This article was originally published in PSEA's Voice magazine as "Teacher of Year Urges Educators to Speak Up" (March 2017).
Teaching is the greatest job in the world.
Not only do we get to change lives every day we come to work, but we get to teach the next generation how to make the world a better place. We get to empower our students to love learning and to use it to solve the world's biggest problems. Our work is shaping the future of society.
While teaching is incredibly rewarding, we all know that it can be exceptionally stressful. Many teachers have told me they feel frustrated with a system that seems to favor special interests over our students. Nobody knows better the practical implications of education policies than those of us implementing them, yet teacher input has often been lacking from policy decisions.
Collectively, however, we hold great power to bring about change. Teachers have always been a force for good in education when speaking with a unified voice for children. Our goal of providing access to an excellent public education for every child is noble and just. Here are answers to some questions I often get from teachers who are starting to discover the power of their teacher voice.
How can we grow respect for the teaching profession?
Too often we have let others tell the narrative of teaching. We must each use our voices to take that narrative back. For a variety of reasons, teachers have been reluctant to share the great things happening in their classrooms. In other professions, sharing innovative ideas and best practices is expected. A heart surgeon would never keep a new technique he discovered to himself if it could save lives. He would understand that it is a professional responsibility to publish that success. In this way, we must become more like other professions. Teachers save lives every day, and we must share those stories so that others can learn from us, be inspired by us, and understand the true nature of our job.
What is the best way to share our stories?
Sharing can take many forms. Many teachers use social media professionally to share successful lessons and to collaborate with colleagues around the world. More than ten percent of all posts on Twitter are related to education. There are Facebook groups on every conceivable education topic. I've heard from many teachers that just 5-10 minutes per day of sharing, learning, and collaborating with other educators on social media sites have allowed them to find inspiration and to rediscover the joy of teaching. Invite local newspapers into your classroom to write stories about your students, or lawmakers into your school to participate in great lessons you have planned for your students. It may be uncomfortable at first, but allow others the opportunity to learn from you. The great things that happen in our classroom often seem too obvious to share because we experience them every day, but I've learned many times that those stories are amazing to others.
There is nobody more qualified to talk about the educational needs and experiences of your students than you. To paraphrase Harry Truman, history is driven by those who show up. Our students, our public schools, and our profession needs us to show up right now. The collective voice of hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania educators will be impossible to ignore.
As Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year, I look forward to visiting many of your classrooms, schools, and communities. I hope many of you will invite me to hear your stories and learn from you. Even more importantly, though, I hope that each of you will join me in using your voice to create a positive narrative around the world's greatest profession.
This article was originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer on 24 May 2017.
co-authored by Secretary Pedro Rivera and Mairi Cooper
Too often in policy debates, each side comes to the table with talking points and an agenda, rather than an open ear and a commitment to find common ground. When it comes to schools, whatever differences we may have on issues like Common Core, testing, and accountability, our unifying goal must always be to ensure that all children receive a quality education, regardless of zip code, and to find solutions that accomplish that.
In order to move educational equity from a shared priority for policymakers and practitioners to a reality for students in our state, education leaders and advocates have pushed for more intentional conversations and actions to address the underlying problems that prevent so many of our students from working on a level playing field.
This commitment to equity reflects many of the recommendations outlined earlier this year in the joint report from the Aspen Institute and the Council for Chief State School Officers titled "Leading for Equity: Opportunities for State Chiefs." The suggested policy and engagement actions include pushing for greater funding, investing in professional development, and proactively engaging and listening to communities so they can hold state leaders more accountable in meeting goals.
The passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act gave us an opportunity to reignite conversations in our state about what it will take to create quality educational opportunities for all students and how we can work together to achieve that vision.
As part of our effort to design a new state education plan, we created stakeholder workgroups made up of educators and the broader community to inform our efforts. We knew it wasn't simply about changing policy or talking to community members - it was about listening to those who have been most affected by inequities and working with them to meet students' needs.
Teachers have been at the core of that engagement. They are the ones who, on a day-to-day basis, educate, mentor, and bolster our children. In Pennsylvania, we've been fortunate to have exceptional teachers from across the state come together to form the Pennsylvania Teacher Advisory Committee, which will serve as a pipeline for teacher voices and input into our collective work.
Giving teachers a seat at the table allows them to share their stories and those of their students and provide timely insight on how changes in state education policy could make a positive difference in classroom practice - or where it might not have its intended effect. Policy makers must understand how their work might alleviate or exacerbate systemic inequities statewide for students most impacted by a legacy of inequitable access and opportunity.
Equity is also about assessing and meeting all the unique needs of our children, and not just the ones that can be measured in test scores. One of our state's more successful ventures in this arena has been the launch of Pennsylvania's Superintendents Academy, a two-year professional development program that addresses challenges faced by students, including poverty and mental health. This setting provides an important opportunity for superintendents to discuss how inequities outside of the classroom affect schools and what can be done to systematically support the whole child.
If we want to change students' lives for the better, everyone - from the secretary of education to teachers to anyone in between - must not shy away from the difficult conversations that a discussion about equity sometimes surfaces, or avoid pointing out the real inequities that continue to affect many children.
With so many advances in technology, we have more opportunities than ever before to engage and connect with others that don't share our own background. Let's keep talking. More importantly, let's keep listening, and work together to act on what we're hearing.