Undertapped: The Avengers of North Carolina

Imagine this: Thor wields his mighty hammer to pound nails into railroad ties. The Incredible Hulk empties dumpsters in an industrial office park. Nothing’s wrong with these jobs. It’s just that given the Avengers’ mighty powers, you’d think they’d be out there fighting malevolent aliens or Nazi masterminds, right? That’s the kind of mismatch between ability and responsibilities we see in the teaching profession.

Imagine this:

Thor wields his mighty hammer to pound nails into railroad ties. The Incredible Hulk empties dumpsters in an industrial office park. Captain America waits tables in a hotel restaurant, using his famed shield to keep platters of pasta primavera warm.

Nothing’s wrong with these jobs. They’re necessary and worthwhile. It’s just that given the Avengers’ mighty powers, you’d think they’d be out there fighting malevolent aliens or Nazi masterminds, right?

That’s exactly the kind of mismatch between ability and responsibilities we see in the teaching profession.

I just spent three days with seventeen remarkable teachers who will be leading the work to implement Common Core in North Carolina.

Tim took the AP Calculus program in his school from a pass rate of 30% to 91% to 100% in four years.

Allen nailed the disconnect between meaningful classroom assessments and poorly designed high-stakes tests: “In a good classroom environment, students are creating and collaborating to create products. In the current testing model they do none of that.”

Laurie engages her students in a brilliant simulation as they read Lord of the Flies. The moment she puts on her sunglasses, they pretend she’s no longer there to wield adult influence, and they run amok in tribes of their choosing. She brings the social experiment back to the book, and to guiding questions like, “When society’s restraints are removed, how does human nature express itself?”

By the end of three days full of conversation and shared practice, I was asking myself the following questions:

“Why isn’t Tim featured in the latest New York Times editorial on public education, instead of another professor of Sociology or Health Professions who has never taught in a public school?”

“Why isn’t Allen making the rounds of talk shows on CBS and NBC?”

“Why aren’t videos of Laurie’s Lord of the Flies unit making the rounds on You Tube, edging out the latest Kardashian Katastrophe for total number of views?”

These teachers are brilliant thinkers, eloquent speakers, and dedicated masters of their craft. There are thousands of teachers like them in every city in every state in the nation.

They are capable of far more than consuming curricula, professional development, policy, and research. They are capable of creating curricula that elicits higher-order thinking, professional development that earns the adjective “professional,” policy that meets students’ needs, and research that helps colleagues hone their craft.

America’s schools face plenty of challenges, ranging from rampant inequity to teacher turnover to tests that measure the wrong skills. Most senators, superintendents, and talk show hosts have their “go-to” sources for solutions to these problems. Think tanks. Consultants. Professors in various fields, some of them related to education.

There’s nothing wrong with these non-practitioners. They have insights and expertise to offer. But when you have the Avengers at your disposal, ready and willing to wreak some justice, shouldn’t you pick up the phone once in awhile and call them, too?

President Clinton once said, “There is nothing wrong with America that can’t be cured by what’s right with America.” The same is true of the teaching profession.

We just need to identify the teachers who are willing and able to lead. We need to remind them that, in the words of one North Carolina teacher, “Being a Teacher Leader starts with what’s happening in your classroom every day.” We need to help them develop their potential, tap into a network of like-minded colleagues to support and challenge their work, and offer guidance as they begin to think, write, and teach on a stage too big to be confined to a single school or district.

The teachers I met this week are ready to close the gap between their potential impact and their current job description. Part of our job is to make sure the system’s ready for them to lead.

CTQ’s tagline is “Teachers Transforming Teaching.” I just met seventeen Teacher Leaders ready to do exactly that.

  • BillIvey

    State Departments of Education

    I wonder if there is any way to propose a law that would mandate currently practicing classroom teachers play a significant and genuine role in State Departments of Education, be it as on-call consultants, or availability to be members of ad-hoc committees, or developing position papers and lists of recommendations, or… other ways! I know professional associations and unions engage in lobbying, but this would be something different, more participatory than just advisory.

    We know CTQ is all about teacher voice, and that the concept of the teacherpreneur originated here. There are multiple blogs CTQ keeps right here. But how many of us also blog on our own, or for our own schools? Would a network of teacher-leader blogs help give weight to the notion we have something of value to share, help us grow, help create a movement? Or 50 separate state-based networks?

    By the way, I don’t mean for a second to downgrade the very real potential for retired teachers, and active administrators, to also play a useful role in the process. One’s expertise doesn’t simply evaporate – poof! – the moment one walks out of the classroom permanent-like (see Nancy Flanagan for a fantastic example). I just mean to promote one idea on how to be more respectful and inclusive of classroom teachers, and profit from their (our) expertise.

  • JustinMinkel

    Teachers at the Table: common sense yet revolutionary


    This is a visionary and pragmatic proposal. 

    In 2008, I worked with a group of Teachers of the Year to get federal legislation introduced called Teachers at the Table.  The legislation would create a partnership between 20 Teachers of the Year and lawmakers, specifically the Senate and House Education Committees.  I think it would go a long way toward making education legislation work better for students, both at the conception stage and the implementation stage.

    The legislation has been in limbo because it’s tied to ESEA, which still hasn’t been reauthorized, but there’s still hope of its passage–Congresswoman McCarthy (D-NY) is still planning to bring it to the floor. I’ll let this network know immediately when I know details–I’d love to have Collaboratory members spread the word if they feel so moved, though I know CTQ itself can’t advocate for legislation given both its nonprofit status and the terms of some of its grants.

    Your idea of state versions of Teachers at the Table makes so much sense.  I helped start the Arkansas Exemplary Educators Network, which includes Milken Educators and Arkansas Teachers of the Year, to advise the Arkansas Department of Ed as well as the state legislature.  A teacher in Vermont started a similar initiative in that state, and I’m sure there are many more.

    I’ll keep pondering possibilities, but I love what you’ve proposed.  It’s both common sense and revolutionary–a powerful mixture.

    • BillIvey

      Great to know…

      … of positive examples that are already out there. First, just to know they’re out there, and second, to know they can serve as examples for other states to follow. I would love to spread the word about “Teachers at the Table” when the time is right. Perhaps in the meantime, we can be writing our own members of Congress expressing our views (in my case, I would urge they consider co-sponsorship).

  • JustinMinkel

    Making it happen

    That would be wonderful, Bill. One of many takeaways from this experience was that legislators tend to listen to their constituents, but won’t give you much time or consideration if you’re not from their state. That makes a network like this community, which is both national and interconnected, incredibly valuable.

  • BriannaCrowley

    Value, Respect, Deference

    I love that you shared the stories of these practicing teachers using your blogging platform. So often practicing teachers can’t take the time to be their own advocates, and unfortuantely, their ideas and expertise then stay confined to their classroom or just their building/district.

    Technoloy has allowed for teachers to share their practice with each other through Diigo groups, Scoop it, Twitter, blogging, and the myriad of other online communities (CTQ being one of the best1), yet sometimes even the greatness of that collaboration can feel like an echo chamber. When policy makers who create assessments and legislatures who create budgets do so without the expertise of teachers, our “in-house” collaboration can only go so far to make an impact. 

    Getting the best idea to create a constructivist approach to learning is only valuable if your curriculum is allowed to be constructivist and not dicated by pacing guides, textbook companies, and standardized tests which are anything BUT constructivist. 

    I love your comment above where you shared about your work with legislation and policy. My question is this–how can current teachers who don’t have the clout of a Milken Award or NTOY platform work toward advocacy at their local and state levels? 

    Also, I posted this to CTQ’s GOOD.is platform to spread the word and widen the conversation 🙂

  • JustinMinkel

    Getting out of the echo chamber

    Brianna, I’m so grateful for your insights and attentive curation/cross-posting. 

    You nailed the concern I often have about our collaboration as Teacher Leaders–that we’re preaching to the choir. 

    I see great value in having discussions with other teachers to clarify our beliefs, share insights and best practices, and challenge as well as support one another. That said, while this kind of collaboration does bring about change, it’s incomplete change.

    I would love to see the Collaboratory pull in more administrators, policymakers, business leaders, and others with diverse viewpoints, to both learn from the Teacher Leaders in this group and to challenge us.

    We can collaborate on great ideas for transforming the systems where we teach, but power structures are very real, and teachers often have minimal power. Like the Civil Rights movement, in which African-Americans benefited from white allies, we need powerful allies including superintendents, principals, policymakers, and business leaders.

    On your question about  teachers without an award/affiliation to help open doors, I don’t have a great answer. Unions are intended to play this role, strength through numbers and representation, but the degree to which a given union does this successfully seems to vary dramatically from district to district. I’d love to hear your thoughts, Brianna, or the thoughts of others following this thread.


  • Richard Gentry

    Sharing your lesson

    Justin, Loved your Lions, Tigers, and Mating Polar Bears, Oh My! 2nd Grade Researchers Writing to Read post. My co-authors and I are doing a book to be released early in 2014  by Shell Education entitled Fostering Writing in the Kindergarten through Grade 8 Classroom and would be interested in getting permission to share your lesson in our chapter entitled “Fostering Writing Across the Curriculum by Connecting Writing to Close Reading, Inquiry, and Thinking.” Please let me know if you might be interested: Richard@jrichardgentry.com Please respond ASAP as we are doing final edits. Thank you for considering this request.