next phase was sponsored by the VIVA Teachers Project. We compiled and categorized our thoughts into a document called Reflections From the Classroom: Teaches Explore the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) Research Experience and its Influence on Future Education Practice. This document was presented to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Several weeks after the original presentation, our document found its way to the U.S. Dept. of Education (ED), where staff were interested in the link between the research and teacher evaluation, as well as the role of technology in the classroom. So, this past week, my fellow VIVA MET teachers and I had the opportunity to sit down with Education Secretary Arne Duncan and some of his senior staff to discuss hot button topics such as the role of student assessment in teacher evaluation, and the integration of technology in pedagogy.

At first, it is easy to dismiss this as just another inauthentic attempt by the “higher ups” to give the illusion that voices will be heard. But, as the first of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People tells us, we need to be proactive.  Being proactive means that the change we want to see starts from within. We should take the time to work on things that we have the power to influence rather than to react to things we cannot. To this end, with the help of our facilitators, the group drilled down our ideas into finely crafted talking points. What happened next was complete synergy!

Synergy is the sixth Habit of Highly Effective People. It happens through trustful communication, when all parties find a way to leverage individual differences to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Our teachers and facilitators spoke with intelligence and passion. Our partners at ED listened and challenged our assumptions as we challenged theirs. I found the conversation to be candid, truthful and refreshing. It was the first time I was able to sit down and speak to people creating and shaping policy. For the first time I felt that my voice, our voice, was being heard. That we actually mattered! As our meeting drew to a close, I felt reinvigorated, excited and slightly lost. While it was truly an honor to be included and take part in such a high level meeting, I was left contemplating why this kind of communication does not happen more often. Why this type of communication does not happen on the local or state level. And, even though, this left me with a lot more questions than answers, as a result of this visit, I want to continue to help bring both of these sides together more frequently, at all levels of government.

Kwesi Ndzibah is an elementary school dean in Staten Island.  He taught math, pre-K, 1st and 2nd grades in NYC Public School’s District 31.  He participated in the VIVA MET Idea Exchange. 

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.

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.

The Two-Front War on Education

Lesley goes to Education Nation

The War for Education is being fought on two fronts – in legislative chambers and the classroom– and our students are the casualties. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Even at an event that should have been aimed at solutions, the Teacher Town Hall at NBC’s Education Nation, wasn’t. The topics this year were teacher evaluation, common core and rigorous testing. As I sat there listening, the passionate teachers in the room stood up to lament their frustrations and received emotional support from the crowd in the form of applause, nodding heads, and fervent outcries in agreement.

In retrospect, if the point of the day was to educate the viewing audience about what frustrates teachers, then the day was a success. If the purpose was to brainstorm new ways to combat challenges in education, then as the kids would say, “Epic Fail.”

As I sat there listening, I was struck that I have heard all of this before in the teachers’ lounge and on the VIVA platform. I was there to hear something new. I wanted these teachers to realize the power of their platform and share their ideas for making education better.

The event ended before I got a chance to speak. If I had, I would have pointed out that a poll showed that 71% of the public already trusts teachers. I would have asked: Why, then, are we investing so much energy in teacher evaluations and testing to prove to the public that teachers
are doing their job? I would have challenged the teachers in the room to pose real solutions not just keep lamenting the problems we face, such as:

  • Politicians attempt to make legislative decisions based on the advice of researchers and constituents who have an opinion about education.
  • Then teachers have to figure out how to continue delivering high quality education while meeting the requirements of the new mandates. Even if these laws go away (the desire of many educators), they would just be replaced with new ones.
  • The politicians must prove to the American public that the policies are working so they require more and more data as “proof.”
  • Teachers feel more and more overwhelmed by policies that yield them little control but require much of their energy.

Since the beginning of the school year, I have sat in meetings from Michigan to New York – both formal and informal; I’m hearing a consistent plea from my colleagues. How can I make this work? Where do I find the time? How can I continue doing what is right for kids although it is not tested?

Here’s my solution – a teacher Town Hall meeting with a panel of experts in TEACHING (unlike the soon-to-be-first-year teacher who was featured on NBC’s Teacher Town Hall). Imagine the rich discussion about what teachers can control facilitated by the likes of Wormeli, Danielson, Ravitch, Rice and Wong (just to name a few).

By shining a spotlight on the creative solutions that teachers – the real experts – use to deal with the mandates of new laws and the dynamics of a changing society, we will elevate teachers to be the experts in their profession. We can show the public how teachers have come to deal with problems that the general public and lawmakers never even realized schools face. For example, did you know that simply changing the way a teacher passes out materials can yield two extra weeks of instructional time per school year? That is a process teachers can control which will give them back valuable instructional time now taken away by standardized testing.

A meaningful Town Hall would spotlight the ingenuity of teachers instead of continuing to paint the profession as a bunch of whiny people who complain about everything.

It doesn’t matter whether the teacher is inner city or rural. We all have to cope with poverty, parents who are not involved (or over involved), a litany of legislation, too few resources and too many demands.

Teachers need to use vehicles such as VIVA to provide meaningful solutions while spotlighting the challenges legislation has created (thus showing people who write policy how their decisions have complicated – and arguably hampered – student achievement). That’s how teachers can provide policy makers with ideas for laws that would improve teachers’ lives and, therefore, increase student achievement.

Lesley Hagelgans teaches Language Arts at Marshall Middle School in Marshall, Michigan. She was a member of the National VIVA Task Force.

Shouldn’t all teachers be on the same side?

By Freeda Pirillis

So often, teachers are asked to share their opinions on what’s broken in education and what needs fixing. But who is asking the questions and leading the conversation, who is listening, and who ultimately makes the decisions that impact the daily lives of teachers and students? Within those answers lies the disconnect between teacher input and true teacher voice.

It seems teachers can find vehicles to engage in conversations on educational issues, evident in the education blogs online, the teaching associations that have flourished in the last 10 years, developing fellowships and hand selecting educators to promote their missions in the name of teacher voice. What is absent generally is the opportunity that VIVA Teachers offers for teachers to engage in solution-driven dialogue with their teaching colleagues, emphasizing visible, systemic change for teachers, by teachers.

This absence in true dialogue made way for a lot of noise and confusion in at the two-hour Education Nation Teacher Town Hall, hosted by Brian Williams and NBC Studios at the New York Public Library on Sept. 23, 2012.

A Platform for Teachers

I headed to the town hall hoping to hear from a multitude of teachers that truly represented the teaching force in the United States. I believed the experience would bring me closer to the colleagues I have in the other school districts, grade levels, and content areas.

When I arrived, I was greeted by a woman who wanted to know who I was, whom I was affiliated with, and what the VIVA Project was? Did I represent the AFT? Was I a teacher? Whose side was I on? Those questions seemed to suggest a divide between the groups. I have always believed teachers, regardless of teaching context, were on the same side, working towards a common goal, and we all had a shared interest in creating equitable learning conditions for our students and teaching conditions for each other. Could I be wrong?

Teacher Voice: A Sampling?

As a VIVA Teacher Leader, I understood why I was in the room, but quickly learned there was one section of teachers who were Teachers of the Year, teachers from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, several individuals I recognized from my time at the Department of Education, and a large group from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

I no longer believed true, balanced teacher voice was being represented in this distinguished group of educators and union employees who now had the microphone and the platform to make their voice heard.

Transparently Divided

Throughout the discussion, there seemed to be a clear divide between the public and charter teachers. Several teachers stood up to cheer on their charter school, the work they do, how much more they go above and beyond public school teachers; the room quickly devolved to a shouting match. Union and non-union teachers argued over the level of commitment to their job, to their school, and ultimately, to their students, based on the length of their school day and how deep they dig into their pockets to provide supplies to their students.

I was shocked to see such divisions in teachers who share such common ground.

The Issues: A Mile Wide and an Inch Deep

The show began with the topic of teacher preparation, which we looked at closely in our VIVA National Report, Voices from the Classroom. Our ideas seemed to resonate with the teachers at Education Nation who agreed that teachers need hands-on experience in the classroom prior to completion of their coursework and they need ongoing support from master teachers and/or mentors in their first three years of teaching. But teacher training was just one small part of the two-hour discussion.

Throughout, Williams shifted from topic to topic, inviting audience commentary on the effects of poverty on school systems, the shift to Common Core, the role of parents, providing wraparound services…each topic deserving a two-hour time slot on its own.

While I appreciated the role of the town hall to bring teacher voice to the table on each of these topics, the show did offer the solution-oriented nature of a VIVA Idea Exchange. In my opinion, the VIVA Teachers Idea Exchange platform offers real solutions, concrete examples of what is and is not working in schools across the country. The solutions are centered on the contexts with which teachers work, within the state and local mandates of their schools. VIVA is able to accomplish what I believe Education Nation’s Teacher Town Hall intended to represent in a two-hour segment: teacher voice and teacher activism. However, it fell short and I left feeling uninspired by my colleagues from across the United States.

The Take Away

My experience at Education Nation reinforced the validity of VIVA’s mission to elevate Authentic teacher voice. While I believe the Education Nation Summit provides a space for educators to come to the table and discuss a range of issues, I found little in the way of solutions and strongly believe that is what sets VIVA apart from the rest.

As a nation, we have a long road to travel on the path to reform and while I believe we have a common goal–our students–we are transparently divided and, therefore, stuck.

Freeda Pirillis was a member of the team that wrote the first VIVA report, Voices from the Classroom.

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.