“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.
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.
“Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes….”
Every month at these events, I have the rare pleasure of hearing teachers speaking their truth, sharing their passion, and representing their students—even with shaky voices. Honestly, maybe it is because of those shaky voices that it is such a pleasure. As a teacher, I’ve been in their shoes. I know what it is like to have something so important and vital to your students to say that you have to speak the truth, even if it’s scary. The issues they share are real in teachers’ and kids’ lives and it can be easy for people to forget that, from even just a few steps outside the classroom, let alone sitting at a conference table in Washington, D.C.
Many former educators, including Secretary King, work at the Department of Education. One of the things educators know from experience is that schools are ever-evolving and changing. That drives those at the Department to keep talking to teachers, to hear firsthand accounts of their classroom and to use their expertise to illuminate positive outcomes and unintended consequences of educational policy. In these conversations with teachers, we have heard creative ideas for teacher retention, passionate pleas to help students, and seen firsthand the dedication of teachers who take on much more than teaching the curriculum.
The fact is, though, that speaking the truth can have ripple effects. I have seen teachers leave armed with new confidence and information to advocate for students’ educational rights at the local, state and federal level; many write blogs and send tweets telling others the importance of sharing their teacher voice in educational policy; and we have received a multitude of emails from participants grateful for the opportunity to share and, inspired by the conversation, to keep talking. As one educator wrote, inspiring us all, “Once we give students a little light, the darkness goes away and the light gets a little brighter for everyone.”
So this Teacher Appreciation Week, I want to appreciate these teachers who have come to the Department and represented their students, schools and communities so well. You have given us that little bit of light and our work is brighter because of you. Thank you for informing our work, but more importantly, thank you for speaking the truth — even when your voice shakes.
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. Follow her at @JoLisaKH.