Teacher at the Top

By Ann Bradley — November 01, 1996 4 min read

When veteran teacher Terry Dozier first started her job at the U.S. Department of Education, speaking her mind in meetings so unnerved her that she returned to her hotel room sick to her stomach.

That was nearly four years--and scores of meetings and speeches--ago, but Dozier, the 1985 National Teacher of the Year, has not forgotten the difficulty she had--and most teachers have--stepping out of the classroom to talk and debate publicly about education.

As special adviser on teaching to Secretary of Education Richard Riley--the first person ever to hold such a position--Dozier often exhorts teachers to fight their nerves and take the risk.

A world history teacher from Columbia, South Carolina, Dozier provides a “reality check” at the Education Department by keeping in close touch with teachers and trying to weave their insights and experiences into federal programs and policymaking. She also heads the department’s efforts to rally teachers in support of school improvement. One of her main goals is to see that exemplary teachers not only continue to do a wonderful job with students but also speak out publicly. “I know what I’m saying is difficult,” she says, “especially to a profession that has been socialized to be passive.”

During her tenure at the department’s headquarters a few short blocks from the Capitol, Dozier has made a mark. “Any time we have major things to deal with here in terms of policy, I can’t tell you how important it is for me to have Terry Dozier sitting there,” Riley says. “She has this connection with teachers throughout the country that is very valuable.”

Dozier, 44, was born in Vietnam. Her mother was Vietnamese; her father was a German with the French Foreign Legion. She was adopted by an American couple and raised in Germany and Florida.

After she was named National Teacher of the Year, Dozier and her husband, Mark, who switched careers to become a teacher, moved to Singapore, where she taught Chinese history and culture at the Singapore American School. Then, in 1993, Riley, a former South Carolina governor, made Dozier an offer she couldn’t refuse: Come to Washington.

Nowadays, she commutes from her home in Washington’s Virginia suburbs to the Education Department.

“When you look at Terry, you see a rags-to-riches story of a child who was starving in Vietnam and becomes America’s most famous teacher,” says Norman Conard, a high school teacher in Uniontown, Kansas, whose students are researching Dozier’s life. “She exemplifies what’s best about this country.”

To most teachers, the Education Department in far-off Washington is a bureaucracy with little relevance to their day-to-day lives. Dozier’s initial task was figuring out how to change that, how to connect teachers’ expertise to federal policy discussions. “One of the things I was determined to do was ensure that I was not the lone voice of teachers,” she says. “A lot of this job has involved figuring out multiple ways for the department to listen to teachers.”

Now the department hosts the Goals 2000 Teacher Forum each fall, where staff and accomplished teachers from around the country get together and exchange ideas. Teachers who attend are encouraged to return to their schools and promote reform. At Dozier’s urging, some have organized similar events in their own states.

Dozier corresponds with many forum participants and other award-winning teachers via computer. Department officials consider those teachers “field consultants” and often solicit their opinions. But the teachers also hold spirited conversations among themselves on issues like student discipline, homework policies, parental involvement, and social promotion.

During her first summer in Washington, Dozier put together a “Teachers Guide to the U.S. Department of Education,” which is now in its fourth printing. At first, some staff members argued that most of the department’s programs and grants weren’t aimed at teachers. But Dozier argued that teachers needed to know about them to make informed decisions for their schools. “Part of my passion is that teachers should be part of the decisionmaking process,” she explains. “Teachers don’t know this stuff is out there.”

Dozier’s call for teachers to become more outspoken and involved touched a nerve with Steven Levy, the 1993 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year. A member of a conservative Christian church, Levy wrote Dozier to express his dismay at the way Goals 2000, the federal school-improvement program, was being portrayed by critics. He and seven other religiously minded public school teachers met with Dozier, Riley, and leaders of different faiths to discuss ways to overcome the pervasive distrust of public education and the reform program. The result was a joint statement of common purpose, drafted by 33 religious leaders and issued in 1994.

“What I appreciated about Secretary Riley and Terry is that they cared enough about it to be willing to do something,” says Rita Wigfield, a teacher in Minnetonka, Minnesota.

Inspired by Dozier, Wigfield labored three years to organize a teacher forum in her state. The governor and state legislature declined to help organize the meeting, she says, but Dozier urged her not to give up. This past September, 65 teachers paid their own way to discuss the nation’s education goals. Dozier was a featured speaker.

“To have a classroom teacher have the ear of people who make important policy is incredibly important,” Wigfield says. “It just should be a given, shouldn’t it?”

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Teacher at the Top