Sitting Among Giants

This week I got to rub shoulders with some impressive education leaders.

At a White House event celebrating the 6,266 teachers who achieved their National Board Certification (NBCT) in 2011, I heard from National Board leaders, politicians, and policy makers—even the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.

But it was later, at a series of teacher-led discussions at the U.S. Department of Education, where I sat among the giants.

It was truly an honor for me to watch those courageous teachers who had worked to raise the bar for themselves and their profession as they wrestled with challenges in education and provided their guidance to education policy.

More than 100 NBCTs engaged in deep-dive discussion with each other and Department of Education policymakers around complex issues for teaching: entry into the profession, student learning, school organization, career growth, and teacher compensation and retirement. Teachers self-selected their discussion topic and engaged in two hours of problem solving in groups facilitated by Teaching Ambassador Fellows.

The group I facilitated focused on student learning. The teachers in it represented a wide range of teaching disciplines, grades taught, years of experience, geographic locations, and access to educational technology. One theme quickly emerged: the need to use multiple measures to assess student learning. Teachers said using only single data-point assessments limits a classroom teacher’s ability to create meaningful learning pathways for his or her students. A high school history teacher shared his guilt over deviating from the state tested curriculum to bring a Holocaust survivor into his classroom to illuminate the emotional and social impact of Hitler’s policies.

The group also contended that teachers need the autonomy to make instructional choices without fearing potential backlash. And they argued that schools should pursue formative assessment systems based upon a number of measures of student learning over time rather than a single, one-time test score.

Though we discussed many other aspects of assessment and technology, the simple act of interacting with the NBCTs left me feeling optimistic about the future of student learning in our country. Anytime I get the opportunity to collaborate with fellow teachers, I come away re-energized and better prepared to conquer common challenges. Maybe it’s because the giants do the heavy lifting.

Bruce Wellman

Bruce Wellman is a Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow, NBCT, and Presidential Awardee for Excellence in Teaching Math and Science (PAEMST). He teaches chemistry and pre-engineering in Olathe, Kansas.

Read Arne Duncan’s December 2 speech to the National Council for the Social Studies: “A Well-Rounded Curriculum in the Age of Accountability.”

Read press release about the December 7, day-long celebration honoring teachers and teaching.

Read TAF Geneviève DeBose’s article “A Place at the Table, about honoring NBCTs at the White House.

View other photos from the teacher conversations at the U.S. Department of Education.