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Teachers of the Year: Kick Open Your Classroom Doors

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The Council of Chief State School Officers and the Center for Teaching Quality have developed an online community for past and present state Teachers of the Year. These accomplished teachers recently took part in a three-day intensive discussion about the public perception of the teaching profession. The discussion, summarized here, took place on the NTOY Network, an online community of the Teacher Leaders Network.

How much do Americans really know about the quality of teaching in our schools? And is what they "know" based on evidence—or on the most recent sensationalistic headline on the national news?

In a recent PDK/Gallup poll, 79 percent of parents gave their child's school a grade of A or B. When all adults' responses are considered (parents and non-parents), only 51 percent would give local schools an A or B. And when all adults are asked to grade the nation's schools, only 17 percent would assign them an A or B.

Obviously, local pride plays a role—but does that fully explain the discrepancy in how the public gauges schools? We believe that evidence—research and data about teaching and learning—can make a difference. Parents have limited evidence to draw upon: what their own children say about the school day, for instance. But the general public has even less solid evidence. This opacity comes at a cost: the public perception of the teaching profession can be easily swayed by rhetoric, propaganda, or media coverage that is not evidence-based.

What can we teachers do about it?

Teach. Great teachers don't just present information to students. We encourage inquiry. Our students are active in their own learning—exploring, analyzing, and evaluating evidence in order to reach tentative conclusions. They re-evaluate these conclusions as they learn and as new evidence comes to light.

We must bring our teaching skills to our work with the community. In other words, on top of our other responsibilities as teachers, we must become public engagement experts, advocating for our schools, students, and profession. Rather than talking "at" the public, we must actively involve community members in honest discussions, explore the evidence with them, and let them help shape the educational landscape as partners.

Open our classroom doors. Web 2.0 tools equip us to share evidence of excellent teaching with community members. Through social media sites, blogs, and class websites, we can let the public know exactly what is happening behind our classroom doors. Classroom video feeds or student-produced documentaries can bring the magic of learning alive. And by responding to comments and messages, we can enhance the transparency of our work and begin authentic discussions.

But to "open our classroom doors" isn't just a metaphor. Face-to-face interactions represent the foundation of the teacher-community relationship. We can think beyond our school campus: involving students in service-learning projects, developing partnerships with local non-profits, and welcoming community members to take part in cultural events. We can host discussions that underscore our role as leaders and invite honest dialogue about teaching and learning.

And of course, we must reach out to our students' families. Schools should be inviting places where all families feel comfortable and welcome. This requires us to consider the messages we transmit each day (often unintentionally). Are we assigning homework that is relevant and valuable? Do our print materials advance a healthy culture of teaching and learning? How about the tone of our emails and grading comments? Every interaction with students and families "counts" toward their opinion of our hard work and professionalism.

Help reporters to identify great stories—and why these stories are significant. We must partner with reporters to help us effectively "teach" a larger audience. Strategic small steps can help us build these relationships. We can send a quick email when a reporter highlights our profession in a productive way. We can offer ourselves as interviewees on particular topics and connect reporters with other accomplished teachers. We can help the media identify the stories that most need to be told.

As Dan Lortie pointed out many years ago in Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study (1975), we teachers have long been accustomed to an egalitarian culture in our profession where no one teacher stands out too much. For this reason, we rarely highlight what our most effective colleagues are doing in the classroom—and we certainly don't want to appear to brag about our own efforts.

It's time to get over that. We should have local reporters' numbers on speed dial to let them know when great things are happening in our schools. Our news need not be earth-shattering: we could talk about an engaging class project, an innovative way to measure student learning, a student club's service-learning efforts, or the individual stories of teachers and students. Before we pick up the phone or fire off an email, we should think about how to frame our good news, explaining why it matters in a local and national context.

Sometimes our work with the media can include honesty about how and why we struggle. If we plan for these conversations, we can expose systemic problems while keeping our comments focused on solutions and what's most important: student learning.

Advocate for improved accountability systems. The taxpaying public has a right to hold us accountable for our work.

It is time for us, as educators, to accept a grave responsibility: holding one another accountable in ways that are far more accurate, valid and fair than the use of standardized test scores as the centerpiece of most accountability systems. Why? Because accomplished teachers know students, content, and teaching methods better than anyone. Because, regardless of their field, professionals strive to improve the outcomes for those they serve. And because we can help to ensure that teacher evaluation is adequately supported by research, based on best practices, and grounded in classroom realities.

Of course, many of us are already doing this now, in our own schools and professional learning communities. We are collecting and sharing data about student learning and analyzing that data for ways to improve our effectiveness. We are assembling portfolios of student work. We are inviting our peers to observe and critique our instruction. We are assessing students throughout the year with performance-based tasks.

But to intervene in the national dialogue about teaching, we must advocate for major changes in education policy—and in the cultures of our schools. Truly holding one another accountable will require extra time, a new level of trust, and some difficult discussions. It will also require major changes in the way our schools are structured and how we view our professional responsibilities and culture.

Imagine what would be possible if expert teachers could hold hybrid roles, teaching students for part of the day and working to improve teaching and learning for the remainder. They might gather and analyze data, evaluate peers' instruction, or lead data-driven professional development. They might even be tasked with engaging the public, reaching out to communities (or states, or the nation) with direct evidence of what is working well—and not so well—for our students.

Such a shift toward transparency and high-quality data could catalyze dramatic changes in the national perception of teachers. If America's 3.2 million public school teachers begin to take hold of our profession, we can engage others—students, parents, the media, and other community members—in advocating for the public schools our student deserve.

The stakes are high. Ultimately, student learning and the teaching profession hang in the balance. We hope you—our fellow teachers—are willing to take on the tough tasks. To build relationships with community members and the media. To tell engaging stories and explain why they matter. To gather and share evidence of the work you do, and advocate for changes to transform your (our!) profession. These tasks define the profession of teaching, so in other words, we hope that you teach. Kick open your classroom doors and teach.

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