More than a hundred years ago, Margaret Haley, a feisty education labor organizer from Chicago, worked to broaden teachers’ voices within the political arena of the time.
This past October, a modern variety of educational organizers gathered in Seattle to make their voices heard on a key policy issue of the day: improving high-needs schools. Two hundred accomplished teachers participated in the summit, which was a chance for them to generate recommendations and hear the responses from the chief state school officer, the president of the state teachers’ association, and several state legislators.
How did the state of Washington galvanize a community of teachers committed to making their voices heard on important policy issues? The answer is a straightforward, home-grown recipe:
Grow a critical mass of accomplished teachers. Six years ago, there were 69 teachers in the state holding certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Today, there are 1,306, representing more than 2 percent of the teaching force; they can be found in every county, and in a wide variety of school settings. The commitment to support accomplished teaching started with one teacher-leader at the Washington Education Association, and grew to include philanthropies, the state department of education, the union, universities, and local districts. They all have worked to provide candidates for national certification with scholarships, as well as with peer support throughout the process, seeking them out from all regions of the state and, in particular, from schools with greater proportions of students of color, low-income students, and those who are struggling academically.
The goal isn’t to certify as many teachers as possible over a short term; it’s to build a strong corps that will strengthen teaching in schools, districts, and the state in myriad ways. Those nationally certified know what quality teaching and learning are. They love a challenge and seek out leadership responsibilities. With a little nourishment, they are ready to develop into a complex organization.
Develop agency. Each year, teachers who are newly certified by the national board are invited to a leadership conference led by their peers, teachers with national certification from previous years. Teacher-leadership is rarely new to this group, but the conference gives them a chance to take part in workshops on a variety of leadership paths—from writing, to mentoring, to using research. They also learn about opportunities available to them through the growing network of nationally certified teachers in the state.
Encouraged by the stories of such colleagues, participants reflect on what their next step as a teacher-leader will be. The process is not prescriptive; teachers draw on an understanding of the needs in their communities, and determine how sharing what they have learned about quality teaching and learning could help meet those needs.
For some, gaining the capacity to address issues of educational policy is a natural extension of their previous work. For others, the initiative to take political action stems from a combination of forces: the confidence gained through achieving certification, the certification process itself, and a sense of contribution to the work of this community of teachers. Solid support nurtures this commitment.
Provide support. Though nationally certified teachers are knowledgeable about content and pedagogy, they may not yet be accomplished in the particular leadership skills needed in their newly chosen roles. That’s why, in Washington state, a pubic-private partnership has been formed to nurture the enhancement and application of those skills. The state superintendent’s office and the Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession, a nonprofit group underwritten by the Stuart Foundation, coordinate this teacher-leadership development.
For those who envision having an impact on instructional practice in their schools or districts, grants of up to $5,000 are available to initiate professional-development projects. Recipients generally are drawn from proposals that promise to engage colleagues in collaboration and have a strong impact on student learning. Of the 10 to 20 proposals funded annually, most support lesson study, “critical friends” groups, or national-board-candidacy groups. The grants make it possible for teacher-leaders to pilot a program before scaling it up in their schools or districts.
For teachers who identify their leadership niche as communication, three summer retreats are offered: writing leadership case studies, writing about the teaching profession, and public speaking on issues of importance to them. Past participants have had their work published in a variety of national and local publications, spoken before the state legislature, and contributed to the statewide dialogue on the benefits of and barriers to teacher leadership.
Create opportunities to interact with policymakers. The state’s leadership network of nationally certified teachers has tried recently to provide support targeted at increasing the local voice of these teachers. Geographically-based groups of teachers have identified a policy need in their area and then formulated a plan to address it, such as encouraging district support of national board certification or coordinating assistance for potential high school dropouts.
On the state level, a network of board-certified teachers is trying to establish sustained relationships with legislators. Coordinating teachers send out timely and practical e-mails with suggestions about when and how to contact a legislator to invite him or her to visit a classroom, or with comments on topics such as the governor’s education plan. Board-certified teachers are not asked to set forth or endorse a particular platform; they are encouraged to share their expert voices on important issues.
Policymakers are often far removed from the classroom. The sheer scope of their work—and at times their own short tenure—requires that they gather information on complex issues in abbreviated form. Often, knowledgeable and credible sources can be crucial to their decisionmaking. National-board-certified teachers have expertise that is pertinent to policymaking deliberations and can offer valuable, articulate messages for improving education beyond the walls of their classrooms. They deserve to be heard.
Just as Maggie Haley did not always share the opinions of her union compatriots, these accomplished teachers are not all of one mind. And that’s good. What they do share is an understanding of high-quality teaching and learning and a predilection, born of portfolio-crafting in their certification process, for demanding “clear, consistent, and convincing” evidence to back up their statements.
Their approach to professional political organizing may be far more collaborative than that of the “lady labor slugger” of the previous century, but it is equally committed. While many nationally certified teachers are active members of their unions, they also provide an alternative to the voice represented by those associations. When these teachers are valued for their extensive knowledge and bolstered with the power to act, they can create a symphony of voices to raise the standards for education policy discussions.
A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2007 edition of Education Week as A New Generation of Margaret Haleys