Thanks for Teaching Me Out of My Comfort Zone

Last year, the week after Teacher Appreciation Week, Moe Liss, the teacher who had the greatest influence on my life of any teacher, was being honored near Paterson, New Jersey, my home town. I decided that no matter how many late night buses I had to take to get there and back, I had to attend — it was worth it to honor a great teacher. In celebration of this year’s Teacher Appreciation Week, I want to share my feelings about honoring the teacher who influenced me the most.    

The author in his office at the U.S. Department of Education. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

The author in his office at the U.S. Department of Education. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

It was great to be back in my home territory of Northern New Jersey with several hundred people of various ages that I recognized from my childhood. They were there to celebrate the contributions of Moe Liss, my high school teacher in economics, who went on to support many community causes and train many teachers at a local teacher’s college — a role he still plays in his youthful eighties.

My memories of Mr. Liss (I still cannot call him Moe) were not all pleasant. In his class, he challenged his students to think and learn and use the full range of their abilities. It was not always a happy or comfortable experience, but he always made me learn, and I always was improved by the experience, even though I may have not realized it then. He pushed me and other students way out of our comfort zones and taught me to be inquisitive and to think critically — skills that drive my thinking today and every day in my work at the Department. What he taught me then still serves me very well today — to be a lifelong learner and to use that learning to solve problems. He still drives me to think creatively, solve problems, and continually strive to improve.

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The Importance of Learning from Other Teacher Leaders

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This year during Teacher Appreciation Week, I would like to express my gratitude for several organizations that appreciate teachers who want to grow as professionals while remaining in the classroom.

In recent years, I found that my greatest passion was to elevate our profession by focusing on the classroom teacher as a leader. This was a natural fit for me since I served for over 20 years in the U.S. Coast Guard, where I developed as a leader with formal leadership training. Much of my success as a teacher has been grounded in the leadership competencies I learned during my military career. I wanted to create similar leadership development opportunities for my colleagues.

So, how does a middle school science teacher from a small district in Massachusetts follow her passion to create leadership development opportunities for teachers? She takes advantages of national level leadership opportunities!

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What the Department Has Said About Teachers – It’s Worth a Listen

Much like America’s teachers, the U.S. Department of Education sometimes gets a bad rap.

You know the drill. So many times, the stories of frustrated teachers or bad apples get bigger play on social media and in the news than the stories of the millions of American teachers who, like my friends and colleagues, change lives every day. Meanwhile, federal policymakers get blamed for not being omnipotent, as many think they should be, or for not talking to real teachers. However, since the start of this school year, my Teaching Ambassador Fellow colleagues and I have spoken with literally thousands of teachers around the country and brought back to ED what we’ve heard.

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Listening to Teachers: Why It’s Important We Hear Your Voices

“Teachers have made a huge difference in my life. Among my key priorities this year is lifting up our nation’s teachers and the education profession. The Teaching Ambassador Fellowship and Teach to Lead are great steps in this direction. I am eager to work with the Fellows to do even more to support educators as they work to expand educational equity and excellence each day.” – Secretary (and high school social studies teacher) John King on the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship website.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Teaching Ambassador Fellows (TAF) are expected to learn about federal education policy, reach out to teachers and schools and reflect with Department of Education staff what they hear. As a Washington-based TAF, on leave from my school for the year, I have had the unique honor of bringing the voices of teachers I meet across the country directly into discussions at the Department of Education. One way we have done this recently is through monthly meetings we call Tea with Teachers.

Secretary King engages with teachers during a Tea with Teachers session in February. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Secretary King engages with teachers during a Tea with Teachers session in February. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

During Tea with Teachers, educators from across the United States are invited to come share their unique experiences with Secretary King and other staff members on key topics like teacher retention, challenges faced by Native American youth, meeting the needs of students who are refugees, creating safe learning spaces free from discrimination, and the unique problems faced by students who are undocumented.

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Enlisting Educators’ Wisdom to Implement the Every Student Succeeds Act

ED has held several listening sessions about the ESSA this year. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

ED has held several listening sessions about the ESSA this year. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Since President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law, I have seen Department of Education staff have to work quickly through minute details to figure out how to help make this new law work best for 50 million students in 100,000 schools around the country. It has been gratifying however, to also see these staff members pause to take the time it requires to go directly to hear from those who will implement the law. In doing so, our leaders turned to the Department’s resident educators – Teaching and Principal Ambassador and Leadership for Educational Equity Fellows – to organize listening sessions and school visits for them with nearly 1,000 teachers, principals, superintendents and administrators, parents, and community representatives from all manner of rural, suburban and urban settings in 16 states thus far and more sessions still to come.

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Everything You Need to Know About Financial Aid Resources for Teachers

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We know that preparing to become a teacher can be expensive. Sometimes it’s tough to pay all of the bills on time, including student loans. But there are resources and programs out there that teachers can take advantage of and we’ve gathered them all here in one place just for you.

Under certain circumstances, you can get your federal student loans forgiven or even canceled.

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Our Most Popular Resources for Educators

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Here at ED, one of our top priorities this year is to support teachers and elevate the teaching profession. To do so, we are working to make sure that the right information reaches teachers all across the country. Here are a few of our most popular resources to help support you in your classroom:

If You’re Currently in the Classroom

Check out our Teacher’s Edition newsletter. We’d love for you to sign up — and tell your friends! This weekly bulletin gathers the latest news and info for educators – and includes resources for teachers, by teachers. We’d also invite you to learn more about the Teach to Lead initiative and our Teaching Ambassador Fellowships and Principal Ambassador Fellowships.

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Heroic Hearts, Humble Outlooks During Teacher Appreciation Week

Last week, across the country, educators were celebrated during Teacher Appreciation Week. For our own part here at ED, we carried out a number of activities with the sole intention of expressing gratitude for those who’ve chosen this unsung profession. A lucky few of us listened in when Secretary Duncan called classroom teachers across several disciplines and in various parts of the country.

Although my interactions with educators here at ED remind me daily of the intelligence and genuine passion it takes to work as an educator, during our calls, I was struck by a humility that is unmatched in any other profession. In a day and age where tweets, social media posts and news stories are dominated by a celebrity’s dress or public figure’s snarky comment, truly remarkable acts of teachers’ kindness, support, and heroism are just part of what’s lost in the cyberspace of minute-to-minute broadcasts.

This week, that humility was so apparent in a three-word phrase that my Education Department colleagues and I heard time and time again: just a teacher. “I can’t believe you called me, I’m just a teacher.” “I never aspired to be anything other than just a teacher.” I’m not sure what to say, Mr. Secretary, I’m just a teacher.

Each of them, in turn, describing themselves in this way: I’m just a teacher.

From the young Albuquerque teacher who inspires her seniors to a college-attendance rate five times higher than the national average for Native students. To the Baltimore art teacher who wouldn’t allow riots just blocks from her campus to come between her students and their community beautification project on the morning after the worst of the city’s violence. To the true teacher leaders—who’d never think to apply that term to themselves—who decided to leave stable classroom assignments to work in disadvantaged schools with high-needs, struggling students to try and make a difference.

There’s a lesson here, for all of us, but it’s not one to be taught or explained. It’s demonstrated, in all those kind, supportive and heroic actions in classrooms and schools, humbly performed by individuals grateful for the opportunity to have a positive impact on the life of a child.

For teachers, everywhere, actions they do selflessly, every single day—Thank you!

Karen Stratman is the Director for National Public Engagement at the U.S. Department of Education.

Teachers’ Favorite Moments During Teacher Appreciation Week

What a week!

All year long, we at the U.S. Department of Education seek to bring teachers’ perspectives to our work and to understand, as much as possible, their classroom realities. Just last week, we hosted conversations with National Hall of Fame Teachers and State Teachers of the Year, and  every week of the year we talk with teachers about their work and what they need from us.

Still, Teacher Appreciation Week is different. During Teacher Appreciation Week we honor our nation’s educators in special ways.

The current and former teachers at ED compiled some of our favorite moments in a short list of memories that resonate with us.

Marie-Reed-Elementary

Secretary Duncan chats with teachers during Marie Reed Elementary School’s Teacher Appreciation Breakfast (Photo credit: Leslie Williams/Dept. of Education)

ED Goes Back to School: Department staff working in Washington, D.C. and at the nine regional offices shadowed more than 70 teachers around the country. They prepped for their school visits by attending a pre-shadowing workshop hosted by teachers at ED, who offered insights into lesson planning. Through the extended visits, ED officials experienced slivers of insight into the complex and fast-paced world of teaching. At the end of the day, ED hosted a debriefing session and reception in which ED staff honored the teachers they shadowed, along with Secretary Duncan.

  • At J.A. Rogers Elementary in Kansas City, Mo., ED’s Jeanne Ackerson met Library Media Specialist Paula York’s unique co-worker: a live-in dog (a boxer) who helps to calm fears, relieve anxieties and teach skills to inner-city children. York said she gets great satisfaction when students leave her classroom with a love for reading. 
  • ED’s Jamila Smith, who observed third grade and kindergarten teachers Laura Arkus and Nicole Entwisle at Hyattsville Elementary School (Hyattsville, Md.), was the first to speak at the end-of-day debriefing. “These two teachers handled 21+ kids all day long and they never stopped,” she said. “Yet each kid was touched, each child was heard, and everyone was reached.”
  • After the day of shadowing Kalpana Kumar Sharma at Brightwood Education Campus (Washington, D.C.), ED’s Joy Silvern told the teachers who visited the Department, “We will only get the right answers [to address education challenges] if we stay grounded in your experience and knowledge.”
  • Shannon Schwallenberg teaches 3-year-olds at who are at a 6-month developmental level at Frances Fuchs Early Childhood Center (Beltsville, Md.). She explained to staff why teachers spend so much of their own money on school supplies. Though she receives six butterflies with her class butterfly kit, Schwallenberg said she buys more because, “I want each child to have the authentic experience of releasing their own butterflies.”

Teacher Social at the White House: Twenty-two enthusiastic teachers from around the country participated in a White House social with honorary “First Teacher of the United States” Dr. Jill Biden and Secretary Duncan.

  • Teachers’ tweets from the event were inspirational and fun. One (@TheMathLady) wrote, “Ya know, just another day of hanging out on the South Lawn of the White House.” Meanwhile, Teaching Ambassador Fellow Joiselle Cunningham got a little disoriented on the property and temporarily lost Secretary Duncan.  
  • Teaching Ambassador Fellow Lisa Clarke reported that while talking with the teachers, she heard Secretary Duncan repeat at least three lessons he had learned from listening to teachers who were shadowed by ED staff. “The teachers really were heard,” said Clarke, “and he learned from them.

Leadership Calls: Each day of the week, Arne Duncan called a teacher to thank them for their work and talk about their leadership. Here are highlights from two of the calls:

  • After failed attempts to reach him through a cell phone, Arne connected via landline with Mark Garner, a high school teacher at Camas High School (Camas, Wa.). The call, caught on video at the school, shows interesting interactions among Duncan, Garner and Garner’s ninth grade English class.
  • Prior to talking with Marca Whitten, who teaches at the Studio School in the Glassell Park community of Los Angeles, Calif., Duncan spoke with her principal, Leah Raphael. Raphael was a 2010 Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the Department, and when former boss Arne Duncan asked how she liked starting a school, she said, “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” Later, Whitten explained to Duncan how the school community chose Raphael as its principal. “We met and I knew within 30 seconds,” she said. “How did I know? Well, she speaks from the heart, she listens from the heart, and she’s smart, smart, smart.”

Marie Reed Elementary’s Teacher Appreciation Breakfast: Teachers were a little overcome by a surprise visit from Dr. Jill Biden and Arne Duncan during the Washington, D.C. school’s Teacher Appreciation Breakfast.

  • One fourth-year teacher with tears in her eyes said, “Jill Biden is a rock star… I only got to speak to her for a moment, mostly because I couldn’t even get words to come out of my mouth when she came to my table.”
  • Veteran teacher Maggie Davis talked with Duncan about retiring from the profession after 36 years of accomplished teaching. She said she feels good about the direction of the profession and how the vision of the principal has sharpened. She also said she believes that there is more good to come.

#ThankATeacher: ED added to the national #ThankATeacher conversation via social media by providing signs for folks to use to record why they are thankful for teachers and asking them to share pictures of them and their signs.

  • Teacher appreciation was contagious. The #ThankATeacher tweet with card from @usedgov reached potentially about half a million users, and the hashtag #ThankATeacher was used in over 42,000 Tweets during the last seven days.
  • The tweets from students, parents and teachers—including the State Teachers of the Year—reminded us all why we do this work. The simple student pictures thanking teachers for “being nice” and “teaching me division” really tug at our hearts.
  • Around the building, staff posted on doors and cubicle walls all manner of messages to teachers they have loved, thanking them for: “believing in me”; “not giving up, no matter what”; and “introducing me to bow ties.”

During Teacher Appreciation Week, it is nice to bring teachers cards and doughnuts. But it’s also a little bit strange because we wouldn’t take our doctor a cupcake or drop by an architect’s office to pass out cookies. At ED, we seek to appreciate teachers by actively trying to understand what they do.

Laurie Calvert is a 14-year National Board Certified Teacher from Asheville, North Carolina, and the Department’s Teacher Liaison.