Applying for the Principal Ambassador Fellowship: Seeing Education from a Broader Perspective

ED's Teacher Ambassador Fellows and Principal Ambassador Fellows working together.

ED’s Teacher Ambassador Fellows and Principal Ambassador Fellows working together.

I never imagined that one day I would be a Principal Ambassador Fellow for the U.S. Department of Education. When I look back to where I was a year ago, I was busy running my school—meeting with teachers, students, and parents. I was working with custodians to review blueprints of our newly renovated cafeteria. I was observing classes. And I was facilitating conflict resolution with my guidance counselor and our students.

One day last year, when I rode the train to work, I read my principals’ weekly newsletter and that’s where I first saw the information to apply to become a Teaching or Principal Ambassador Fellow. Although caught up in the day-to-day frantic pace of working in a school, I also am a learner. I am always reading education articles and thinking about what new ideas will help my students improve. I was interested in opportunities to learn and grow.

So, I applied.

Once in the thick of it, I realized that the application process was no joke. The written application required me to think strategically about who I am as an educator and what I have accomplished in my career. The phone interview that followed had me thinking on my feet, talking about what I believe matters in education and why being a fellow could make a bigger difference. The final round involved both an in-person, one-on-one interview and a fishbowl-style interview with other applicants. I had to exhibit all the skills needed to lead: communicate clearly, be a team player, and work in a fast-paced environment.

As a teacher, my first love was impacting my students in the classroom. Then, I found I could provide opportunities for all students’ learning by leading a school. Now, I am looking at what policies shape our educational landscape for the country. This is exciting work!

As a Principal Ambassador Fellow at ED, I get to share what has led me to be an educator for my entire career. It’s a unique opportunity, and well worth all the steps to get here. It’s why I want to pass the word along and encourage others out there to take a chance and apply.

Alicia Pérez-Katz is a 2015 Principal Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

U.S. Department of Education Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellows are outstanding educators, with a record of leadership in their professional communities, strong communication skills, and insights on education policy based in their school and classroom expertise. Applications for the 2016 cohort of Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellows opened on November 17, 2015 and will close on December 14, 2015 at 11:59 PM ET. For more information about the process, please thoroughly review the Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellowship webpages.

Open Educational Resources – Opening Up a World of Difference

Teaching children about the world requires access to a vast and varied resource bank. Prior to the digital age, teachers like me relied on limited primary source and dated secondary source materials. By the time a social science textbook arrived at the classroom, it was outdated. Open Educational Resources (OER), however, changes the landscape of the classroom as teachers can access rich current materials of varied genres for students of all ages and abilities. For students like mine, it’s a sea change.

As a teacher in a rural school in northern California, my students now have access to digital technology, as funding streams finally shift away from materials that expire soon after they are placed into my students’ hands. By using OER, I can collect, review, and strategically select resources that best meet the needs of my students and the task. OERs also address the distinct challenge of geographic isolation. Teachers can provide learning opportunities that were once impossible through these resources without ever having to leave the campus.

A great example of the power of OERs can be seen in the Williamsfield Community Unit School District (Number 210) in Williamsfield, Illinois. This small, rural district exemplifies the promise of OER by providing cost-effective and up-to-date resources and learning opportunities for students. As a Teaching Ambassador Fellow on the Department’s Back to School Bus Tour, I had the pleasure of seeing the progressive and innovative approach this district—serving 310 pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students—is taking. Williamsfield is one the country’s leading Future Ready School Districts. A tour of the school highlighted how all students are learning about the world and developing skills they need for life as they access these high-quality, openly licensed digital resources. I had the pleasure of listening in as three high school students presented their micro-grid alternate energy solution to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. These students used readily available technology to access OER as they engaged in a meaningful learning experience. Williamsfield shows us what is possible. Just because you are a student in a rural school district, you are no longer limited by your geographic locale thanks to OER.

The Department also recently highlighted OER at a White House Symposium. Secretary Duncan discussed the use of OER to support all students, no matter their zip code.

I encourage educators to take some time to explore OER and expand their resources banks. The students of our nation need to listen to, see, read and make meaning of a vast collection of resources to build their capacity toward becoming literate citizens who continually build their knowledge of content topics and the world.

Nancy Veatch is the 5th and 6th grade teacher at Bend Elementary School in Cottonwood, California, and a 2015 Teaching Ambassador Fellow with the U.S. Department of Education.

Bringing the Oxygen Back into the Classroom

My life-long passion is teaching. While I’ve taught a number of grades in a wide variety of settings over the past 23 years, fourth grade is the grade I adore. And, as passionate as I am about teaching, I have been equally passionate in sharing my concern that our youngest learners are spending too much time on low-quality, developmentally inappropriate, and redundant assessments.

This is why I cheered when I saw the video the President posted on Facebook and the testing action plan the Department released this past week. I’ve been concerned for many years about the impact of over-testing on the fourth graders in my class, but the impact really hit home for me two years ago when I witnessed one of my students suffer severe side effects of both physical and mental anxiety about testing.

After this, I resolved to advocate for improving the assessment situation. I decided that I had to look at the things that I could control. I took inventory of every test prep I was required to use and cut test review to the bare minimum of what was required. Taking the He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named approach, I quit saying the name of the test. Each time a student said that they were learning something because it would be on the test, I challenged my students to connect learning to real life instead. When I was required to use material that had the name of the test, I had the students brainstorm ways this material would help us outside of the classroom. I promised my students and their parents that they would be prepared for the test, but told them that we would not be talking about it on a daily basis.

All of this helped, and testing results weren’t impacted. I still worried, however, about my students losing their childhoods to tests that required students to be silent for most of the school day several times a year and disliked the rules that limited me in what I could say to comfort nine-year-old students with tears streaming down their faces.

As a Teaching Ambassador Fellow, I have had the opportunity to share my concerns several times. I’ve also heard from teachers, principals, parents and students around the country. So last year, when Secretary Duncan said that issues with testing were, “sucking the oxygen out of the room in too many schools,” I cried.

It is time we pumped that oxygen back into education for all students and gain back instructional time for learning things that bring our students joy and skills for their future. It is time that we all reflect on how to improve the ways we assess students. The President’s Testing Action Plan outlines principles to move assessment and learning into balance. It also gives everyone involved a chance to take inventory of what we can do to ensure that all tests are worth taking, that they are high quality, that they don’t take up too much time, and that they are fair and fully transparent to students and parents. It is time we use teacher’s expertise to rethink assessments.
I have a quote in my fourth grade classroom from a favorite book, Hooray for Diffendoofer Day:

We’ve taught you that the earth is round,

That red and white make pink,

And something else that matters more –

We’ve taught you how to think.

Let’s free up the time students spend on redundant testing and teach them how to think!

 JoLisa Hoover is a 4th grade teacher at River Ridge Elementary School in Leander Independent School District near Austin, Texas and a 2015 Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

New Tool Kit Provides Resources to Teach Children Learning English

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced the completion of the English Learner Tool Kit, designed to support educators in ensuring equal access to a high-quality education for English Learners (EL). This tool kit complements the English Learner Guidance that was released in January 2015 by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice to remind states and school districts of their civil rights obligations to EL students and Limited English Proficient parents.

The tool kit was unveiled at Bruce Monroe Elementary School at Park View in Washington, D.C. On hand at the event were Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant attorney general and head of the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department; District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson; and John King, the Education Department’s senior advisor delegated duties of deputy secretary of education.

As teachers who work at the Department of Education as Teaching Ambassador Fellows, we are excited about the access this tool kit gives educators to clear-cut guidance and research on best practices in the field.

The EL Tool Kit is divided into chapters on topics such as identifying all English Learners, addressing English Learners with disabilities, and evaluating the effectiveness of a school district’s program. Each chapter can be downloaded separately and information is grouped into easy-to-find topics. For each chapter, there are key points and examples, as well as adaptations of and links to resources created and maintained by public and private organizations. By bringing together all these resources into one easy-to-use location, teachers, principals, and districts have an accessible tool kit full of free resources.

ED's John King talking with educators about the Tool Kit.

ED’s John King talking with educators about the Tool Kit.

Across the country, public school teachers serve more than 5 million ELs. As teachers ourselves, we can attest that being given a tool that provides support for closing the achievement gap between ELs and native English speakers is invaluable. Looking at this new resource, we are reminded of the many EL students who have sat in our classrooms, bringing with them a rich diversity of languages, cultures, and experiences. As educators, we are hopeful that this new resource will make it less complicated to find answers about how to best meet the needs of our students and provide them with every opportunity to reach their fullest potential.

Aman Dhanda and JoLisa Hoover are Teaching Ambassador Fellows with the U.S. Department of Education.

College Programs for Students with Disabilities Are “Changing Culture”


For too many kids in classrooms like mine in New Haven, Conn., disabilities can be sources of shame, indicators of what students can’t do, instead of what they can. As part of the Department’s Ready for Success bus tour, I got to see two universities where students with disabilities are not just enrolled in college, they’re thriving, finding success academically and socially in a way that many never could have imagined.

Staff at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the University of Central Missouri go beyond procedural compliance to provide, what Melody Musgrove, director of the Office of Special Education Programs, called an “on-ramp to the rest of our kids’ lives.” Federal data suggests that students with disabilities are less likely to attend four-year colleges than their peers; these examples prove that doesn’t have to be the case.

Meridith Bradford said college counselors at her New Jersey high school “said I was crazy” when she shared her plan to attend a four-year college. With the support of the University of Illinois’ Beckwith Residential Support Services program, Bradford, who has cerebral palsy, is now a senior and one of the student managers for the university’s wheelchair basketball teams.


“When I was in high school, I had an aide follow me everywhere whether I liked it or not,” Bradford said. “When I get my college degree, I know it’ll be me getting it under my own power.”

The 26 students with severe physical disabilities in the Beckwith program live in an accessible dorm and hire a team of personal assistants who help them with daily living tasks like eating and dressing. “If I would’ve gone anywhere else, I would’ve had to have lived at home,” said Dan Escalona, a sports columnist for The Daily Illini who has muscular dystrophy. “The independence aspect is a big reason why I came.”

Today, students with disabilities at the University of Illinois graduate at about the same rate as others in their same programs, according to Tanya Gallagher, dean of the College of Applied Health Sciences.

Meanwhile, at the University of Central Missouri, students with intellectual, cognitive, and developmental disabilities are learning to lead independent lives.

Julie Warm knew she wanted her daughter, Mary, who has Down syndrome, to attend college ever since Mary was in first grade. She also knew that no appropriate program existed.

She reached out to 19 area universities before she connected with Dr. Joyce Downing, a professor in UCM’s College of Education, who was enthusiastic about designing a program.

Today, Mary, 23, is an alumnus of the university’s THRIVE program and is studying to be a preschool assistant teacher, so she can “teach kids to accept people and not grow up to be bullies,” she said.

Students in the THRIVE program live together and take a range of classes, both in the university and customized to their needs. They also take on two internships in fields of interest and experience counseling to develop their life and social skills.

“In the past, schools would’ve put them in a vocational role,” said Michael Brunkhorst, one of the instructors with the THRIVE program. “I say, raise those expectations because all of our students have proven that they can do much more than was thought they could do.”

Programs like these involve “changing a culture,” said Michael Yudin, assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services at the U.S. Department of Education.“It’s more than just providing services to students with disabilities,” he said. “It’s about the value and talent that these individuals can contribute to our society.”

After these visits, one of my first tasks upon returning to school was to welcome a new fifth grader with an individualized education plan. My experiences at these universities left me hopeful that by the time he graduates, more universities will have programs like these that go above and beyond to harness students’ talents for the good of us all.

Matt Presser is an Instructional Literacy Coach at King/Robinson School in New Haven, Conn., and a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

A Look Back: How One School Community Responded to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita

With the recent anniversary of Hurricane Katrina this past August, I found myself reflecting on my experiences following the fall 2005 disaster. My home state of Texas served as one of the primary evacuation locations for Katrina and then, not even a month later, was hit by Hurricane Rita. While the circumstances of each were dramatically different, they highlighted the ways schools serve as safe havens for students and the community during times of crisis.

As a teacher in Leander, TX just outside Austin, the devastating stories of the 1,833 lives lost during the storm haunted me. But I knew it was the survivors that needed our immediate attention. Texas, which received the vast majority of the evacuees, went to great lengths to help those impacted by the event get back on their feet.

My state, for example, made it easier for displaced students to enroll, and helped them meet their basic needs. Teachers and students went to great lengths to create a sense of normalcy for these young people, many of whom were traumatized, and get them up to speed with our state standards.

My Aunt, a school nurse outside of Houston, witnessed firsthand the physical and emotional toll the storm had on its victims. She treated many students with badly infected feet caused by walking through dirty flood waters. As she provided first aid, the children told her of their loss and fear of leaving behind their homes (or what was left of their homes).

Just a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina, we were shocked to hear that another major hurricane was coming and this time it was headed towards the Texas coast. Rita made land fall on the Texas/Louisiana border on September 24th, 2005 with winds of up to 120 mph and over six inches of rainfall across the region.

My family near Houston evacuated to Austin like many others and spent 22 hours on the road for what should have been a four-hour drive on an exceptionally hot day and night. It was predicted that the hurricane had shifted and might make it as far inland as Austin – directly over the evacuation routes – exacerbating the anxiety of everyone involved.

Buses in traffic

Once again, our schools stepped up. My district, for example, designated seven schools as evacuation centers. The district’s administrators, teachers and other employees even volunteered to run the centers because the number of Red Cross volunteers had been depleted by Katrina. These were initially meant to provide safe haven for up to 1,500 evacuees, but within 24 hours, that number swelled to 3,500 and a few days later, the total was 4,200.

Leander’s schools also became a refuge for hundreds of pets and livestock. This was a lesson learned from Katrina where many people refused to evacuate because shelters wouldn’t accept their animals. During that unforgettable weekend we provided meals, clean beds, working showers, and TVs to monitor the storm. We also provided medical care for both people and animals and even helped welcome a new baby and puppy into the world.

Looking back, I’m so proud to have been a part of an education community that immediately stepped up to create a safe and nurturing environment for students and neighbors from near and far. As the country goes back to school this fall, it reminds me of just how many educators across the country help students cope with trauma on a daily basis. It’s an honor to be part of the profession that does this and a legacy of Katrina and Rita worth remembering a decade later.

 JoLisa Hoover is a 4th grade teacher at River Ridge Elementary School in Leander, Texas and a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.


Seeing Teacher Leadership in Action – #ReadyforSuccess in Cedar Rapids

Teach to Lead at Roosevelt

As an educator, there is great value in visiting classrooms and observing the profession of teaching in action. As a 6th grade teacher in California, I did this many times in my school. In my role as a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow, I have the added opportunity to visit schools across the country, learning from a diverse set of colleagues.

This week, I visited classrooms in the state of Iowa as part of the Department’s annual back-to-school bus tour. Iowa recently implemented the Iowa Teacher Leadership Compensation System (TLC) which is designed to reward effective teachers with leadership opportunities and higher pay across the entire State. The Council Bluffs Community School District, where Superintendent Dr. Martha Bruckner set a vision for the year of “Defying Gravity”, and the Cedar Rapids Community School District were two of the first districts to receive state teacher leadership grants and are in their second year of implementation.

I observed four major elements of effective teacher leadership in both districts:

  • flexibility in developing systems and positions of leadership that work for individual district needs
  • student centered transparent collaboration among all stakeholders
  • support and guidance from school and district administration to successfully implement these systems, and
  • time and space for teachers to effectively collaborate with one another.

The classroom instruction, grade level collaboration, and professional development sessions that I observed in both districts made it clear that placing value on teacher leadership results in student success. One of the most significant drivers to this success was peer-coaching from a student centered perspective.  The coaching conversations we witnessed were focused on the needs of the students, not the deficits of the educator.  This perspective promotes a growth perspective for both teachers and students.

Duncan holds a sign with students at Roosevelt High in Cedar RapidsAt Roosevelt Middle School in Cedar Rapids, Secretary Arne Duncan observed a coaching session between Laura Zimmerman, an English Language Learner teacher, and Anne Ironside, an Instructional Design Strategist. During the session, the teacher and coach participated in a respectful post-observation lesson discussion of specific teaching strategies and evidence for the progress towards goals set for students. The coach shared feedback, asked clarifying questions, provided resources for future lessons, and kept the conversation focused around students. As a teacher, it was compelling to watch Secretary Duncan witness the power of teacher leadership and hear Principal Autumn Pino discuss the benefits of such teacher leadership opportunities, stating, “This has been the most rewarding work we’ve ever done.”

Following the session, the Secretary then held a panel discussion with state and local education leaders in about the development of the TLC system, the role of Teach to Lead in advancing their work, and the successes they have seen as a result of the tangible support teachers and administrators receive to be the instructional leaders in their buildings. Local leaders stressed that the driving force behind the district’s success is undoubtedly the support for teacher leadership, and they made it clear that sustaining teacher leadership initiatives is a continued priority for supporting student success.

After just two days among these Iowa school districts’ teacher leaders, it’s clear that schools are indeed “Defying Gravity” and it is systemic support for effective teacher leadership that is taking them to new heights.

Watch Secretary Duncan wrap up day two of the Ready for Success bus tour:

Aman Dhanda is a 6th grade teacher at Woodland Prairie Elementary School and is currently a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

PDK/Gallup Poll Reveals Americans Know Students and Teachers Deserve the Very Best

As an educator with more than a decade of classroom experience, I’m encouraged by several of the data points in the PDK/Gallup Poll on the Public’s Attitude Toward the Public Schools. It is especially heartening to learn that the majority of Americans want to better support the critical role teachers play in the lives of our young people and the prosperity of our nation. Teachers are among the most hardworking, dedicated, and creative professionals in any field, and this survey reveals that the public believes in taking steps—including increasing pay—to support and recognize them in a manner that reflects the vital nature of their work.

We know that teachers have the greatest impact on learning. We know that families across the United States send their very best to school every day. And, we know that every family’s very best—regardless of factors including socioeconomic status, geographic location or cultural background—has a fundamental human right to an education of the highest quality. Tragically, we also know that countless students have been denied this right throughout American history. To overcome our unjust past and establish an education system that truly achieves equity and enables every student to realize his or her potential, we need the very best teachers in all of our classrooms. That means treating teachers like the professionals they are by giving them the supports necessary to grow their practice and meet the needs of all students.

That also means attracting the highest-achieving students into the teaching profession, an idea that about half of those polled support. To best serve students—in addition to developing strong content and pedagogical knowledge—prospective educators should represent the diversity of our nation, be trained in cultural proficiency and, most importantly, possess an unwavering belief that all students can achieve.

The PDK/Gallup poll results are especially timely as we wait for the proposed reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). It is imperative for Congress to pass legislation to improve educational supports and structures nationwide. It’s what teachers need and America’s very best deserve.

Meredith Morelle is a 2015 Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

Testing: Can We Find the Rational Middle?

Recently I visited Glen Iris Elementary School in Birmingham, Alabama to meet with a group of teachers and their principal. I was in Birmingham as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow and it was highly recommend by local educators that I visit Glen Iris while in Birmingham to see the incredible work going on at the school. During my visit I learned about the school’s focus on project-based learning, how it energizes teachers and promotes cross-curriculum connections and implementation of college and career ready standards in a way that has significant meaning for students and the surrounding community. I learned how this type of learning relies on several factors including the internal capacity among teachers to lead and bring others along in this work and a supportive principal who will work to make sure the resources needed are provided (even grow a beard and sleep on the school roof to fundraise if necessary!). I also learned about their school garden, which was a sight to behold and a powerful a lesson for how to keep learning focused on developing the whole child.

The assessment culture was also very different at Glen Iris Elementary. It was clear that every teacher in the room agreed that we can and should measure learning, but, also, that current “tests” were measuring learning. When I asked Principal Wilson to share his views on testing he looked at me very calmly said, “There is more than one way to measure the standards. We have to be ever-growing.”

Since returning from Birmingham, much has happened in the “testing” world.

Recently, the Foundation for Excellence in Education came out with an analysis of district testing calendars from the 2013-14 school year. The foundation looked at 44 districts and found huge variation; some required as few as eight tests on top of required state assessments – and one required 198 additional exams. In addition, the Council of Chief State School Officers and Secretary Duncan have shined a spotlight on testing and are asking states and districts to have difficult conversations about the quantity and quality of tests administered to students. Also in recent weeks, several school districts in Florida have moved to cut down on testing. Miami-Dade County cut 24 interim assessments, adding 260 minutes of instruction back into the schedule, while Palm Beach County cut 11 diagnostic tests and made all district-level performance assessments optional. Moreover, Hillsborough County school district leaders are calling on the state to reduce the amount of testing in schools while several school officials have already eliminated final exams at middle and high school levels, as well as reduced the number of assessments for elementary grades in math, science and language arts.

I recently sat down with Secretary Duncan to hear his perspective on the current state of testing and accountability. While the testing pendulum has swung from one side to the other, my hope is that we will land somewhere in the rational middle. And as I continue in my education journey, I will forever keep those timely words of Dr. Wilson at the forefront of my mind and will challenge all of us to be “ever-growing.”

Emily Davis is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

An Invitation to Commit to Lead

When I was honored to be named Nebraska teacher of the year in 2007, almost in the same breath folks said, “Congratulations – when are you leaving the classroom?” Unfortunately, we have built into the American teaching culture this perverse disincentive that only seems to listen to and honor educators who move farthest away from those who need us most – our students.


Teach to Lead seeks to flip that by allowing teachers to lead from the classroom. We know that the many of the best ideas come from teachers – in fact, the solutions to today’s educational challenges will not be solved without the involvement of classroom teachers in the development as well as the implementation of innovative educational ideas.

Teach to Lead was developed by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to advance student success by expanding opportunities for teacher leadership – in other words, to make sure that teachers were involved in the development and implementation of education transformation.

One of the components of Teach to Lead is our virtual community, Commit to Lead. Commit to Lead is for those who have a seed of an idea, those who are developing their ideas, and those who are deep in implementation. It’s for classroom teachers, administrators, system leaders, advocacy groups – all those who are working to include teacher leadership in their decision making. The platform is a place to discuss and learn from others who may have already been down your path – or who want to learn from your success!

Commit to Lead is easy to use. After you join the community, you can post your own idea (just 300 words or less) and interact with others who comment. Or you can join and then peruse the ideas posted by others, offering your suggestions and giving a “thumbs up” by voting for those ideas that you find most compelling.

Christina from Willamsport, Pennsylvania, has submitted the most talked about idea so far:

“Principals, central office admin, consultants, and state ed departments would be required to teach just one prep or class for a 3-6 month period at least once every two years. The teacher in which they are ‘subbing’ for would then be released during that time to participate in some of the leadership responsibilities of the person assuming their role as teacher. Or they could use their release time to coach a colleague (or new teacher).

An easy idea to implement? Not really. Worthy of discussion? Absolutely! To be done right, this wouldn’t just be a simple schedule change, but a real culture shift that exemplifies the importance of being as close to the classroom as possible. I’ve often heard teachers say that some policies would never happen if administrators had to live by their own rules. I also know many teachers that don’t understand the heavy burdens and isolation faced by many in traditional leadership positions. A change of this magnitude would be great if it was done thoughtfully and with the best interests of students at the forefront.

Commit to Lead isn’t just about posting your own ideas. It’s also about sharing your “teacher wisdom” with colleagues across the country. Meeting the needs of her English Language Learners is what prompted Donna from Virginia Beach, Virginia, to reach out to colleagues through Commit to Lead:

I would like to start a discussion of ways to foster accurate academic participation for ELLs (or other student populations). Currently, I use scaffolds such as posted and practiced academic sentence frames to assist students when reporting out ideas after “Think-Write-Pair-Share.” I would like to collaborate with others to broaden my strategies and increase student use of academic language and structures.

Maybe you are just the person Donna is looking for to help fill her teacher toolbox! The best ideas are stolen or borrowed from other teachers – maybe even you!

Deidra from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, saw a problem in her teaching community and stepped up with a solution:

All teachers benefit from collaborative interaction, so I am starting a collaborative learning group among the CTE [Career & Technical Education] teachers I work with at my high school. Because our planning times do not coincide, I am using Google classroom to share professional readings with my colleagues, opening up discussion threads, and encouraging them to post articles and reading suggestions as well.

I’ve been reading The Teacher Wars by Dana Goldstein and she advises, “…the next step in American education reform may be to focus … more on classroom-up interventions that replicate the practices of the best [teachers].” Christina, Donna, and Deidra – and so many other teachers like them – are doing just that: leading from their classrooms!

Commit to Lead is just a beginning and we know this work isn’t easy, but it won’t be done correctly unless professional educators are key players.

We invite you to be part of the dialogue by joining us at Do you have more questions? Please email me at and let me know how I can help!

Maddie Fennell is Literacy Coach at Miller Park Elementary in Omaha, Nebraska and a Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow working on Teach to Lead.

Let’s Do This Work Together: The Importance of Parents in Today’s Schools

“I ask you to hear my remarks not as information, nor as argument, but as a call to action.” Secretary Arne Duncan, National Convention of the Parent Teacher Association, Austin, Texas, June 20, 2014

Secretary Arne Duncan spoke these words today during the National Convention of the Parent Teacher Association, when he addressed a crowd of about 1,200 parents, teachers, and students gathered in Austin, Texas. The Secretary outlined the changes needed to improve public education and talked about the need to challenge and prepare students for their future, taking questions and sharing his vision for moving education forward.

The Secretary shared stories of his experience as a parent and the state of education nationally. He urged parents to work together to create the types of schools that will meet the needs of future careers by advocating for the advancement of the teaching profession, as well as college- and career-ready standards, preschool for all, and college affordability.


Secretary Arne Duncan chats with Teacher Ambassador Fellows JoLisa Hoover (left) and José Rodriguez (right) at the National PTA Conference. (Photo credit: Karen Stratman/U.S. Department of Education)

As I listened, I thought of all the volunteers that have come through my classroom and of my own young niece and nephews and the paths that lay ahead of them as they begin school. As a teacher, PTA member, and proud aunt of preschool and public school children, I share Secretary Duncan’s call to action to improve education and his invitation to work together.

My mother was my class’s “room mom” throughout my elementary school experience and both my parents actively supported schools throughout the time they had kids in public schools. My mom and dad still volunteer and support my classroom, and they’re also involved in their grandchildren’s school lives. They have always been models for me regarding the importance of service to others and have demonstrated how to be involved and supportive without becoming “helicopter parents.”

Parent volunteers have been a lifeline for me and have enriched my classroom more than they will ever know. Every time a parent volunteers to take a task that saves a teacher time, he or she enables that teacher to be a better educator. Parents have raised money to fill in budget gaps and have routinely provided items not in the budget. I am so thankful for parents that have dutifully read e-mails, checked homework, attended parent conferences, and kept their children reading through the summer, all to support their child and their school.

Parents, you are important learning partners and teachers are so thankful for all you do!

Yet parents have another valuable role, and that is in making their voices heard regarding education policy. I am so thankful that my parents taught me how to be my own best advocate and demonstrated for me the importance of speaking up. During his speech, Secretary Duncan urged parents to use their collective voice to support ideas to build schools that will meet the needs of the next generation.

So, what exactly can parents do? Here are some suggestions:

  • Be a voice for higher expectations;
  • Be a voice for elevating the teaching profession; and
  • Be a voice for the kinds of changes our schools must make to truly prepare our young people for the future they will face.

Improving schools is an important job and one that teachers, parents, and policymakers should do together.

JoLisa Hoover is a 2008 and 2014 U.S. Department of Education Teaching Ambassador Fellow and educator in Leander, Texas.

#AskArne: Teaching and Leading

At this year’s National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Teaching and Learning Conference, over 5,000 educators from all 50 states shared in two days of teacher paradise, which included some of the most influential and knowledgeable trailblazers in education. I felt proud to be part of the event and even more proud to witness history in the making.

Watching Secretary Duncan unveil a new initiative titled “Teach to Lead,” I saw heads nodding and smiling. Even though I work at the U.S. Department of Education (ED), hearing that ED is partnering with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to focus on advancing teacher leadership is music to my ears.

But is it really? As a Teaching Ambassador Fellow I have had the opportunity to listen to hundreds of educators the past few months talk about what it means to be a teacher leader. Their responses range from self-initiated teacher leaders, who reach out to help colleagues on a daily basis, to teachers who are excited to take on new roles, but don’t know where to start. Others want to join in but feel they already have too much on their plates.

When I think about the size and scale of an undertaking such as Teach to Lead, it is easy to become cautious, if not skeptical. How we will be able to highlight all of the different types of teacher leadership that occur in schools throughout this country already? How will we even define teacher leadership, given the many forms it may take? How will we involve principals and state and district leaders in a vision of teacher leadership that truly improves education? Will they be willing to share power and rethink structures to create systems for teacher leadership to thrive?

What I am not skeptical about is whether or not teachers will embrace leadership. I have seen firsthand that teacher leadership is alive and well. Monika Johannesen a veteran teacher from Dan Mills Elementary School in Nashville, Tenn., explained that in her 20 years of teaching, not a day has gone by that she hasn’t helped teachers foster their craft. Her ability to collaborate and build relationships within her school has directly impacted the school’s success, and she is viewed by all as a teacher leader.

As the Teach to Lead initiative takes off, I am encouraged that teachers are the ones being called on to help shape it. As Teaching Ambassador Fellows continue to engage with teachers from the field and work with the National Board to engage educators via survey, I am reassured to hear Arne Duncan voice sentiments like these, “Teachers have spoken eloquently about how important it is to have a voice in what happens in their schools and their profession — without leaving the classroom.”

I recently sat down with Secretary Duncan to ask him how @TeachToLead will work, but more importantly how we will maintain the integrity of teacher leadership, without it being just more thing on our plate. Ultimately, creating an initiative by teachers for teachers can and will lead to historic transformative change that will boost student learning and provide a critical next step for the teaching profession as envisioned in the RESPECT blueprint.

I look forward to next year’s National Board conference to see how far we have come and the milestones we “teacher leaders” have accomplished. The road ahead is not an easy one, but it is one worth taking.

Tweet us your ideas @TeachtoLead using the hashtag #TeachToLead.

Emily Davis is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education