In February, the day after U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that the U.S. Department of Education would withdraw the previous administration’s guidance to protect transgender students, middle school teacher Steven Singer wrote a new blog post. He voiced his concerns about the trauma the policy change might cause for his transgender students and reflected on his interactions with one student who identifies as “agender":
I don’t know which bathroom my lunch-line buddy uses. I wouldn’t presume to ask. But it hurts me that there are people out there who want to limit “hir.” These children have rights. They are little sweethearts. They’re full of life and joy. We should respect their humanity.
Singer shared his blog post on the Facebook page of Badass Teachers Association, a network of more than 60,000 teachers across the United States who focus on issues of social justice in education. Within minutes, teachers responded with words of encouragement:
“I have trans students too. Thank you for this.”
“My heart breaks for my students today as well.”
“We need our teachers to step up and protect them!”
And then someone asked, “What should we do...?”
In the weeks that followed, the network’s teachers rallied for answers to this question. They shared information and research about what it means to be transgender. They posted pictures of themselves wearing shirts to show solidarity with their transgender students. They created a meme image of one teacher’s quote that read: “When we look back on this moment in history, I love that our trans youth will be able to identify teachers as their protectors.”
There are no textbooks that tell teachers how to comfort a transgender student who is harassed about going to the bathroom. There is not a professional-development course on responding to specific controversial policy decisions. Diana Laufenberg, the managing director of the nonprofit Inquiry Schools, effectively summarized the situation for teachers during a time of rapid educational change in one statement: “No one is coming to save us, we’re it.”
A Network of Support
While 10 years ago, the story of an association’s Facebook organizing efforts might have been unusual, it is not so unique today. The group is just one of a growing number of teacher-led professional networks—both physical and virtual—that take the lead in problem-solving and innovation in the teaching profession. Many have stepped in to address problems that schools and districts struggle to respond to in a timely manner.
Singer was no longer alone in wrestling with a current issue. He was surrounded by a sea of supporters who were working together to respond to similar problems that a new policy raised in their classrooms and communities.
The advantage that these teacher-led professional networks have over institutions is that they can facilitate rapid, realistic exchanges of resources during times of trauma, change, and crisis—often through websites or other social platforms. This is critical because teachers are often first responders. Teachers need to know how to help children feel safe enough to learn, but they also need time to process events themselves and learn more about what affects their students. For more than a decade, teacher-led networks have been rising to meet these needs.
Two major factors have initiated the teacher-led change. The first is that notions of teacher leadership have changed from a hierarchical position to an action that brings people together. This relational understanding is in line with what inspires most teachers to go into the profession in the first place—an altruistic urge to care for others.
Technology and social media have also helped teachers to connect beyond their school walls, to share their work, and to amplify their voices. Even though the “Web 2.0" has been around for more than 10 years, it’s taken some time for teachers to establish virtual communities and relationships that span states and countries. Today, networks range in topic from content areas to social causes and from online hashtag communities to face-to-face gatherings.
I discovered that these networks are impacting educational change on every level—from individual classrooms to the national discourse.
For example, the EdCamp Network has provided hundreds of teacher-led conferences for more than 200,000 participants since 2005, and the movement continues to expand to other countries from Ukraine to Australia. In 2016, even the U.S. Department of Education sponsored an EdCamp for education leaders.
And EduColor, a teacher-leader network that supports conversations about issues of race in education, hosts moderated Twitter chats of about 150 to 200 participants from across the country. Since its inception in 2015, EduColor has had significant influence on national dialogue about race. Leaders in the group, such as José Luis Vilson, a New York City public school teacher and Chris Lehmann, a principal in Philadelphia, are frequently invited to speak with both local and national policymakers.
A Changing Landscape
Teacher-led networks could not have arisen at a more critical time. It is safe to say that U.S. public education is in flux right now. Not only are social issues such as homophobia, racial injustice, religious intolerance, and xenophobia prevalent in schools today, but the entire structure of public schooling as we know it may change with the new political administration.
This makes such networks even more vital. They help educators to hold their schools and districts accountable to student rights and needs, allowing them to respond quickly, caringly, and effectively to whatever challenges may arise.