Two North Carolina teachers—Nicole Smith and guest blogger Heather Layton—share takeaways and impressions from their first-time experience at Elevating and Celebrating Teachers and Teaching (ECET2) in Seattle this past July 16-19.

It takes one email for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to knock at the door. This is what Heather and I experienced at the end of the 2015 school year, just as we were preparing for summer break. We both received an email, asking if we would be available for a conference in July. It’s hard to imagine the excitement surrounding an event hosted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, let alone a convening in Seattle! Neither of us anticipated the honor of this nomination or predicted what kind of opportunity this might be. Attending a national conference is something that rarely happens for a teacher. Now we can’t think of anything that compares to the ECET2 experience.

What is ECET2?  The acronym stands for “Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teachers and Teaching.” The experience is almost indescribable. ECET2 is an annual convening of teacher leaders from across the country. Teachers are nominated through a variety of means, including being nominated by other teacher leaders. For us, the nomination reflected our efforts to improve and lead the teaching profession through our work with CTQ. This conference lived up to its acronym. Teachers are elevated and celebrated, unlike anything we have ever experienced in our combined eighteen years of teaching. One purpose of this conference was to learn and add to our “bag of tricks,” but more than anything, it provided the means for teachers to connect with teachers from forty-two states and focus on teacher-led solutions to problems that every teacher faces. ECET2 is truly a celebration of teacher leadership and embracing the fact that teachers excel in our classrooms every day.

The excitement began on the plane ride when we realized we were flying with several teachers from different areas of North Carolina. Once we arrived at the hotel, the reality set in: this opportunity was a big deal. There were 450 teachers in attendance, and the energy in the main ballroom was electrifying. During the conference, we were asked to share “why I teach” with a photo and a hashtag. We knew we were with amazingly creative teachers, as it was reflected even in the short statements written on thought bubbles. For most of us, teaching is an extension of who we are and is not easily defined in a few words.

While sitting in the grand ballroom, we did not sit in rows to wait on a speaker. Instead, we had been assigned to tables to encourage us to network and collaborate with colleagues. The keynote speakers were individuals who worked with the Gates Foundation and teachers from across the country who had absolutely amazing stories to share. Their stories brought smiles and tears to our eyes.

We “heard” from Lauren Maucere, a deaf teacher who spoke to us in sign language and through a translator about the challenges and opportunities currently facing deaf students. We were rocked by William Anderson, who saw himself and other teachers as time travelers, able to see ourselves in the past, when we were school-aged children, and see the future of students whose lives we touch. Over and over again we nodded our heads in agreement as teacher leaders described the calling to teach, because none of us could bear to see it as just a job.

One the most exciting speakers was Melinda Gates. She was not listed on the agenda, so you can only imagine the surprise of the attendees. Her empowering message and explanation as to why the Gates Foundation supports teacher leadership left us feeling elated. The Gates Foundation believes teachers know their craft. Not only do they support teacher leadership, but they believe in the importance of educating everyone. They know, as do we, that if you educate and prepare our children for life as adults, then a multitude of doors open. The spirit of Melinda’s talk reminded us of the big picture: great education starts with great teachers and the goal of great education transcends political leanings, race, gender, religion, and socio-economic status.

The choice of break-out sessions was comprehensive and practical. Options included information on the Common Core (by those who created it) and using social media in the classroom. It is rare when a teacher leaves a conference with just one useful idea, even rarer to leave with a multitude of ideas to ponder after the conference ends. Heather attended one session based on the Teacher Leader Model Standards, created by the Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium. It was informative and practical in its exploration of the different roles a teacher leader can take in the profession. This session encouraged teachers to reflect and decide on a personal leadership path, and then to strategize how to make that happen.

The breakout sessions were well-designed to place tools and power in the hand of teachers. Teachers actively participated in the professional development and were encouraged to think through solutions together. One session attended by Nicole focused on how teacher leaders could influence teaching culture and practices without serving as traditional authority figures.

What’s more amazing about the experience was the respect and love shown toward teachers. Every detail of our visit was one more indication that the Gates Foundation believes in and appreciates teachers. The welcome dinner at the Seattle Aquarium was a beautiful introduction to the city and the spirit of ECET2. The sessions included built-in downtime where we were invited to explore Seattle, take a break, or network. Even the food was elegant—and it felt good to be treated like a professional. Many of us joked that we would normally have to be doctors, lawyers, or other business professionals to receive this type of treatment.

We left ECET2 invigorated, inspired, and prepared to be leaders and cheerleaders for teachers. We started preparations to make a positive difference at home immediately. Although previous attendees have left the ECET2 conference and planned a regional conference in their home states, North Carolina has yet to host a regional ECET2 conference. The teachers who attended from North Carolina have agreed to work together and plan a regional ECET2 conference in 2016. It is our hope that with the help of the Gates Foundation and other sponsors, we can make this happen. North Carolina teachers deserve to be elevated and celebrated.

Heather Layton has taught middle school for the past 17 years. She currently teaches seventh grade Social Studies at Weddington Middle School in Union County. Nicole Smith is a proud Marine Corps veteran, mother, and high school math teacher. Nicole is entering her second full year of teaching in Mooresville, NC. Heather and Nicole are members of the CTQ Collaboratory and CTQ-NC.

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