A friend in higher education asked me recently if my teacher leadership, especially in education policy, has been worth the time I have put into it. Essentially, he was asking, “Have you made a difference?” It is easy to say yes, but hard to say why.
Education policy is huge and unwieldy, like a boulder. It is possible to move but not alone.
When I started teaching, I never really thought I would change the world. I didn’t have any illusions. I knew the school system I was entering was broken. I knew I couldn’t change the things that needed to be changed to really make my city school system what I hoped it could be — at least not as a teacher. But, I knew that I could operate within this broken system. I could make a difference for students and families. Eventually, I became a teacher leader. I collaborated with my peers, spoke up in staff meetings, worked to make my classroom, my school and my school system a little better. In 2002, I pursued National Board Teacher Certification because I wanted to move beyond my classroom to make a difference. I never thought I could change education by being an NBCT, but I knew I could help “nudge the boulder” of education policy by adding my voice to the chorus of voices that spoke for children.
It is hard to measure what teacher leaders contribute to our schools and why they need to be a part of the policymaking process, but that doesn’t make it any less necessary.
My mentor, Terry Dozier (1985 National Teacher of the Year) told me how important it is for teachers to be involved in education policy when I decided to pursue my doctorate. Terry, who had worked in the US Department of Education as a teacher in residence with Secretary of Education Richard Riley, had seen first-hand how important it is for teachers to be involved in policy. Secretary Riley looked to her for guidance. In 2011 Riley stated in the Washington Post: “It was not uncommon for me to shift my feelings about things in a significant way when advised by very competent people. Many times we would have something worked out that we were going to recommend, and Dr. Dozier or whoever was in there would say, ‘You know, that sounds good, but it simply won’t work.’ Then they proceeded to tell you why it wouldn’t work. They are professional educators, and I paid a lot of attention to that. That was part of my modus operandi.”
Terry knew I was pursuing my Ph.D. because I wanted to strengthen my credibility in policy conversations. At the time, I was working with her to provide National Board Certified Teacher support, especially to re-take candidates who did not achieve the first time. She told me, “You can never tell what kind of an influence a teacher leader has on his or her colleagues.” I learned how true that was three years later when I sat on a panel with other NBCTs, one of whom described what I had done to help her achieve NBCT and how it had helped her students.
When I look at the big picture, especially with Center for Teaching Quality and our book Teaching 2030, I think my most important contribution has been in creating possibility. When I started teaching in 1997, no one considered teachers to be an important part of the education policy equation. If teachers were involved in policy at all, it was often as tokens brought in to rubber stamp an already crafted solution. Now, after describing a vision for how teachers could take part in policy making through Teacherpreneur positions where teachers work with students and work on policy solutions, this is a possibility. The opportunities for teachers to influence policy keeps growing. Now, there are more and more opportunities for accomplished teachers who want to take part creating education policy including, CTQ Teacherpreneurs, Hope Street Group Teaching Fellows, and USED Teaching Ambassadors. In the past five years teacher leaders have moved from tokens to currency in the policy world.
In 2007, I took part in my state’s vision-setting and policy development for early childhood education in Virginia. As a member of Tim Kaine’s Start Strong Initiative, I appreciated the opportunity to work alongside decision-makers. I was struck by how committed and knowledgeable the people involved in the process were. People who work in policy settings often have advocacy backgrounds, Ph.Ds, or political experience. It is their knowledge, titles, and achievements that give their voices power. That isn’t necessarily true for teachers. Teachers wield power with their voices. In those policy discussions, I could see clearly, because I am a teacher, some parts of the policies we were crafting that did not benefit students. When I spoke up in those meetings, people listened – not because of what I knew but because the authenticity of my experience combined with my understanding of the research and policy gave my voice weight.
Policymakers can harness the power of teachers’ experience to develop solutions for our most pressing issues in education. I believe the coupling of policy and practice is weakened by ignorance at its creation not its implementation. This is why I continue to nudge the boulder of our educational system. I may not be able to measure what I have done yet, but I know eventually, I will step back and see that boulder moving without my help to make way for a better educational system for students. Maybe it will be because we crest a hill of understanding in our country about policy, practice, and pedagogy, or maybe it will be because there are so many more teacher leaders pushing for a better system. Either way, I won’t stop for long; I’ll smile and keep pushing.