Teaching Profession

‘We Are the Voice for Our Profession': Milken Awardees on How Teachers Can Lead

By Sarah Schwartz — January 09, 2019 6 min read
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Every year, a few dozen educators are honored with what’s known as the “Oscars of Teaching"—a national award to recognize early- and mid-career teachers, principals, librarians, and other educators for instructional excellence, leadership, and community engagement.

Given out annually for three decades, the Milken Educator Awards are selected through the nonprofit Milken Family Foundation with help from state departments of education. This year, 23 educators have been awarded so far (a total of 33 will receive the 2018-19 recognition). Awardees are announced in surprise schoolwide assemblies and each presented with a $25,000 check to use however they like.

Here at Education Week, we’ve asked the Milken Educators to pass on some of their expertise to our readers. In years past, we’ve wondered about their keys for creating successful classrooms and asked to hear the best teaching advice they’ve ever been given.

This year has seen educators getting involved in politics and civic life in so many different ways: through grassroots organizing, activism on behalf of the teaching profession, and running for office. We wanted to know what the Milken awardees thought about educators’ role in the wider community. We asked the winners, via email, to answer the question:

What kind of leadership roles should educators play outside of the classroom or the school building?

While some educators discussed policy advocacy, many focused instead on participating in community organizations and supporting teachers in their professional development. Responses below have been edited for length and clarity.

Linda Dishman, 5th grade teacher, Berryton Elementary School, Berryton, Kan.

“Educators should be involved in their community, participate in district or state committees, and present at state or national conferences. Educators also demonstrate leadership roles outside of the classroom by promoting change and advocating for education. We are the voice for our profession and students.”

Michelle Johnson, 3rd grade teacher, Mary E. Fogarty Elementary School, Providence, R.I.

“As educators, we are affected by every initiative that is implemented in the state in which we work. The voice of the teacher should be heard and called upon because we know what our students need as we are on the “front lines” every day. I believe teachers should advocate for our students both inside and outside of the classroom, because the more we advocate, the better our chances are for being heard. Teachers and district/state leaders should form partnerships, because if we work together, we can provide more opportunities to our students.”

Caroline Eschenbach, 3rd grade teacher, Virginia Heights Elementary School, Roanoke, Va.

“One way teachers can positively impact their schools and communities is by taking an active role in the search for other highly qualified teachers, as well as being part of new teacher training. Teacher quality has an immense impact on student success. By attending district job fairs, requesting to be a part of interviewing panels, and offering to train new hires, teachers can influence the new generation of educators that will shape their buildings’ future. Veteran teachers often know what is needed to have a successful career in education. Why not, then, take an interest in seeking out new teachers who possess these same qualities?”

Katherine Bobby, 3rd grade teacher, Eagle View Elementary School, Somerset, Pa.

“So many students come to school unprepared to learn because of outside factors like hunger, lack of access to hygiene products, unsafe home practices, and unhealthy sleep habits. I have found that food pantries, church groups, our local Boys & Girls Clubs, and early intervention programs are in desperate need of educators—with their built-in knowledge of the needs of families with young children—to step in and take on leadership roles in their community outreach efforts. By getting involved in the welfare of kids outside of the school day, teachers and administrators will be playing a part in helping kids be prepared to make the most of their education.”

Nicole Silva, 3rd grade teacher, Nathan Hale Elementary School, Carteret, N.J.

“Teachers work as great liaisons for philanthropic projects, such as working with veterans and local law enforcement. Leadership roles such as coaching sports, scouting, or other extracurricular activities or nonprofits are also great ways for teachers to get involved. Not only is it beneficial for teachers to share their passions with the community, but the effect it has on community members to see educators play an active role is priceless. It allows students to see I value them and their community, even outside of the school setting.”

Chad Downs, 3rd and 4th grade teacher, Ann Arbor Open School, Ann Arbor, Mich.

“Remember, your leadership within your classroom takes shape outside of your building in the words and actions of your students, and that is already a lot! If you choose additional leadership roles, a great place to start is improving outreach and collaboration with families and the community ... and keep advocating for children in all corners of your life.”

Rachel Tommelleo, principal, Center City PCS Brightwood Campus, Washington, D.C.

“As educators, we welcome the whole child each and every day, and the whole child’s life doesn’t just take place in the bubble of a school building. Educators need to recognize everything that makes their students who they are (both inside and outside of their classrooms) and commit to being fierce advocates for their students, doing all they can to ensure an equitable educational experience for every child.”

Anitra Jones, principal, Rainier View Elementary School, Seattle

“Leadership is important at the local district and state level, beyond the classroom and school building. Research has shown that student achievement is impacted by the quality of school leadership. Leaders influence policy and district initiatives including budget, curricular adoptions, evaluation systems, and negotiations of contracts focused on student achievement. All of the former leadership roles are critical.”

Hailey Couch, kindergarten teacher, Madison Elementary, Norman, Okla.

“I have grown as an educator by teaching professional development, guest speaking during education courses at Oklahoma University, and presenting classes focusing on classroom management and techniques. I have learned a great deal by teaching teachers across Oklahoma at Great Expectations trainings. Leadership is an important skill to have in a classroom setting, and I think many teachers can apply this trait outside of the classroom as well. We can use it to set examples, and inspire others, to lead to a brighter tomorrow.”

Krista Trent, 4th grade teacher, Thornville Elementary School, Thornville, Ohio

“Our communities need to be utilizing teachers more! A teacher’s passion and expertise don’t stop with the school bell. Churches, youth organizations such as 4-H, Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts, as well as local, state, and federal government should be places for educators to provide leadership roles for our communities. After all, most of us went into this profession because we love helping others! Why not continue that outside of the classroom?”

Heather Hurt, 5th grade teacher, Vestavia Hills Elementary Central, Vestavia Hills, Ala.

“In order to be a leader, you must first be aware of your strengths and passions. That way, you are focusing your energy in a direction that comes easily because of your talents, and is towards something that you truly care about. Our schools and communities need the talents of our educators to make the world a better place. Our job as educators is so demanding on our time and energy that the key to successful leadership roles outside of the classroom is to find the opportunities that perfectly complement our strengths and passions and to only commit to those.”

Photos: Milken Family Foundation

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.