Support, mastery, leadership

By Meredith Kohl

In this guest post, Meredith Kohl, a former teacher and current CTQ policy assistant, reflects on the new education documentary Mitchell 20, as well as her own teaching experience.

Capturing a profession in transition and highlighting the untapped collective power of teachers committed to their craft, the powerful Mitchell 20 documentary, and the leadership of Daniela Robles, reveals that teachers are a primary solution to the complex challenges that our schools and students face.

In the film, National Board Certified Teacher Daniela Robles encourages 20 of her colleagues to undergo the National Board certification process together, sparking a spirit of collaboration and improvement. Mitchell 20 resonated deeply with me because in five years of teaching, I never felt like I was part of the solution. I was a Teach For America recruit, and I had high aspirations for teaching as a career once I entered the classroom and saw the possibilities. But in my short tenure in an urban district, I felt isolated, unsupported, and confined to the bottom of a bureaucratic power pyramid.

The top-down education system had something to do with it, sure. And a school climate characterized by frequent (but irrelevant and inadequate) professional development and the careless manipulation of teacher expertise definitely contributed to my feelings of helplessness.

But it was more than these factors. As a teacher new to the profession, I did not see myself as part of the solution because my attempt to master my craft went largely unsupported. Once I was deemed “effective” by my administration, the resources and individualized support needed to further improve my practice were simply not there.

Over time, experience made many aspects of teaching easier, but I came to realize that weaknesses in my practice—for example, working with second-language learners and using effective techniques for teaching reading—were going unchecked and unaddressed by my school leadership. My concerns as a classroom instructor were unresolved, and time for meaningful inquiry and collaboration with my colleagues was not provided.

Without mastery, how could I articulate the learning occurring in my classroom or the complexities of my craft? How could I leverage expertise I did not possess to transform my school? How could I change the conversation? How could I change my teaching, and the teaching of my counterparts? How could I change outcomes for my students?

As TEACHING 2030 co-author Shannon C’de Baca recently pointed out, “Teacher voice should be secondary to craft. First, teachers must master their craft, then we need them to reform policy.”

The best teachers are continually improving, but what happens when they want to but can’t find meaningful and long-term avenues to do so? I regret that in my high-need school I never heard about the National Board process, that I was unaware of communities like the Teacher Leaders Network, that a colleague like Daniela never came and knocked on my classroom door to present a collaborative challenge for improvement.

There are thousands of unsupported, early-career teachers in our highest-need schools unsure of where to turn in order to take their practice to the next level. Until they are able to do so, their voices will not be heard.

So how do we reach them?

We must spread stories like Mitchell. Not only to change the conversation, but also to change the behavior of thousands of dormant teachers who have yet to realize their leadership potential. Collectively, teachers must understand how they can take control of their practice when support is not available at their school. They must create cohorts like the Mitchell 20, dedicated to professional growth and learning. Teachers, especially newer ones, must have time and support for self-examination, reflection, and collaboration so that they can improve their practice. All of this is necessary for teachers to lead the transformation of learning communities across the country.

So license a screening, share the trailer, tell early-career teachers about the National Board process, and challenge them to be part of the solution by mastering their craft, finding their voice, spreading their expertise, and stepping forward to lead.