No Teacher Leader Left Behind!

Why the New ESEA Must Contain Teacher Leadership

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) with his former teacher and a group of Mexican Americans, his former students, standing behind him. This legislation was born out of Johnson’s deeply held belief that not all students were getting access to the American Dream: “As the son of a tenant farmer, I know that education is the only valid passport from poverty.” President Johnson’s personal experiences – teaching in a segregated school during college and then teaching high school prior to his political career –  led him to action in passing this law that would have an enormous and lasting impact on education.

President Johnson ESEA

President Johnson reflected on his time teaching in the Mexican American school, saying “It was then that I made up my mind that this nation could never rest while the door to knowledge remained closed to any American.” The law has lived on in different manifestations, most recently the controversial No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001 under President Bush.

Currently this law is up for reauthorization. This provides an opportunity to correct some of the flaws in the well-intentioned NCLB that created new problems as it attempted to solve others. One good thing about NCLB that goes back to the spirit of the original ESEA of 1965 is the conversation about striving for equity in an education system that is supposed to be the pipeline for the very basis of the American Dream. The House recently has passed one form of ESEA reauthorization titled the Student Success Act, while the Senate has passed another, the Every Child Achieves Act, and now a committee will begin to work on a final, compromise bill to ultimately replace NCLB. To ensure the new bill contains this pipeline for the American Dream, a pipeline that is accessible to every student, I believe that it must foster teacher leadership.

An amendment has been proposed that would recognize and formalize the power of teacher leadership. The Bennett amendment proposes providing training and support, as well as opportunities for career development such as hybrid roles for teachers to serve as mentors or coaches while remaining in the classroom, and encourages effective teachers to lead evidence-based professional development. I find this to be so hopeful. The ESEA originated with teacher leadership.  President Johnson started out as a teacher and went on to be the most powerful leader in the western world. Empowered teachers are strong advocates for their students. They collaborate and share best practices with other teachers, ensuring that the greatest number of students benefit from effective strategies and methods. As respected experts in education, they champion good policy.

I have been fortunate to experience the empowerment that comes from teacher leadership opportunities. My personal teacher leadership journey began with recognition of my teaching ability and my students’ success. In 2011 I was chosen as the Ocean County New Jersey Teacher of the Year and I became a finalist for 2012 NJ State Teacher of the Year. The following year I applied for a national teacher fellowship, the America Achieves Fellowship for Teachers and Principals, and was accepted.

The leadership skills I acquired through these experiences primed me to become a community leader when Hurricane Sandy hit where I live and teach in October 2012. I created a grassroots organization initially comprised of teachers and school staff that went out and assisted storm victims. The group evolved into 2700 volunteers from our community and beyond, helping over 800 homeowners and businesses begin the recovery from the devastating storm damage.

Beyond community leadership, as a national teacher fellow I have gained knowledge and skills from highly accomplished teachers throughout our country. I took what I learned back to my classroom, improving my instruction and student outcomes. Attending the fellowship conferences motivated me to pursue National Board certification, a rigorous and challenging process that leads teachers to reflect on the choices they make when planning and executing lessons and instruction. I created a cohort with three other teachers in my district in the certification process, which brought the benefit of deep reflection on our professional practice to four classrooms rather than just one.

During my America Achieves National Teacher Fellowship, I had the opportunity to pilot a student perception survey created by Harvard Professor Dr. Ron Ferguson and used in the historically important Measures of Effective Teaching MET Project. Using the student surveys I was able to pinpoint areas to explore further professional development, including classroom management, an area of weakness that had not been detected during my traditional observations. Although I had been rated as a “Highly Effective” teacher for the two years of the new teacher evaluation system, my self-reflective practice led me to seek continuous personalized professional growth.

I went on to apply for and be selected as a 2014 Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow. During that fellowship I presented at national teacher conferences, helping other teachers find paths to leadership that allow them to stay in the classroom. Historically, the only avenue for teachers to lead beyond their own classroom has been to leave the classroom for an administrative position. Continuing my teacher leadership journey, I was nominated to membership in two teacher advisory panels at the NJ State Department of Education. One panel offers feedback to the department on all aspects of education from evaluation to testing and curriculum. The other panel is currently in charge of rewriting the approval process for teacher preparation program in NJ for novice and pre-service teachers.

My teacher leadership journey has led me to have an impact beyond improved instruction in my own practice. I have encouraged three teachers in my district to self-reflect and improve their instruction through the National Board certification process, and motivated teachers across the country to find their voice and advocate for their students and their profession through national fellowships. I’ve learned from the most distinguished educators, and shared that knowledge with my district and beyond.

Teacher leadership can provide the means to improve education in classrooms across the country. President Johnson was a teacher leader who was able to promise the hope of a better life through education to all children, no matter their address or background.  That promise, that all American children have access to a brighter future through public education, underlies the American dream and reflects a core value that sets our country apart.

I am reminded of a quote by Shanna Peeples, the 2015 Texas and National State Teacher of the Year: “Public Schools are America’s best thing that we give the world. We are the only country that opens its doors, that says, ‘Come on in, we don’t care who you are. We’ll help you.’ That’s not an easy promise, but there are a million teachers who try to deliver on that promise every day.”

The Emergent Leaders Program is a highly selective, job-embedded leadership training program that works with teachers to develop and hone leadership skills. A recent report they published titled, “Untapped, Transforming Teacher leadership to Help Students Succeed” made the following key findings:

  • Teacher leaders can immediately boost student learning in their schools. Some 70 percent of participants achieved notable gains in student achievement across classrooms they supervised during their training year.
  • Teacher leaders can quickly develop and apply critical leadership skills. Participants made significant, measureable gains on high-impact skills, such as using student data and coaching to improve instruction.
  • Teacher leaders can fill gaps in the leadership pipeline. After one year of Emerging Leaders, 80 percent of participants who were accepted to a principal apprenticeship started that training having mastered key leadership skills.

Teacher leadership, as it is proposed in the Bennet amendment to the Every Child Achieves Act, must be a part of the reauthorization of ESEA.  Formalizing this approach, we can reach countless students. We owe it to the children of this country and the teachers who have dedicated themselves to changing the trajectory of their students’ lives. Teacher leadership can attain the goal of making the world a better place at a much faster pace than working in isolation and impacting only a few children at a time. This is the message I will be bringing to Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on August 17th, 2015 to my Senator Corey Booker and other politicians.

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