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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Teacher Leadership: The Only Thing That’s Going to Save the Education System

By Guest Blogger — February 09, 2014 4 min read
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Note: This week and next RHSU is featuring guest bloggers from the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. For more on NNSTOY, check them out here. Today’s post is from Maddie Fennell. Maddie is a literacy coach at Miller Park Elementary School in Omaha, NE, and was Nebraska teacher of the year in 2007.

In addition to my “day job” as a literacy coach at Miller Park Elementary in Omaha, NE, I serve in several teacher leadership roles that have provided me great opportunities to bridge the world of practice and policy. I have attempted to succinctly organize some of the bigger ideas I am working on:

Teacher leadership is the only thing that’s going to save the education system. Period. While there are great folks who are putting their heart and soul into education reform, they don’t have all the answers and they aren’t going to be successful if teachers aren’t co-collaborators. I can see the teacher mindset evolving as we begin to open the classroom door and invite others in, but we need new norms in truly operationalizing teacher leadership. Building systems that allow teachers the time to lead, not as an additional job add-on to be done outside of duty hours, is a major first step. Too many great teachers leave the classroom because, while they love their students, they don’t feel valued for the ENTIRE skill set they bring to the table. NNSTOY has a great report, “Creating Sustainable Teacher Career Trajectories,” that you can read for more details.

The balance beam of education is moving from primarily knowledge acquisition to a greater emphasis on the skills and dispositions needed for both students and adults to utilize information. This will necessitate a shift in what it means to be a teacher. Students--and adults--now have information at their fingertips on the latest tech gadget. What they need are the skills to access the information (reading, determining valid sources, discernment) and the dispositions (collegiality, creativity, tenacity) to apply their knowledge and skills in the real world. Once we get past this testing craziness--and I believe we will--we will move into an area of more authentic assessment embedded in project based learning (at the upper grades; I see primary grades still focused on acquisition) and delivered through a collaborative team approach. The work we are doing on the Re-Imagining Education Project with the Convergence Center for Policy Studies has helped me see this perspective.

Technology has enhanced my teaching but I never worry it will replace me. I saw my role as a teacher begin to transform when every student in my classroom had a computer. Technology was utilized as an effective learning and diagnostic tool while still providing ample time for activities based in student interaction and nurturing interpersonal skills. I was able to utilize real time assessment information to determine where students were struggling and immediately intervene. I was able to challenge students who mastered material easily and needed the bar set higher. Technology allowed me to teach deeper and faster so that I could more effectively address individual student needs. But technology still can’t do all of this while also wiping the tears of a student in the midst of a personal crisis. Education is, and will remain, a profession dependent on increasingly skilled practitioners. As Kid President might say, “It’s about blended learning people!”

Success isn’t achieved by “cookie cutter” teaching. This should not be an “AHA!” statement to anyone, but unfortunately I know it is when I heard a friend from the East Coast share, “My principal informed us that when he walks from one classroom to the next, he should hear the second teacher finishing the first teacher’s sentence.” Craziness! Our 4th graders at Miller Park Elementary have hit it out of the park on state writing year after year, even though my colleagues and I taught quite differently. We were in sync on the basics and we worked closely to share our learning, but our principal gave us tremendous latitude to do what we knew as professionals worked best. Use the same kind of gradual release model for teachers that we use for students: teachers who successfully advance student learning--their knowledge, skills, and dispositions--are given greater latitude. Those who are struggling--which could be for a myriad of reasons--would be offered additional and perhaps more structured support. But keep the cookie cutter in the kitchen!

The unions have to seize the opportunity present in advancing a student-centered agenda based on enhancing professional practice. Transforming American education will not be done by individuals; it will be successfully done by those who are willing to work in concert with others in achieving a common vision. When we look at our international colleagues who are being lauded for their student success, they have strong teacher unions as partners in reform, as well as time to work together in collaborative practice models--see NNSTOY’s white paper, Reimagining Teaching. Statehouses can legislate against collective bargaining, but they can’t legislate against the union’s role in developing better teachers. This doesn’t mean the union must abandon advocating for compensation and other traditional union roles; it does mean looking at them through a student-centered lens. I have learned the hard way that when you push against the system, the system pushes back. If it weren’t for my union protecting me, I wouldn’t still be teaching. But unions have to go beyond protecting to advocating for a great profession. First we choose our profession, then we choose to join a union who helps us become better professionals!

--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.