Teachers vs. Policy makers: From Showdown to Rapprochement

I love the French language. It has so many phrases and words that seem to capture moments in ways that English can’t. C’est l’avie, Je varrais, L’etat c’est moi (Louis XIV references—forgive me, I’m a history teacher). They all have deeper meanings than my North Carolina dialect can conjure up.

But there’s one French word in particular that captures my recent experience at the National Conference of State Legislatures’ “Leading the Way to Student Success” conference: rapprochement.

Legislators from 21 states convened in San Francisco to discuss pressing education issues and draft action plans to better prepare students for 21st-century success. Best of all, they invited myself and four other teacher leaders with the Center for Teaching Quality to a lunch panel. Our task was to foster discussion and respond to legislators’ questions about teacher leadership.

Talk about an opportunity! A chance to talk with real legislators in person—and set the record straight!

I’ll be honest: I was ready for a showdown.

Before our lunch panel, I had the opportunity to sit in on some sessions as legislators talked amongst themselves. It was a great opportunity to be a fly on the wall and observe the inner workings of how state education policy is formed.

But what I heard surprised me. All the conversations revolved around what’s best for 21st-century students. To be honest, I was expecting a rehash of the education reform arguments that trend on Twitter.

Instead, I heard open and honest conversations on student data and privacy, Common Core and aligned assessments, teacher evaluations, and private and charter school accountability. It was refreshing to hear—real discussion without incendiary rhetoric.

Turns out these legislators were thoughtful and reflective—far from the narrow-minded politicians I had expected.

So here’s where my French word of the week—rapprochement—comes into play.

Rapprochement is the formation or reestablishment of harmonious relations. And that’s exactly what developed as my imagined showdown over lunch morphed into positive collaboration between five teacher leaders and legislators.

During our panel, my colleagues and I fielded questions from legislators about teacher evaluation, the effectiveness of teacher prep programs and professional development, incentive pay, and Common Core implementation. Discussion took place not in “showdown, set-the-record-straight” mode but in a collaborative setting with teacher leaders and state leaders listening and responding thoughtfully to one another.

It was truly rapproachement—harmonious, respectful, and collaborative.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to speak with my own representative, Hugh Blackwell, who didn’t attend the conference. I wanted to share some Common Core success stories, relate the long hours worked by myself and my teacher colleagues, and invite him to visit my classroom.

Though I wasn’t able to speak with my state legislator, I still have hope that it will happen someday. The NCSL conference showed me the importance of collaboration between legislators and teachers if we are going to solve the problems affecting our education system.

Teachers often feel that we have no voice—particularly among those who create education policy. But this meeting gave me hope that that’s not the case.

So instead of resorting to showdown mode, I’m going to act in the spirit of collaboration and rapproachement—by inviting Mr. Blackwell and all other North Carolina legislators to visit my classroom and have a conversation.

My colleagues and I have so many things we want to discuss: the status of Common Core, teacher tenure and pay, charter and private school accountability, student data and privacy, Common Core, teacher evaluation…

North Carolina has yet to see positive collaboration between teacher leaders and legislators on an ongoing basis. But if we are going to truly prepare students for the 21st century—and give teachers the tools they need to get students there—teachers need the opportunity to give honest, open feedback to state leaders.

One of the speakers at the conference, Michael Gilligan of Achieve, used an African proverb to stress the importance of collaboration: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Educational policy in North Carolina is indeed going fast, with policy makers taking the lead. But I have to wonder: if we continue to follow this strategy, how far will we go?

So, North Carolina legislators—the invitation is on the table. We teachers promise to come with open minds and ears.

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