Speaking to Power, Learning from Power: Two Journeys to Washington

A thrill runs through me every time I spot an iconic monument or government building in our nation’s capitol. Having lived in Pennsylvania all my life, I’ve had many opportunities to visit Washington D.C., yet the exhilaration and energy of the place has never diminished. In March, I had two incredible opportunities to visit our nation’s capitol in a professional capacity. The first was to attend and present at the Teaching and Learning Conference organized by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS).

The second opportunity came one week later through the National Education Association (NEA). A panel of teachers from across the country would brief staffers of U.S. Senators. We were representing the importance of funding to support teacher development in the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) which is more commonly known as “No Child Left Behind.”

After processing those experiences, I want to share some key thoughts both to encourage and challenge fellow teachers, administrators, and policymakers who care about education.

Teacher Leadership is a movement gaining momentum.

I attended a session at the Department of Education (DOE) where I heard a Teacher Fellows update on the Teach to Lead initiative. Last year at the inaugural Teaching and Leading conference, Arne Duncan made a bold pronouncement to offer federal support to Teacher Leadership and an even bolder challenge to hold him accountable for action in the following year. Since then, three summits have been held to invite teachers to share ideas with critical friends, fellow leaders, and potential funders.

I have my frustrations with Teach to Lead–namely lack of financial support and a will to enact systemic, not just temporary, change for teacher leadership.

Hey U.S. Government–it’s time to put your money where your mouth is in supporting teachers as change agents!

Yet I have to acknowledge that this federal-level lift to the teacher leadership movement is encouraging. It certainly catalyzed pockets of teachers around the country, and it confirmed that their innovative ideas hold great potential and merit. Next step: funding them and providing those teachers with release time to lead.

One. Step. At. A. Time.

I also attended a session with Rick Hess who was promoting his new book, Cage-Busting Teachers. I have followed Hess’s online writing for some time and know him to be a right-leaning policy researcher. However, the messages he shared for an hour encouraged me that he does see teachers as the change agents in our educational system.

A week after the Teaching and Learning conference, I found another reason to be encouraged about the teacher leadership movement. Lobbyists and staff from NEA and NBPTS spent considerable resources and effort to convene a panel of five teachers. When facing the potential for a huge education policy to change, these national organizations asked teachers to present to Senate staffers. The push for teachers to become policy advocates represents a significant organizational priority shift. Experts are now seen as those who stay in the classroom to do the work–not only as those who leave to pursue research or administration. Teacher leadership is gaining power.

Teachers need to engage more and with greater purpose. 

At the DOE convening, I was able to see Laurie Calvert present on how to engage policymakers effectively. She pointed out that teachers who are either passive toward legislation or hostile toward policy-makers often produce the same results: absolutely nothing.

Instead, teachers need to speak from their moral authority as experts in the classroom. Her advice was to (1) tone down rhetoric, (2) assume good intentions, (3) listen actively, (4) find common ground, (5) avoid PowerPoints, (6) and do your homework to make an actionable ask.

This sentiment was echoed in my briefing with NEA representatives a week later. They coached us to tell our stories from classrooms and schools. Policymakers are not only inundated with data and statistics, but they have people who can find that information for them (ahem, staffers). What politicians really need are some REALLY GOOD reasons to find and use that data. They need to hear about the impact of policy on the classroom.

Teachers must provide the why’s and how’s for policy makers. WHY does a federal mandate connecting funding to test scores hurt students? HOW does an increase in professional development funding for teachers impact the students in your classroom? Tell your story with confidence. You are the only person in front of students every day to carry those experiences back to the far-away desks of those who create the policies impacting classrooms.

In short, teachers should be bold without vitriol, projecting confidence without arrogance.

Educators need to do their homework and make the right asks of the right people. They also need to learn from those who are immersed in the world of legislators and politics. Most of all, teachers need to ENGAGE with policy on every level. Choosing apathy by closing the classroom door to ignore the outside world changes nothing. Passionate Facebook comments about teachers being victimized by terrible policy also changes nothing. Having conversations with the people making these decisions is more difficult, but it has the potential to change everything.

Face-to-Face connections are powerful and invaluable.

I’m a huge proponent of virtual learning communities and professional learning networks(PLNs). I’m actively involved in quite a few. But connecting with powerful teachers, powerful leaders, and change agents in person is a completely different experience.

At the Teaching and Learning conference, I had the amazing opportunity to lead a session on Designing Systemic Change with Jessica Cuthbertson. We had a room of passionate teachers who hungered to lead from their classrooms. Interacting with a live audience, listening to their discussions, and having conversations afterwards was a humbling and invigorating experience. When one of our attendees, Andy Cook, came up afterwards to shake our hands, he offered this statement (which he later tweeted).

This interaction set the tone for my entire conference experience. I prioritized face-to-face conversations over attending back-to-back sessions. I chose lunches to connect with colleagues instead of rushed snacks and a big-room keynote. I embraced dinner debriefings over time to decompress alone.

Connections are what sustain a teacher leader’s work. Pushing boundaries, advocating for a vision others can’t quite see yet—it’s can be so hard! It drains us, makes us second guess, and causes us to sometimes retreat when we should be advancing. But isolation is not the answer. Connecting with like-minded people reminds why we do this work.

Similarly, being in a room with 15 senate staffers, a panel of distinguished teachers, and a host of talented professionals from national organizations was energizing in a completely different way than attending a webinar, Twitter chat, or authoring a blog. I had a heightened sense of awareness that this was a fleeting but important moment. I wanted to bring my very best to that room as I felt the weight of many hours and resources spent to bring everyone together.

I hope my contributions will make a difference and move this work forward for teachers and students.

Below you will find my pre-written introduction the teacher panel Senate briefing on March 25, 2015. When I delivered it, I’m sure I changed words, omitted sentences, and ad-libbed as I only used my printed notes for reference. But I wanted to share these thoughts and messages beyond that powerful room. I hope it reaches more teacher leaders who will be encouraged to advocate for their students and profession.

Embrace your power, speak to power, learn from the power of others. 

Remarks from NEA Senate Briefing: March 25, 2015

Thank you to Senator Casey and his staff for hosting this teacher briefing today. Thanks to NEA and National Board of Professional Teaching Standards for supporting this panel of accomplished educators.  I am honored to represent our great profession, and humbled to sit with these leaders who represent the some of the best of our profession.

As Segun said, my name is Brianna Crowley and I am a National Board Certified Teacher from Pennsylvania. I currently teach high school English as well as work in my building as an Instructional Technology Coach. This year, I also serve in a hybrid teacher leadership role, so, as you can tell, our topic today is one of my passions!

We need to have conversations about supporting teachers along the professional continuum: from their pre-service training to early-career induction and following through to master teachers leading our schools. Teacher leaders should serve on policy committees, and have systemic support for taking their innovative ideas to scale.

The timing for this conversation is ideal. Not only because of the reauthorization of ESEA, but also because of the great work that has been happening around the country to activate our most accomplished teachers. 2015 marked the first year of the Department of Education’s Teach to Lead initiative which provided a both virtual and physical space for innovative teachers to connect share ideas with each other as well as potential funders. These events took place in key cities across the country.

A number of states have launched the Teacher Leadership Initiative, a partnership between National Education Association, National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, and the Center for Teaching Quality to provide teacher leadership training resulting in an actionable capstone project and certification.

Finally, the Iowa State Legislature approved $50 million in year one of a state-wide teacher leadership initiative. All 346 school districts in Iowa have applied for planning grants.

The time is ripe for conversations to elevate the teaching profession.

My own teacher journey began seven years ago when as a first year teacher I inherited one of the most difficult schedules in my department. Every day I planned for three different courses (freshman communications, senior composition, and junior British Lit), for three different grade levels across three different academic tracks of students (at-risk, honors, and college preparatory).

What kept me from becoming part of the 40% of teachers who quit within their first five years were opportunities to grow and connect with other professionals?

A few years into my career, I was invited to join a small team of teachers and administrators to a summer institute at Harvard’s Department of Education. Listening to expert researchers from Harvard as well as expert practitioners from all over the country helped me to change my classroom practice. Instead of thinking so much about what I was doing or saying in the classroom, I started focusing on the tasks I asked my students to do. I started listening more closely to what they used and what I heard to learn about my students’ thinking processes. I truly began to understand how to promote more rigorous learning.

As a third year teacher, I was invited to serve on curriculum committees where I was collaborated with colleagues to unpack our state standards, research the curriculum of high-achieving schools in our state, and revise our curriculum to have a common set of skills, essential questions, and resources. From this opportunity, I learned the importance of seeing all students in our building as my responsibility. I learned to see myself as part of their continuum of learning and as part of a greater system of teachers building students’ skills to become academically successful.

Working through the National Board Process last year helped me to understand the importance of deep reflection, partnership with parents, and the necessity of individualizing learning for every student. The certifications process taught me that to teach well, you must know things deeply. You must know your content deeply, your craft deeply, and your students deeply.

To close my introduction and to illustrate some markers of an accomplished teaching practice, I want to tell you about a student I currently have. His name is Omar. On my beginning-of-the-year student survey, Omar revealed to me that he had a terrible time in his freshman English class and therefore thought he was “bad” at English. I made a mental note that there was going to be some work here to help Omar reimagine himself as a successful reader, writer, and learner. In that same survey, he shared with me the importance of his family and his faith. From the start, I saw Omar as an individual with personalized talents, needs, and contributions.

As the semester progressed, I noticed that if he was asked to participate verbally, Omar, although soft-spoken, was insightful—often making connections beyond his classmates. Yet when asked to complete a written assignment, he froze up—seeming to hit an invisible wall. He often turned in partially completed assignments, and would balk when I provided him with feedback so he could revise his work.

His grades were plummeting, so I enlisted his mom’s help. I emailed her and explained the plan he and I had discussed in class for him to catch up. I asked for her help in reaching Omar, and to help me convince him to believe in his own potential and ability. She became my ally, and together we helped Omar finish the difficult writing assignment he had been struggling to complete.

At the end of this past marking period, Omar once again didn’t complete a project in time to present it to the class. I pulled him aside for a one-on-one conversation. To be truthful, I gave him a hard time! But I also didn’t allow him to take a zero. Instead, I modified the rubric and sent him home to complete his presentation with written notes instead of verbal. This time, Omar did not disappoint. When he came back the next day, he said “I wish I had done the first assignment—this one was much more work!” He completed the project, thoughtfully, and with his own signature humor that had me laughing out loud while I graded it.

To illustrate the ways in which my own professional development helped me to finally reach Omar, I want to share with you a reflection he wrote at the end of this marking period. This one sentiment illustrates what many accomplished teachers know—that to help students find success, you must see them as individuals with incredible potential, and you must never give up on helping them see that potential themselves.

On his reflection Omar wrote: “At times I didn’t believe I can actually do all the work and get a good grade. But now I know I can.”

This post was originally published on my blog at CTQ. 

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