Plenty of Room at the Teachers’ Table

I’ve been a Spanish teacher for more than 30 years. All of the voices of educators I’ve known – in urban, suburban, public and private schools – sounded in my head last Wednesday as I listened to Secretary Duncan launch the RESPECT Project, a national agenda to radically transform and elevate the teaching profession. At the launch, Secretary Duncan called for a “national conversation” with America’s teachers because he believes that teachers know the best way to lead this professional transformation.

I also thought of the thousands of students I’ve taught — particularly to those whom are now teachers — and how they triumph and struggle in their own classrooms. I thought of my daughter, Melynda, an accomplished middle-school teacher in New Jersey, who goes to the classroom every day energized to give her students what they need to succeed. I thought of my husband, Joe, who teaches Ethics in an independent school and my son-in-law, Billy, the principal of a charter school. Then I thought of my son, Joe, who regales me with stories at dinner of his students who use wheelchairs, whose dreams are unbound, because each and every educator at his school believes in helping them achieve. Add to that, the voices of my colleagues and the educators I’ve spoken to around the country, through over 100 teacher roundtables run by Teaching Ambassador Fellows from the Department of Education.

What would they all think about this national conversation? Would it improve education and the bottom line for America’s students?

I know that these voices matter. What teachers do matters a lot. President Obama said it in his State of the Union and now Arne Duncan is calling on all of us to look at ways we can improve teaching and learning.  At the launch event at the U.S. Department of Education, teacher after teacher got up to ask Arne questions about what the administration was going to do to help teachers improve education, the Secretary responded that he trusts teachers to figure out the most effective ways to lead this effort in the way that best fits the local needs and contexts.

The Obama Administration’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget includes a $5 billion competitive program to reform the teaching profession. This proposal challenges us to look at how teachers can transform their own for their students and themselves. We want to examine how leadership in schools can be better distributed through new roles for teachers that tap into their talents and passion. We are eager to recruit and support great talent to the profession to replace the million teachers about to retire in the next decade.  We want to explore how to pay teachers better salaries so that they don’t have to take on extra jobs to make ends meet. And we want to sit down with states, unions, professional organizations and other reform leaders to hammer out innovative and bold plans to change the very culture of teaching so that it meets the needs of the 21st Century.

I believe that the teachers I know and love want this to happen: we are eager for it. I have heard colleagues speak at my dinner table and in the teachers’ lounges and hallways about how they are tired of teaching to the test. They want to be held accountable, but they need reasonable, helpful ways that show what students know and are able to do. They need support and time to work together in vibrant teams to make better schools. The tired model of a few weary administrators, handling all of the big picture stuff in schools is a relic of the past, an old system that isn’t serving anybody. Teachers want to be at the table, and it’s a very big table with room for everyone.

In the coming months, we’ll be reaching out to teachers throughout this nation to become a part of Project Respect. Please look for ways to join the conversation when the conversation comes to your area and send an email request to if you are interested in participating.

Maryann Woods-Murphy is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow who teaches Spanish in Allendale, NJ. She is also the 2009-2010 New Jersey Teacher of the Year.


  1. I have been a special educator since 1976, Texas. America Samoa and California. Though I teach in California, my teaching career began in Texas. What inspires me most, is the Texas education system. When they find a reading program that works, they keep it! The same goes for math! What I have watched in California is the on-going dumping of programs. Find something that works and KEEP IT. There’s always new developments and room for improvement, so don’t just stick with the old worn out stuff, improve on what works and add to it. Wasted time and money for new stuff isn’t always what’s right. Our students in special education work toward mastery, isn’t that the same thing we should be doing for general education students.

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