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Rick Hess Straight Up

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

Yes, I Am a Teacher and No, I Did Not Stay at a Holiday Inn Express Last Night

By Guest Blogger — February 14, 2014 4 min read
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Note: Last week and this week 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 Ryan Vernosh. Ryan serves on the Superintendent’s Cabinet as the policy and strategic planning administrator for the Saint Paul Public School District, and was Minnesota teacher of the year in 2011. You can follow Ryan on twitter @RyanVernosh.

Cue the helicopter rising through the sky...
“I think that guy wants you down there.”
“Oh him? That’s just the pilot.”
“You’re not the pilot?”
“No, I’ve never done this before! But I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night!”

You may recall the popular commercials for the hotel chain in which people justify taking the role of doctor, professor, or pilot because they stayed at a Holiday Inn Express. After attending a recent education policy conference, I reflected that the bulk of policy discourse suffers from this same type of thinking. Call it the Holiday Inn Express syndrome, if you will. Just substitute ‘classroom teacher’ for pilot from the above excerpt and the premise seems to be just as ridiculous--Hey, I was never actually a teacher, but I am an expert because I did go to school growing up! Unfortunately, there are far too many instances when those who have never taught, or who have not taught for any substantial period of time, claim expertise over those doing the work every day.

Recent articles in Huffington Post and by Teach for America have discussed education policy leaders who have never taught and debated what role non-educators should have in educational leadership. In full disclosure, I am quite skeptical of education policymakers who have never taught and I remain a fierce critic of Teach for America’s elitist methodology. That criticism, though, recognizes that these perspectives and opinions should be heard and valued. They should not be hailed as more relevant or expert than those of actual educators. Multiple perspectives from a wide range of stakeholders, especially those of students and families, must also be part of the dialogue. However, I remain firmly committed to the idea that experienced teacher voices must be at the forefront of policy development.

Too often teachers are not even invited to the policy process until after policy has been created. Policy without teacher input usually results in impractical mandates that stifle effective teaching. When teachers are engaged in the conversation, the dynamic of policy creation shifts. It becomes far less bureaucratic and much more practical, grounded in the realities of teaching and learning, realities that are more fully understood by people with multiple years of successful teaching experience.

I emphasize multiple years of teaching because if one goes into policy after only teaching for two or so years, the realities of what it takes to be successful in the classroom are often not yet developed. I think back to the beginning of my own teaching career. If I went full time into education policy after my first or second year of teaching, my views would be distorted by the myths of absolute certainty that seem to dominate education debate these days. Myths of “no excuses” methodologies or that experience and pedagogy do not matter. Myths that a single test score defines achievement and the quality of teaching, or the myth that anyone who speaks out on behalf of teachers’ collective expertise is somehow a ‘status quo defender.’ When we operate in such absolute certainties, conversation and progress stall.

It is important to recognize that teacher’s voices are not monolithic. They differ widely and teachers should be encouraged and provided easier access to platforms to share their policy perspectives even if these differ from union or administrative leadership points of view. I am encouraged by the rise of various fellowships and the continued work of organizations that are dedicated to elevating teacher voices and perspectives. Not only do many of these organizations require successful teaching experience, but many encourage teacher leaders to remain in the classroom. Organizations such as the National Network of State Teachers of the Year, NEA, AFT, Hope Street Fellows, The US Department of Education Teaching Ambassador Fellowship, Educators for Excellence, Teach Plus, and The Center for Teaching Quality, just to name a few, offer an opportunity for teachers to share their diverse views in an effort to create a policy landscape that is more relevant to the complexities of teaching and learning.

If we are to bridge the sometimes cavernous gap between policy and practice and move closer to the promise of a premier education for all our students, the voices of successful educators must be incorporated into policy development from start to finish.

--Ryan Vernosh

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.