Reykdal, a finalist for the American School Counselor Association ‘s 2016 National School Counselor of the Year award visited Washington, D.C., with Steffany Heredia, a senior at Olympia High School. (Photo courtesy Kim Reykdal)
Every spring, as March Madness heats up, it’s not just basketball brackets bringing on the fever pitch of competition. In many high schools, March Madness is about college acceptances; who’s gotten them, and who hasn’t. Information about the “have’s” and the “have not’s” in the ever-increasing race to be branded a “success,” travels instantly along the hallways and social media highways.
For first generation college students, this annual “race to nowhere”, as a recent documentary termed it, often ends before it even begins unless someone outside of their nuclear family guides them through the college application process. In many public schools, overwhelming caseloads leave school counselors without the time and resources necessary to provide students with adequate career and college guidance. Administrators must rely on teachers and other staff, or specific college preparatory programs like AVID, to help prepare students for a variety of 2 and 4-year college options, and other post-high school pathways.
One evening, a grandfather told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one that you feed.” – From The Tale of Two Wolves
Pearson giving a TEDx talk on the importance of kindness projects. (Photo courtesy Ferial Pearson)
On December 12, 2014, Avielle Richman was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School along with 19 other young children. Avielle’s death hit me hard because she reminded me of my own daughter – the same age and curious eyes, loving nature, kind heart, and friendly spirit. Over the past 15 years, I have taught thousands of students and I will admit, there are few of whom I have found myself truly afraid. They would put their hands in their backpacks and I would think, “This is it. Today we die.” Luckily, that never happened.
Like many mothers, after Sandy Hook I had a difficult conversation with my own children who asked why someone would murder kindergarteners? My nine-year-old son said that whenever he was bullied in school, he would get angry and feel like lashing out, but then someone would be kind to him, and the feeling would go away. My daughter then asked, “What if people had always been kind to the shooter every single day? Maybe he wouldn’t have done it.”
Naïve as it may have been, when I returned to school, my daughter’s comment led me to devise a plan. I would give envelopes to my high school juniors, assigning them to specific acts of kindness in exchange for a prize. At my students’ suggestion, we agreed that we all had to draw an assignment every week, including me, without expectation of a reward. We brainstormed a list of random acts of kindness that could happen at school and didn’t cost any money. My students acknowledged the risk it took to perform these random acts – they didn’t want to stick out from their peers – so we gave each other Secret Kindness Agent names (mine is Agent Mama Beast) and kept the acts anonymous. Every week, we had a ceremony where I would play some cheesy song while each Agent came up to draw their assignment. We wrote an oath and acknowledged the risks and at the end of the week we would reflect on what happened, how we felt before, and how we felt after we did our assignments. Perhaps it comes as no surprise, not only did I see the culture of our school change, but I also saw the change within my students.
When I came across the Cherokee fable, The Tale of Two Wolves, I brought it to class. I asked my students if they had ever been bullied and every hand in the room went up. I then asked if anyone had been the bully and again, every hand went up, perhaps a little less eagerly. We realized that the idea that there are “good” or “bad” people in the world was a myth. As the grandfather says, both wolves dwell within us.
Through the Secret Kindness Agents, our good wolves were gaining on our evil wolves. With time now spent acknowledging the bad wolf and feeding the good wolves, I find that when a student reaches into their bag, rather than a gun, I expect a poem, a card, or some other random act of kindness.
Ferial Pearson is an Instructor in the Teacher Education Department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She started the Secret Kindness Agent Project with students at Ralston High School where she served as a Talent Advisor for the Avenue Scholars Foundation. She has since helped over 30 other communities start kindness projects, wrote a book and started a Facebook Page with the students. This week the Kennedy Center honored her as one of the winners of the Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award.
As NCLB’s replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) comes into focus, educators’ input is poised to play a larger role in the implementation of law than ever before. Over the past several weeks, educators, other key stakeholders, and representative organizations have come to discussions with the Department of Education, both in person and electronically, to share thoughts on the guidance and clarification that are needed in moving forward in implementing this law.
As part of the listening, the U.S. Department of Education’s Teaching and Principal Ambassador Fellows (TAFs/PAFs) were asked to hold listening sessions for Department staff with teachers, principals, and other stakeholders to inform ESSA implementation. This past week, several other TAFs and I organized sessions in and around our own communities with district superintendents in Connecticut, math teachers in California, students in Rhode Island, business leaders in Colorado, and educators in Washington, D.C., and New Hampshire; and, in the coming weeks, we have discussions planned in rural communities in Northern California and Washington across to urban centers of New York City and New Jersey, to name a few.
As I sat in Colorado soliciting input, I realized that this shift to a more proactive, solutions-oriented mindset proved harder than it sounds. For too long, we have been asked merely to react. Now we have the opportunity to shed the reactionary posture we have been exercising for the past two decades under NCLB and it’s not easy.
In these sessions we heard a lot of important feedback. We heard calls in Connecticut for incentives for districts and states to innovate. High school students shared their feelings about standardized assessment and their concern about the extent to which current assessments really measure who they are. Math teachers and leaders in California expressed a need for clearer definitions of college and career ready standards and posed questions about accountability measures that reflect more than test scores. In every place, we heard calls for improving all angles of the teaching profession –recruitment, retention, and job satisfaction.
While important to hear, what is evident is that they are not new – all are responses to what has been; What’s new is that we are being called on to contribute our professional expertise in crafting what could be. If ESSA is to work, states, districts, and the federal government must seize opportunities to craft policy that employs our firsthand knowledge of what works and doesn’t in real classrooms and schools. At this moment, the federal government is asking what we see as the key provisions and policies so that any guidance or rules enacted reflect our professional expertise. We know that every teacher and school leader won’t sit in a room with Department staff, but please know that you can send your thoughts and concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org. Adding your voice does not mean having to read and digest 1,000-plus pages of the law. Plenty of analyses and summaries have been published and you can find some starting places on the Department’s website.
I am glad that ESSA provides an opportunity for us all to rethink the assessment, accountability and educator evaluation systems to ensure they are meaningful and helpful. It’s important that the law requires consultation with stakeholders like us at every level. Now, we need to be ready with our vision and our solutions of what can be so that every student can truly succeed.
As a special educator for 17 years, I have long been witness to what civil rights data collections are showing now is pervasive – there is a disproportionately high representation of students of color identified for special education. Additionally, special education students of color face higher risk rates of disciplinary referrals for suspensions, alternative school assignments, and expulsions, which correlate to lower graduation rates.
There’s an irony as education for students with special needs was born out of the civil rights movement. Too often other variables such as language, poverty, assessment practices, and lack of professional development and cultural competence support for teachers have played too big a role, resulting in unnecessary services or students learning in inappropriately restrictive environments.
I remember early in my career proctoring an educational assessment as part of an initial eligibility for a student’s consideration into specialized education. The referral came from a general education teacher who said, “He just isn’t getting the content.” While administering the test, I saw a test filled with cultural biases, and the result was a boy being assigned to a self-contained class unnecessarily. Fortunately that student’s case manager advocated and the case was made for a less restrictive environment. Too many kids don’t have such an advocate.
As the demographics of our nation’s schools become more racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse, we must closely inspect disproportionality to ensure we create equitable learning communities. There are practices that may reduce disproportionality, including pre-referral interventions, family engagement, instructional practices for collaboration in the general curriculum, and professional development, to improve student outcomes.
For years there have been documented situations where minority students have experienced inadequate services, low-quality curriculum, and isolation from their nondisabled peers. I taught minority students in both inclusionary and pullout settings at a high-needs school. At one point I serviced 40 students in grades K-5. What drove me was the fact these students and their parents were expecting me do right by those students so they could be successful beyond elementary school. To not do right by them meant they would potentially fall victim to even more dire circumstances related to poverty.
In grades 4-5, I co-taught with the classroom teacher, co-planning and making sure our lessons included strategies to make sure all students in that class were successful. This kept students in the classroom and pushed them to succeed. The results were not only evident in their IEP progress but also on their standardized test data. The most compelling evidence was in their classroom discourse. The level of engagement they had with their peers regarding what they were learning was powerful and the sense of self-confidence they exuded was infectious. We also spent a lot of time educating parents of their rights and how to advocate for their child. We wanted to them to feel empowered and informed on how to access resources or voice concerns about their child’s plan. Reducing disparities for special education students can mean the difference between lifelong success or failure.
Educators who attended last year’s International Summit were disappointed that teacher representation and voice were sorely missing from many of the formal discussions that took place. We felt that if we wanted to move the profession forward, we needed to ensure that teacher voices were heard through the words of teacher leaders. We thought why not have a national summit on teacher leadership in the United States to raise these voices?
We presented the idea to the United States Delegation led by then Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, President of the National Education Association, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, President of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, and Executive Director of the Chief Council for State School Officers, Chris Minnich. They agreed and said they would commit to a summit.
Fast forward 11 months and the first National summit on teacher leadership took place in D.C. to great acclaim. Over 20 states sent practicing teachers, association leaders, and state policy makers to the summit where they heard from other states on the work they were all doing to promote teacher leadership. For two days, states worked together and made commitments to move forward with the implementation of teacher leadership policies and plans. This was not easy work because there was true collaboration taking place, which involved many hard conversations. It was truly amazing to see teacher leaders playing a lead role in this work.
At the end of the Summit each state made a commitment statement describing their next steps to keep the teacher leader movement going forward. There was palpable excitement in the room – from policy makers and teachers alike – as a result of sitting down together and, in some cases, even committing to host state summits.
In closing, Dr. Andy Hargreaves, the Chair of Education at Boston College, reminded participants of the many pitfalls associated with this type of endeavor. Don’t let the idea of teacher leadership get co-opted like the concept of professional learning communities, for starters. And don’t lose momentum that has been built throughout the Summit. His advice going forward: follow through with commitments, have short term plans, and share with each other.
We all know this work is hard but if we continue to meet, collaborate, and keep a solution-oriented mindset we can strengthen teacher leadership’s role in improving the lives of students. Frustration from last year’s International Summit led to this year’s National Summit which wisely included the many diverse voices of educators from across the country. There will inevitably be more missteps and frustrations, but it is exciting to think of the possibilities if we persevere and remain united in this very important cause.
Former U.S. Department of Education Teacher Ambassador Fellow Geneviève DeBose reads with one of her students
“The thing that made me change was the people that I know or see in Watts. The people in my hood is either gangbangers or crackheads and I don’t want to be neither.…I don’t want to be killed over some shoe or the way I look or the people that I hang out with.”
During my first year of teaching in 1999, I found this writing torn up and thrown in the trash. It was my student D’s response to the prompt, “What was a turning point in your life?” She decided not to turn it in, but instead to throw it away. Back then I didn’t recognize her response for what it was – a recognition of her own power, an opportunity to improve her neighborhood or a cry for help. And back then I probably didn’t recognize my own ability to support her development as a 6th grade change-maker. Nonetheless, I taped it back together and have kept it for the last 17 years as a reminder of why I teach in high-need schools.
I’ve always taught in high-need schools, and while I know that all students deserve great teachers, I feel strongly that my students need me most, and I need them. My students are my people. Many of us share a history of struggle as people of color in the United States. Me — an African American and Irish American woman. Them — Mexican and Central American, West African, Caribbean, Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern, African American, you name it.
I am a proud product of public schools and believe strongly that all students, regardless of their circumstances deserve access to an excellent education. By teaching in high-need schools, not only am I an agent of change, I also get to support my students in becoming agents of change – something very few of my teachers did for me. I left teaching for three years and realized almost immediately that the classroom is where I am of most service – and where I am happiest. Teaching brings me joy but teaching in high-need schools also grounds me in knowing that I am doing something transformative, not only for myself and my students, but for our country and our world.
I can’t deny that teaching in high-need schools can be tough. The social, emotional, and educational trauma that many of our students face greatly impacts their schooling and our teaching experiences. But the notion of what’s possible can outweigh what is. With time, collaboration, support, and relationships, my colleagues, my students, their families and I can thrive and collectively change our communities for the better.
I know that I can’t do this work alone. And 17 years ago, my student D knew that she couldn’t do it alone either. While I wasn’t sure how to best support D as a first-year teacher, the beauty of it all is that every single day I get to right that wrong. I get to shift students’ life trajectories by being a model of change and supporting them in becoming their own agents of change. Quite honestly, there’s no better place to be.
Geneviève DeBose, NBCT, teaches seventh grade Language Arts in the South Bronx in New York City. She was a 2011 Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.
At the White House for the White House Champions of Change for Computer Science Education! From left to right, Gilliam Jacobs, Brittany Greve, Andrea Chaves, Noran Omar and Angela Diep.
“You can’t be what you can’t see.”
This is a common expression that, perhaps like me, you’ve heard many times. For the girls at the Young Women’s Leadership school where I teach in New York City, this is – sadly — the case. My students couldn’t see themselves as women in STEM careers, and in fact, knew little about the opportunities offered within the field.
That’s why I made it my mission to bring computer science to our school.
My principal was excited at the idea of incorporating computer science (CS), but took me by surprise when she said I would have to teach it. As a certified Spanish teacher, I had no background in CS other than being digitally competent. But, after starting to learn through an online training program, I decided to blend computer science into my advanced Spanish speakers class because I figured why not have students learning Spanish dive into coding, too.
It didn’t take me long to realize that the gender gap is not due to women lacking STEM-related skills, but rather because young women are conditioned to believe that careers in technology and science are reserved for men. That’s part of why I also decided to start two after-school programs: a partnership with an existing organization, Girls Who Code, which works to inspire and educate women to pursue careers in technology and my own program, TechCrew – an internship program that exposes girls to coding, graphic design, animation and film.
Watch the girls in Chaves’ class who created the nutrition game, Healthy Bunch, which won the MIT-sponsored competition “Dream It. Code It. Win It.”
Each club started with eight girls, but TechCrew now includes 30 girls working collaboratively to create and produce technology-driven projects. Students have coded video games and apps about recycling, healthy eating habits, carbon footprints, space debris, learning Spanish and more. As one of my students, Brittany Greve, says, “Computer science has allowed me to look at a problem from multiple perspectives and use logic to come up with innovative solutions.”
My students have also become leaders within the CS community. We’ve worked together on all sorts of projects, such as a summer coding camp in Queens where girls learned to build apps that advocate for social justice. Additionally, my TechCrew is currently leading 50 girls in the creation of a Digital Dance, in which dancers, filmmakers, graphic designers and coders are bringing together their expertise to create a beautiful piece of art.
Watch Chaves’ students talking about why they love to code and how coding has influenced them (in English).
Watch Chaves’ students talking about why they love to code and how coding has influenced them (in Spanish).
I am a Spanish teacher by training, but I took a risk to integrate CS into my curriculum and learned that this language does not have to stand on its own. It can be infused into any subject in any classroom. All it takes is a little innovation, trust and risk-taking.
One of my students put it best, “CS has opened a new pathway in my life. It has made me discover a part of who I am that I didn’t know existed. I can now see what I would like my future to be,” she said.
Andrea Chaves is a Spanish and computer science teacher and creative director at the Young Women’s Leadership School in Astoria, New York. She was recently named a White House Champion of Change.
After spending 25 years in education as a classroom teacher, adjunct faculty member in teacher education, and English Language Arts coordinator, I am increasingly concerned about the future of teaching in America and the urgency with which we must work together to lift up the profession. The reasons for this alarm are many fold.
We hear stories about the varying quality of teacher-credential programs across the nation. But that isn’t the only problem. Students enter the profession with limited skills because they have educated, but not encouraged to use critical thinking skills that could help them creatively plan a lesson.
We read the data about the staggering number of teachers that choose to leave the profession because they feel unsupported. And we observe them struggle in their first years with classroom management, lesson planning, and providing differentiated instruction.
After teaching for more than 20 years, I have had the pleasure of seeing children discover the joy of teaching others, for example, the Kindergartener who lines up the dinosaurs during free choice to read a story to them. We need to foster this spirit and encourage our students to consider teaching as a profession. Students who find enjoyment in specific content areas need to be given opportunities to delve deeply into their area of study and consider becoming a teacher.
Teacher credential programs across the nation are distinctly unique; however, we must advocate for all programs to provide pre-service teachers with a balance of pedagogy and practice. In my 10 years as Adjunct Faculty, I have found that this balance is crucial to helping students navigate the shifting role from that of student to that of teacher. Additionally, student-teachers thrive when their program is instructed in such a way that models exemplary classroom teaching. We must advocate that all pre-service programs be taught using strategies we want these future teachers to embed into their practice.
Teacher retention is currently a “hot topic,” and the Teacher Ambassador Fellows held a Twitter Chat about it last week. We need to become leaders to mentor new teachers as they begin to navigate through their first years of teaching. In my two year role as a Teacher on Special Assignment as the English Language Arts/Literacy Coordinator for my county, I provided support for 14 school districts. The biggest concern that I heard from all teachers was that they felt overwhelmed and unsupported as they sought to provide quality instruction that ensured student learning.
Teachers should take the lead and encourage their school district to develop mentoring programs or expand the role of content coaches so that all teachers who ask for support receive it. With an increasing number of retirees, seasoned veteran teachers cannot mentor all that will need support, and their professional learning is also important. It is therefore essential that we advocate for district-wide systems of support for all teachers.
The bottom line is more must be done to ensure teaching in America remains sustainable. It needs the voices of all 3.5 million of us to lift up this profession. From Acting Secretary John King to the rural teacher in northern California, we know that the future of our nation depends upon our collective effort to make it happen.
In eleven years of teaching, I have seen numerous out of school factors impact student achievement, from changes in global and digital interconnectedness to families’ relative access to quality healthcare. Throughout, there has been one constant that shines as the most important out of school factor — family engagement.
I have seen this to be true in my teaching, and while perhaps more challenging than ever before, family engagement is so critical that schools must find new tools to facilitate authentic and meaningful ways for family members to engage in their children’s education. One promising way to do this is through student-led conferences.
Kelly’s daughter presents her work to her future 2nd grade teacher at a 1st grade “share fair” where family members and the school community were invited to review student work.
My initial exposure to student-led conferences was not as a teacher, but rather, as the parent of a second-grader. My oldest daughter is enrolled in a school that utilizes innovative techniques for student assessment. As one component, each student conducts annual conferences with their family members and teachers to assess annual growth and learning. During these conferences, the student discusses what they find notable in their cross-curricular portfolio of work. This practice begins in kindergarten, and as a high school teacher, I admit I was skeptical of my six-year-old daughter’s ability to effectively reflect on her achievement and growth. After all, wasn’t it the job of the student to learn and the job of the teacher to assess that learning? However, within the first minute of my daughter’s conference, I became a believer.
It was eye-opening to see my daughter critically reflect on her growth as a learner with an unexpected authenticity and attention to detail. She also set goals for future learning, and I have seen how this task focuses her work.
As my daughter’s teacher stated, “There’s no substitute for watching your own child present to you.” As my child begins to prepare for her third conference, I couldn’t agree more.
Beyond the educational value of my daughter’s student-led conferences, I have been struck by the engagement potential of the conferences.
As a teacher, I often find myself in endless games of phone or e-mail tag with parents, and finding meeting times can be a challenge. My daughter’s school has an exceptional success rate in scheduling conferences- her teacher shared that he has had 100 percent family involvement over a six-year period with only one instance where coordinating the date was problematic. This remarkable success is due in part to a school-wide commitment to find creative ways to give teachers the needed time and flexibility to schedule conferences.
But I believe the core reason for high engagement rates is because the format puts the ownership and focus exactly where it should always be –on the student. Empowering my daughter to assess and reflect on her own learning is a wonderful way to connect me to her learning process, and I am confident it will also equip her to succeed in the future. I’ve heard similar sentiments about student-led conferences from colleagues around the country, which, combined with my personal experience, has led me to reflect on how this approach to family engagement could be replicated in my own classroom context and elsewhere.
It may not be an easy or perfect fit for all circumstances, but this approach is exactly the type of innovative thinking we need to bring together everyone invested in a child’s education.
Imagine if all of the policies that affect our classrooms were written by teachers. All the assessments, too. Anyone who spends their days in America’s classrooms knows we’re a long way away from achieving that vision. Despite that, as an elementary school reading teacher in New Haven, Conn., I know that the best success I’ve had has been with lesson plans I’ve written with my colleagues, assessments we’ve created together.
I’d bet you feel the same way.
That’s why one of the most important features of the weekly Teachers Edition newsletter has always been that it is written by teachers and for teachers. Moving forward, you’ll see that even more clearly. For months, a committee of classroom teachers has been talking with colleagues and reviewing back issues with an eye toward making the newsletter more valuable for busy teachers. Expect to hear our voices some more — the voices of classroom teachers just like you, sharing the joys and struggles of our classrooms. Expect to see fewer headlines and more opportunities to engage with us, to share your thoughts and your stories. With Acting Secretary John King focused on how to lift up the voices of teachers, this is just one strand of a ramped-up strategy to digitally engage teachers: keep an eye out for Twitter chats and other opportunities for ED and your colleagues around the country to hear your voice.
You’ll also notice Teachers Edition’s new slimmed-down look this week. Most of our editions will feature a Voice from the Classroom article written by a teacher sharing his or her experience. Often, it’ll be written by a Teaching Ambassador Fellow, a teacher who spends a year sharing his or her experiences with ED; other times, it’ll be written by another teacher from across the country — maybe even you.
We’re working to strike a balance between features that inform (this week, a look at the 2016 Teacher of the Year finalists and a study of what’s inside the textbooks used by teacher prep programs) and those that entertain (this week’s wisdom from America’s oldest teacher and a video of the hoverboarding principal). You might also hear our voices a little bit more when we reflect on what’s in the news.
We know teachers don’t have a lot of free time. That’s why every feature that makes its way into Teachers Edition will face an initial test: would a teacher want to read this? As you scroll through this week’s edition, we’re hopeful you’ll find a lot that passes that test.
Last month, I had the privilege of visiting a school recently recognized by the Department of Education as a 2015 National Blue Ribbon School. As a teacher, I was well aware of the high standards that the program requires of selected schools and the prestige associated with the National Blue Ribbon School program. Reading about the achievements of a National Blue Ribbon school is certainly impressive, but visiting one of these schools is a wonderful reminder of all the positive things happening in our nation’s schools.
Forestbrook Middle School, located in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, serves more than 1,200 students. While the school’s motto of, “Excellence, Every Day, Everywhere” reflects what you find at Forestbrook, the school’s culture was perhaps best captured by a social studies teacher’s comment. The teacher said that he was motivated by the desire to “see every child grow,” and the collective commitment to this goal was apparent in each of the more than 20 classrooms I observed and in every conversation I had with adults and students.
To ensure the success of each child, the staff at Forestbrook has instituted a wide range of strategies and interventions. Two full-time instructional coaches assist teachers in analyzing student data from formative and summative assessments. As a teacher noted, “The entire point of evaluation and assessment should be to drive instruction,” and in planning sessions, I saw teams of teachers together crafting and developing instruction tailored to the academic needs of each student.
This data-driven instruction was bolstered by incredible use of technology to enhance instruction. Every Forestbrook student is assigned an iPad, which teachers use to create engaging learning environments and to gather real-time feedback on student understanding. The effectiveness of the technology integration is enhanced by a school culture that prizes and prioritizes collaboration, as exemplified by the redesign of the class schedule to provide space and time for teachers to engage in weekly planning by grade level and by subject area.
But more than anything, what makes Forestbrook an exemplary place to learn is that student success lies at the heart of everything teachers do. In a planning meeting, I heard a teacher comment that the driving force is not “ego, but in wanting to do what kids need.” This type of statement isn’t novel in education, but seeing it in the authentic commitment to every Forestbrook student’s success is a reminder of how powerful it can be when a staff and community rally to ensure that children receive the best possible education. The National Blue Ribbon program does a great job shining the spotlight on schools like Forestbrook, where the focus remains exactly where it should be every day in school …on the success of each child.
Early in my teaching career I remember wishing other people would just “leave me alone” to do my job. I loved working with my students and was wholly committed to their success, but often felt like the non-instructional components of my job—professional development, staff meetings, and so on—kept me from doing my best as their teacher. As a result, I had little interest in the educational world outside of the four walls of my classroom.
In recent years, however, through some discussions at the local and state level, I have come to realize the limitations of this mentality. So, I was intrigued last year when a former student’s parent forwarded me information about the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship (TAF) with the U.S. Department of Education. In the past, I would have deleted the email, but I decided to submit an application. After several rounds of interviews, I was selected as a TAF for the 2015-2016 school year. Though only one quarter through my Fellowship year, I can now say that applying was one of the best professional decisions I have ever made.
I teach Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. Government and Politics, so the opportunity to learn and participate in the federal policymaking process as a TAF simply can’t help but enrich my instruction. Also, through my TAF Team, I get to work with some of the most thoughtful, passionate and brilliant educators I have ever encountered and with staff members at the Department whose dedication to students is both energizing and inspirational. Most importantly, however, I have come to realize the simple reality that in 2015 it is no longer possible for a teacher to wall off his or her classroom from outside influences. As a TAF, I have an opportunity to lend my voice and experiences to shape education policy in our country and to better understand the decisions that are made in Washington, D.C., versus the state capital in Columbia, S.C., or at the district office here in Richland School District Two.
Moreover, as a result of my work as a TAF, I am finding myself slowly letting go of some of the focus on “my students,” not for any lessor commitment to their success, but, rather, because I am realizing how ALL students are OUR students. Our collective success as a country does not depend on your students or mine, it depends on all students being prepared to lead and thrive in our future world. Their collective success requires me to share my voice and expertise beyond the walls of my classroom. For myself, I can’t envision a better way to do this than as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow and I encourage other educators to consider taking that step beyond your classroom walls and apply.
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 ofTeachingandPrincipal Ambassador Fellows opened on November 17, 2015 and willclose on December 14, 2015 at 11:59 PM ET. For more information about the process, please thoroughly review theTeachingandPrincipal Ambassador Fellowshipwebpages.