As I entered the U.S. Department of Education building on the morning of May 9, something felt different. Many offices usually filled with buzzing conversations were empty. Many of my colleagues weren’t in the building. They were in area schools shadowing a teacher.
As part of Teacher Appreciation Week, 50 ED staff in Washington D.C. and across the country participated in “ED Goes Back to School.” Senior officials and career staff, matched with a classroom teacher, spent a full or half day experiencing the life of a teacher. Some co-taught while others observed. Some participated with small groups while others worked with students one-on-one. Regardless of the role they played in the classroom, everyone agreed that the experience was transformational.
“Everything I have done in the last five years was affirmed today,” shared music teacher Mike Matlock.
In a meeting with the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that evening, teachers and ED staff shared stories from the day and implications for their work.
Massie Ritsch, Deputy Assistant Secretary for External Affairs and Outreach Services, spoke of dissecting a pig at Ballou Senior High School. Mike Humphreys, a National Board Certified P.E. teacher at Patrick Henry Elementary School, shared that his shadow, David Hoff, proved to be a great sport throughout the day, even when getting hit in the leg with an errant T-ball bat. Lisa Jones, a 3rd grade teacher at Watkins Elementary School, spoke lovingly about how her shadow, Ann Whalen, Director of Policy and Program Implementation, didn’t hesitate to dance along with the “Fraction Shuffle.”
Through story after story, I sensed true appreciation for the rigorous work that teachers do every day. “Throughout the day I was amazed by teachers who understand the needs of all students,” reflected Alexa Posny, Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, who shadowed Flora Lerenman and Caitlin Kevill’s 2nd grade class at Tyler Elementary School. “I loved that when you walk into their classroom, you have no idea who is the special education teacher and who isn’t.”
After spending a day in a turnaround school with Mary Balla, a Spanish teacher at Anacostia High School, Suzanne Immerman indicated that the culture of high expectations is helping to transform the school, but she also acknowledged that we need to recognize that real change takes time.
Many spoke of the strong relationships they witnessed between teachers and students and thought aloud about how we might value students’ social and emotional needs more in the Department’s programs and policies.
Audra Polk, a theater teacher at Ballou Senior High drove this point home. “Teaching is nothing at Ballou if you don’t have a relationship with your students,” she said.
Everyone agreed that ED needs to create a new tradition of going back to school, and to do so more often. Some staff called for this to be a quarterly event; Secretary Duncan and teachers agreed.
The day that began with an eerily quiet building in the morning had become filled with excitement, conversation, and laughter by evening. Relationships were built, lessons were learned, and teachers were truly appreciated.
Geneviève DeBose is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from Bronx Charter School for the Arts. She wants to give a shout-out to her father, Dr. Herman DeBose, who shadowed her for two days during her 3rd year of teaching. That experience was the inspiration for “ED Goes Back to School.”