Nudging the Boulder

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.


  • BriannaCrowley

    Quotable Quotes

    There are so many lines I love in this post. Here are a few: 

    I think my most important contribution has been in creating possibility.

    What a hugly important task! Yet, as you mention, so difficult to track. Often our influence is subtle and only results in action years later. 

    In the past five years teacher leaders have moved from tokens to currency in the policy world.

    This has me cheering! Being a young(ish) teacher myself, I don’t have the valuable long-view perspective. But I recognize the hard work that came before me, and in fact has inspired me on my own journey. I’m ready to celebrate the accomplishments of those who have come before me and witnessed this change. I value your perspective greatly.

    Teachers wield power with their voices…because the authenticity of my experience combined with my understanding of the research and policy gave my voice weight.

    This concept–owning our power and expertise without becoming arrogant that we also have much to learn in the policy world–this is the money. This is the frontier we need to be traveling to regularly and pushing others to come along. Owning our voice, and humbling listening others perspective is how will will move this boulder–inch, by inch. 


  • SusanGraham

    Redefining the Tipping Point

    John, what a perfect illustration for the teacher leader journey.

    At first glance this is an individual who is empowered to be the tipper who “get something started that gathers momentum and changes everything. But teacher leaders know that’s not actually how it works, because rolling stones don’t always go where you think they will.

    Maybe he’s not tipping—Maybe he’s carefully maneuvering that boulder uphill despite the hard work and risk because he’s cognizent of  unintended consequences and collateral damage below. And it occurs to me that while we can only see one person, maybe he’s not  working alone. He may have powerful partners who are just out of view. How many teacher leades have leaned in, nudging and manuevering and “create  possibilities” for teachers to tip policy?

    And look at that sky! One senses that he is not far from the summit. The view below must be impressive, but our guy is not looking at how far he’s come. He stays focused on that boulder and the job at hand. That’s that same focus that teachers who lead from the classroom bring ot the policy table needed to shape policies that serve the best interests of children, their families and our society.

    Mountains can be moved! Keep on keeping on, my friend!

  • MaryBethGley

    A Long Time Coming

    I’ve often thought that the inherent problem in education is that the people who make decisions are not educators, but they feel they are experts because they’ve gone to school. Just as I would not assume I could be a Doctor (even though I’ve had surgery) or an accountant (I do sign my tax forms!) merely because I’ve witnessed those people doing those jobs, society should not assume they understand what it means to be a teacher because they’ve sat in a classroom. 
    It is refreshing to hear that there are organizations that are taking the teacher’s perspective seriously. I hope to see that pattern continue!