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Education Opinion

A Final Trio of Thoughts

By Maddie Fennell — July 27, 2012 8 min read
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Note: Maddie Fennell, former Nebraska Teacher of the Year and chair of the National Education Association’s Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching, is guest posting this week.

This week was my first attempt at sticking my toe in the world of blogging. I want to thank Rick for allowing me to be his guest; I would also like to thank the readers for taking their valuable time to consider my thoughts and share their comments.

Rather than pick one final topic, I have three somewhat divergent pieces I will share for your reflection:

The Role of the Accomplished Teacher
In his July 9th blog, Daniel Lautzenheiser wrote, “A good teacher is hard to find.” I struggled to figure out if I agree or disagree, and decided - it’s both!

I disagree with Daniel because I work with an amazing group of teachers every day. As one of my Teacher of the Year friends says, “Some days, I’m not even the best teacher on my floor!” Right now the media is so focused on “the bad teacher” and “getting rid of the bottom 5%" that they don’t see the good teachers. Movies that depict harmonious colleagues meeting the needs of students don’t sell as well as those that show the system failing.

I agree with Daniel because, and these are perhaps the hardest words I can ever write, I’m a good teacher. I say this not just based upon my enthusiastic students’ declarations of “you’re the best teacher ever!” but also through the observations of colleagues who have visited my classroom and the data I have received on student assessments. I love my job and I do it very well.

Why is it so hard for good teachers to stand up and proclaim our effectiveness in our profession? Well, for one, teachers are generally humble folks. You don’t get into teaching to watch your own star shine; you become a teacher to give kids the skills they need to put their stars in the sky.

We can’t hide behind humility anymore. Good teachers need to stand up, loudly proclaim their success, and demand to be involved in the decisions affecting their classrooms and their profession.

In his July 23rd blog, Follow-Up: Teacher Voice Matters in Education Policy, my good friend Justin Minkel said, “Teacher voice wouldn’t matter if it had no impact on student achievement. But the glaring reality is that policy made without teachers often fails kids, and the same is true of standards and curricula.”

I couldn’t agree more! Without teachers involved in the development (of standards, policy, curriculum, etc.) rather than just at the receiving end of implementation, we end up with unintended negative consequences of good ideas. We call this the “implementation gap": the disconnect between the policy that has been developed and how it plays out in the classroom. Resources and time are wasted as we seek to “retool” what could have been done right the first time if teachers had been at the table to begin with!

Accomplished teachers also need to realize that changing our profession means developing strong networks and leadership positions within our unions. The NEA leadership is committed to change, but they need collaborators who have the authority that comes with being exceptional practitioners.

NEA’s “Three Point Plan for Reform” acknowledges that the voices of accomplished teachers need to be amplified. The action plan states:

“NEA will use its national training networks to deliver leadership skills to teachers recognized for their effectiveness. NEA will work with affiliates to train 1,000 accomplished teachers to be voices for their profession, both as instructional leaders and at all levels of policymaking. NEA will make extra efforts to ensure that younger teachers join their experienced colleagues to collaborate and bring fresh perspectives into professional decision-making. Throughout this effort, NEA will urge these talented teachers to be strongly involved at every level of their union.”

Accomplished teachers don’t teach by the book; they collaborate with colleagues, and use their expertise to develop and deliver creative lessons that meet their students’ diverse needs. We need them to take that spirit of collaborative innovation and infuse it through the union.

Singing in Harmony
I have always had a great relationship with my superintendent, even when I was president of my local union and we didn’t agree on certain issues. I knew that although we didn’t always agree on the same path to take, we usually had a similar target in mind and we both put the needs of students first.

The NEA Commission took the time to sit down and talk to some of those folks who aren’t always seen as partners with NEA or supportive of public school teachers. It wasn’t easy; personally, I took MAJOR grief from a close friend who couldn’t believe that I’d even sit in a room with Secretary Duncan! Once we took the time to really listen to what others were saying, we realized that there was a lot that we could learn and that there were more bridges of agreement to build upon than barriers of disagreement.

In the past few months, we have made progress in collaboration, as evidenced by the statement on Transforming the Teaching Profession signed at The Labor Management Collaboration Conference; the statement is a first step in fulfilling a promise made at the International Summit on the Teaching Profession to “seek to build a coherent and systemic process for engaging all actors in comprehensive large-scale change.” The vision was signed by leadership at the Department of Education, the National School Boards Association, the Council of Great City Schools, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, the American Association of School Administrators, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and the Council of Chief State School Officers. It outlines the seven core elements of a transformed teaching profession: a culture of shared responsibility and leadership; recruiting top talent into schools prepared for success; continuous growth and professional development; effective teachers and principals; a professional career continuum with competitive compensation; conditions for successful teaching and learning; and engaged communities.

While folks are beginning to hum the same tune, they aren’t yet singing in harmony. We need to bring all education stakeholders to the same table in order to ensure that every child -- regardless of family income, location, or other factors -- is taught by effective teachers.

The Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching envisioned a National Council for the Teaching Profession that would bring all stakeholders together- not as a new organization, but as a substantive coalition that would be responsible for a seamless and congruent body of standards for preparation, licensure, practice, professional development, teacher leadership, and other key elements of teaching. The organization’s governing board would be comprised of a majority professional and accomplished teachers, and it would work in partnership with other organizations engaged in the development and implementation of teaching, leadership, and professional learning standards. Several organizations already leading these efforts (such as those who signed onto the Transforming the Teaching Profession vision at the Labor Management Collaboration Conference) should serve as the organizing bodies to create the NCTP. The organization would serve to consolidate and coordinate resources and operate as a vehicle for the collective voice and action of the profession.

The Council would honor and build on the research and standards developed by the Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium, the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. NCTP would work to ensure that each state’s teaching standards are no less rigorous than the national standards. Alignment among state standards will increase teacher quality and facilitate mobility from state to state.

All states would be invited to work together as part of this national body. Initial licensure could continue to be awarded through state education agencies, but state licenses would be based on a single rigorous, consistent set of national standards. The goals would be to ensure teacher credentials are rigorous and portable; to streamline the credentialing process for teachers who move from one state to another; and to help remedy the current inequitable distribution of teachers. NCTP-endorsed credentials would be respected because they would signal accomplished preparation and practice.

In addition to identifying and approving standards for the teaching profession, NCTP may share models of teaching and learning, disseminate peer reviewed or research-based best practices, promote professional learning, and act as a clearinghouse for professional information and resources for teachers and teacher educators. Bringing this work under one national umbrella group would also lead to processes that are consistent, efficient, and cost-effective.

The Future of the Union
The last two years have not been easy for unions, including the NEA. There have been attacks on collective bargaining rights. Public opinion polls have shown a decrease in union favorability. Membership in the NEA is down dramatically.

The current maelstrom surrounding unions can be seen as a harbinger of impending doom or a tremendous opportunity for change. The successes of the past can inform our future, but we can’t continue to use the same strategies to solve our new challenges. Perhaps we have finally been forced to a point where we realize our union needs to evolve in order to thrive in a new landscape.

As we teeter on the precipice of major change, do we see the union’s potential demise as inevitable or do we use the crisis to embolden us to transform not only the union, but the American education system?

In other words, are we going to build an airbag to soften the fall or an airplane to take us to new heights?


In four short weeks I will welcome another group of eager young scholars into my fourth grade classroom. Every year, I feel sense of excitement and great responsibility for what occurs between the first and last days of school. I know that I am being held accountable, but not just in terms of numbers. Real accountability is accepting the trust my students and their parents place in me and embracing my professional and individual responsibility for my students’ learning and well-being.

I choose to look at the future of my profession in the same way that I look at my students...full of bold, audacious hope and immense possibility!

--Maddie Fennell

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.