Calling on All to Lift Up the Teaching Profession

Out in the field with students.

Out in the field with students.

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.

Those of us who have chosen education as our career path continually see statistics about the decreasing number of students entering the teaching profession. We witness our credential programs struggle to fill seats and our districts struggle to fill positions.

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.

So what can be done to help combat these problems? We must lift up the teaching profession, as Acting Secretary John King has prioritized and is calling on educators to do. It won’t be easy, but it’s necessary for the long-term health of the profession. The following steps illustrate how to achieve this goal.

Getting Them

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.

Training Them

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.

Keeping Them

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.

Nancy Veatch teaches at Bend Elementary School in Cottonwood, California, and is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

Engaging Families via Student-Led Conferences: Perspective from One of Our Teaching Ambassador Fellows

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.

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.

Patrick Kelly teaches at Blythewood High School in Columbia, South Carolina, and is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

Our Teachers Edition Newsletter Will Now Feature ‘Voices from the Classroom’

For teachers. By teachers.

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.

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

A Commitment to Every Child

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.

Patrick Kelly teaches at Blythewood High School in Columbia, South Carolina, and is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

Applying for the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship Program: Reaching Beyond My Walls for Students

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.

Patrick Kelly is a teacher in Richland County School District Two in Columbia, S.C., and a 2015 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow.

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.

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”

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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.

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“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.