At a roundtable discussion in Washington on Monday morning, U.S. Department of Education officials led a roomful of undergraduate students and faculty from various colleges of education in South Carolina in a conversation about elevating the teaching profession. The students, who are part of the South Carolina Teaching Fellows Program, a selective teacher-recruitment program that provides a four-year scholarship to students who want to become public school teachers in the state, were invited to comment on a department document laying out a vision for the future of the teaching profession.
The session was one of several events hosted this week by the department in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, and is part of the Administration’s proposed $5 billion program called the RESPECT project, which aims to engage teachers and principals across the country in rebuilding the teaching profession. RESPECT—Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence and Collaborative Teaching—is an initiative led by Teaching Ambassador Fellows, active classroom teachers who are working temporarily for the department to serve as the “voices of teachers.” The TAFs have held roundtables with thousands of teachers in the past year to get their feedback in shaping the vision document.
“A lot of policy tends to start up high and work its ways down, but this is the reversal,” Teaching Ambassador Fellow Greg Mullenholz said in introducing the event. “We are meeting with folks like you all, who are coming into the profession, and we want your perspective. It’s about building the policy here and driving it back up the pipeline.”
The idea behind this “grassroots policy initiative,” Mullenholz added, is to challenge both new and veteran teachers to take the ideas laid out in the vision document, as well as those that arise from these roundtable discussions on strengthening the teaching profession, share them with their colleagues back at their schools, and encourage other teachers to participate in the project’s public comment process. “It’s about whether the vision we present to you is the right one for the teaching profession,” said Mullenholz.
Prior to the start of the table discussions, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made a brief appearance and took photos with the students. Acknowledging Teacher Appreciation Week, he spoke briefly about the importance of the teaching profession. “I don’t know what bigger difference we can make in education than the contributions that teachers make in the classroom,” he said.
At each of the five tables, students and professors shared their initial thoughts on the vision document. At one table, a student pointed out that the document referenced “effective” teaching, but did not include a clear definition of what that looks like. Other students thought there should be more emphasis on how to get the public to take the teaching profession more seriously. Another student cautioned against placing too much of an emphasis on the use of technology in the classroom, explaining that some South Carolina classrooms don’t even contain books for kids to use, let alone computers. “We need to first make sure every kid has access to basic books before we ask [the students] to become proficient in various kinds of technology,” she said.
Mullenholz also asked the students to give their feedback on the five “pillars” interwoven in the document, which he said derived from the various conversations that the TAFs have had with teachers from all over the country. They are: attracting top-tier talent into education; creating a professional career continuum; creating conditions for success; evaluating and supporting the development of teachers, and getting the best educators to the students who need them the most.
In reference to “creating conditions for success,” students suggested that the document include more ideas on how schools can engage families and communities so that teachers are better supported and motivated to succeed. A student in the group discussing “getting the best educators to the students who need them the most” chimed in that the student-selection process for teacher programs at colleges should be more competitive so that only the best candidates end up in classrooms. “Some people who apply to education schools don’t really want to be teachers, they just use it as a ‘crutch’ because they think it’s just so easy to teach,” he said.
The session ended with Mullenholz asking everyone at each table to come up with one word from the discussion that resonated with them, and that they will take with them into the classroom. Among others, the South Carolina fellows pointed to the words “collaborative,” “support,” “retain,” and “accountability.”