Teacher voice is a crucial part of any education reform. Yet, teachers often feel that they don’t have a voice or that they are not heard. In this issue of “Ask Dr. Borders,” Regional Teaching Ambassador Kareen Borders answers educators’ questions about how the Department’s Teaching Ambassador Fellows contribute to ED policy.
Teacher Question (TQ): How does the Department of Education know what is going on in classrooms across the country?
Dr. Borders (Dr. B): I have been surprised at ED’s connection to classrooms. Arne and other officials often hold discussions with teachers at their schools, host meetings with teachers, and visit classrooms as much as possible. In addition, there are ongoing initiatives, including ED Goes Back to School, Regional Office Outreach, and more.
The best example is the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship. The Fellowship provides a two-way link between classroom teachers and ED, informing policy and explaining ED’s agenda to teachers. For example, Teaching Ambassadors recently led over 250 roundtables seeking input from educators for the RESPECT Project, an initiative to transform the teaching profession. Arne Duncan underscored the importance of the Teaching Ambassadors when he acknowledged that the past cohort of 16 Teaching Fellows “continually brought the teachers’ recommendations back into the Department, giving voice to teachers everywhere and putting real names and faces up against our policies.”
TQ: What exactly is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow (TAF)?
Dr. B: TAFs are active classroom teachers engaged in learning about policy who work to bridge policy and practice. The Fellows share with ED from their experiences, and folks at the department help them to communicate about the Department’s policies and programs that affect teachers. The Teaching Ambassador Fellowship employs current teachers as either Classroom Fellows or Full-Time Fellows.
Classroom Teaching Fellows continue to teach full-time and work for the Department on a part-time basis. They directly engage with teachers and educational stakeholders around a variety of topics. Examples include technology, migrant education, STEM education, and the RESPECT Project.
Full-time Fellows are either based in ED’s Headquarters in Washington or as a Regional Teaching Ambassador based in one of ED’s regional offices, this year in Seattle. Full-time fellows are on loan from their district for one-year and have taken a leave of absence.
TQ: What exactly does a Teaching Ambassador Fellow do?
Dr. B: TAFs engage with teachers and other educational stakeholders in several ways. One fruitful method has been holding deep-dive roundtable discussions about a particular issue that teachers care about. A roundtable may be held at a school, a district, a conference, or any other place conducive to productive dialogue. For example, Teaching Fellows recently led several discussions centered on middle level education. In them, teachers helped policymakers to understand more deeply the unique learning needs of middle level students and why it is important for policies to consider the education of the whole child. With all roundtables, the TAF writes a report and talks with people at the Department about insights they have gained, including the suggestions and comments from teachers. After the discussion with middle level educators, a task force at the Department began to meet to reconsider ways to help support struggling middle schools.
TQ: How can I become a Fellow?
Dr. B: Great question! You need to apply. The application will be released in early winter and will be announced in the Teaching Matters newsletter, on the Teacher page of the Department’s website, as well as on the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship program site. If you are interested in applying for 2013-2014 Fellowship, email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “notify me” and you will be notified when the 2013-2014 application is released. Applicants must complete a rigorous written application process that includes a narrative, resume, and letters of reference. Every application is reviewed by current and previous Teaching Ambassador Fellows and by Department staff members who have taught or who work closely on teacher-related issues. A smaller pool of applicants is then invited to interview, first by phone, and then in an in-person interview if selected as a finalist.
TQ: Are Fellows paid?
Dr. B: Yes! The Department knows that a teacher’s expertise and time are valuable, so teachers are compensated for their work. Although the financial compensation is definitely a positive part of the program, most Ambassadors will tell you that the real value comes from the learning that occurs and the connections that are made during the Fellowship year. Few teachers have an opportunity to be involved in federal policy, and the Fellowship provides that unique opportunity. While the learning curve is often steep, the professional growth that occurs is amazing. In addition, the intangible benefit of being able to work with teachers across the country is treasured by all.
Editor’s note: When 2011-2012 Teaching Ambassador Fellow Greg Mullenholz returned to Montgomery County, Md. Schools, Kareen Borders is taking over the “Ask a Teacher” column.