The unending relay race to support our students

I have spent much of my “down time” over the last couple of months training to run the Hood to Coast 199-mile relay race in Oregon with some of my friends. Some may call me crazy, and maybe they’re right, but during my seemingly endless training runs I often compare running in a relay race to our collective mission to provide ALL students with a high quality education that sets them on a successful life path.

Running for 199 miles is incredibly ambitious. Really. Who would do that alone?

I could never complete such a long race by myself, but I can do it with others who share the same mission.

Sounds like education, right?

Teaching, like long-distance running, is hard work that requires hours and hours of preparation, planning, self-evaluation, and dedication to continuously improve. Today’s teachers must be incredibly creative to meet the needs of the whole child. So many students come to school with critical needs for health care, mental health, or even basic needs like food, sleep, and clean clothing. Just like runners in a relay race, teachers cannot do it alone. They need a whole team of caring adults – a whole community – to meet the needs of today’s whole child.

This call for collective impact – for broader community partnerships and engagement from social service agencies, colleges, businesses, nonprofits, government agencies and other partners – comes through loud and clear during every meeting of my Teacher Cabinet.

I created the Teacher Cabinet just a year ago, although it’s been an idea I’ve been interested in for many years. Made up of 20 practicing teachers from around the state representing large, small, urban, suburban, and rural schools, the cabinet serves as a sounding board for the implementation of state education policy and a source of new ideas for solving some of our most pressing challenges. These outstanding teachers from across the state met four times over the past year, bringing important perspectives shaped from their current experiences in the classroom.

Each time we come together, I am blown away by the collective wisdom of the group – insight that can come only from years and years of running the race, so to speak, for our students.

I listen carefully during these meetings for ideas and inspiration that can help shape the department’s efforts to expand access and opportunity for historically underserved students. In Colorado, as with much of the nation, too many students continue to fall short of their academic potential and are missing the skill sets to compete with their middle-class peers. I believe that solving the deeply entrenched inequities within our educational system will require the collective thinking of many, and the collective commitment of even more.

Teacher Cabinet members feel this in their bones. During the last meeting, they didn’t just call for more community involvement, they thought deeply about what meaningful partnerships can provide to schools and the current barriers to those partnerships.

Ashley Farris, a teacher at Kipp Denver Collegiate High School, offered cautionary words around a priority to build and honor multiple student pathways. “I think it’s important that we don’t put ‘top down’ values on what we think students should do, but we should really ask the community what they value, what they want for their kids,” she said.

Megan Witucki, an elementary teacher who was recently named assistant principal at Compass Montessori in Wheat Ridge, advised us to identify the barriers to deeper community engagement in education, “so that we can change that in the future and make really effective connections for our children and our school communities.”

The Teacher Cabinet has demonstrated to me over and over again this past year that not only can we do more together, we can think more deeply, plan more carefully, and act more strategically and empathetically when we work together.

The cabinet members are giving me good counsel for state-level work on equity, and at the same time the simple sharing of information and ideas at these meetings creates a ripple effect throughout the state. As we learn and grow together, each cabinet member takes new perspectives home with them and becomes a more insightful leader in their school and communities.

Reflecting on the past year’s meetings, one member said in an anonymous evaluation of the cabinet that the opportunity for professional discussion on policy topics was especially valuable: “I learned a variety of perspectives from other cabinet members that I could then take back to my district and share.”

Another member stated in the evaluation that participating in the cabinet helped to realize, “The ups and downs we all face are somehow intertwined; we have a lot of people that want what is best for students and educators.”

We need whole community involvement to achieve our mission of providing all students access to high quality educational opportunities, and it will start by not just one leader, but leaders working together toward our common mission. Together, these educators are finding common ground and helping to shape the department’s work on equity.  

As other states seek ways to bring together diverse perspectives and find ways to move forward together, the formation of an advisory cabinet of teachers, principals, and superintendents can help shape inclusive strategies that truly advance our common mission. Here in Colorado, our next step with the Teacher Cabinet will be to determine how to ensure continuity as new teachers cycle into the cabinet and others complete their service. We can’t lose the momentum we built this year as we continue to tackle the challenge of providing ALL students with a high quality education to prepare them for college and career.

I can’t do this work alone. The entire Colorado Department of Education can’t do this alone. But through the collective leadership of the Teacher Cabinet, and many others, together we can run this race and move closer to the finish line.

Dr. Katy Anthes’, Commissioner of Education for the state of Colorado, post is part of CTQ’s July and August blogging roundtable on Collective Leadership. To join the conversation, comment on this blog and read the other blogs in this series. You can find an updated list of all posts on the Collective Leadership Roundtable landing page. Follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter to see when each new blog is posted, and use #CTQCollab to join the conversation on social media.

To learn more about how CTQ can help your team integrate collective leadership click here or contact us here.