Teachers challenge NEA to help transform teaching

Exactly one year ago, I was repeatedly approached about serving on a commission being pulled together by NEA around effective teaching, and I initially said, “No, thanks!”

Part of my reticence was the timing. Already involved with several large projects and looking at what I already knew was going to be an extremely full teaching year, I was not enthusiastic about spending precious time on yet another education commission.

There has been no shortage of committees, panels, commissions, reports, books, and mandates on what needs to be done to improve American public education, but disgustingly few of them have been done by the people who are the true education experts: successful classroom teachers.  So, on the one hand I was encouraged—at least by the composition of the proposed Commission on Effective Teaching and Teachers.

Twenty-one teachers representing all parts of the country; sixteen of us National Board Certified, each with a string of accomplishments in and out of the classroom; one National Teacher of the Year; one state education CEO, and one of the most outspoken and effective national education leaders of our time. I knew this would be a passionate, vocal, and highly knowledgeable group for whom education reform was not just some intellectual exercise, but rather something we and our students live out daily in our classrooms.

Still, I was hesitant. Although I was assured that the Commission would be independent, I had my concerns about what that would mean in practice.  One NEA official finally pleaded with me, “Renee, we need some people who are willing to tell us what we might not want to hear.”

They were not disappointed on that point.

In our deliberations, we asked some very tough questions, examined troves of data, and made some disturbing revelations. We found ourselves at odds with the NEA staff on some things, and even disagreeing with the very distinguished advisory committee that we had invited to give us feedback on some aspects of our work.

Ultimately, it was each Commissioner’s commitment to our three guiding principles, our respect for each other, and our desire as teachers to refocus the national conversation around education reform back to what really matters, that kept us together and working on this project.

Now, as I review our published report, Transforming Teaching, I am grateful to have been part of the Commission. Some of the ideas we put forward, as our chair, Maddie Fennel noted, are not entirely new, but they are radical because they come from teachers, and not just the teachers on the Commission itself. During the year we engaged and drew upon the insights of thousands of classroom teachers, from veterans through novices, to those still in teacher preparation programs.

More than anything, I am struck by the growing consensus I am hearing from teachers and teacher leaders around the country that point us toward a new vision of public education and of the entire teaching profession.

More on this and the report contents in my next blog.

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