Last week, 50 employees— mostly senior staff— of the U.S. Department of Education spent their Wednesday shadowing teachers in D.C.-area schools. “ED Goes Back to School” is the first program that I know of in which senior policymakers systematically spend quality one-on-one time in teachers’ shoes. I think it’s brilliant; this type of program can and should be replicated in states and districts across the country.

A National Board Certified colleague of mine, Topher Kandik, played host to Jo Anderson, Senior Advisor to the Secretary, and I was able to attend the culminating share-out session at ED headquarters where the fifty teachers and ED staff effused about the day. Secretary Duncan sat at the head of the table alongside the mastermind of the event, Bronx middle-school teacher and current Teaching Ambassador Fellow Genevieve DeBose.

At the share-out session, the ED staff members seemed riveted by the everyday joys, drama, and occasional heartache that accompany close contact with students. They had fun. One did the “fraction shuffle” dance with elementary schoolers; another spoke movingly about witnessing a vulnerable student in a rambunctious class take a risk and attempt to participate— only to be ignored by the deluge of disruption. One senior staff member spoke with surprise about how teachers in a faculty meeting were talked to regarding final preparation for state exams. She didn’t elaborate on what was said at the meeting, be she did claim that the experience altered her thinking on how she will approach the issue of testing from now on.

I felt a consensus in the room that teaching is highly complex art and science, and that well-prepared teachers have the ability to do great things with students when the conditions are right. ED’s job is to improve those conditions. That may sound like a talking point, but it is a critical goal, now made more tangible to policymakers by the experiences and personal connections of the day.

When Secretary Duncan offered the teachers carte blanche to tell him what ED should be doing to support their work, there was a brief pregnant pause. Then a teacher from Washington, D.C.’s Ballou High School, openly acknowledged as one of the roughest schools in the city, asked for understanding that struggling schools are not populated by uncaring, incompetent faculty, and that it’s important for the Secretary to clarify that when he speaks.

A biotechnology teacher from McKinley Tech spoke passionately about the importance of de-stigmatizing career and technical education— it’s not just wood shop anymore. Though it wasn’t mentioned in follow-up comments, ED is on top of this issue right now, having just released an impressive “Blueprint for Transforming Career and Technical Education.”

There were several calls from ED staff to make this a more frequently available opportunity— perhaps even quarterly. The program makes perfect sense. Policymakers and practicing teachers should be in constant dialogue, regularly visiting each other’s spheres. Isolation weakens and thoughtful collaboration strengthens. Hats off to ED for this one.

Do you know of any related walk-in-a-teacher’s-shoes programs? Please comment!

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