Teacher Cabinets: Bringing Teacher Voice to the Education Reform Conversation

As a U.S. Department of Education Teaching Ambassador Fellow, one of the many roles I am lucky enough to engage in is that of a conduit between America’s teachers and the Department of Education (ED). I get to sit down with teachers all across the country–sometimes virtually, but often in person–and hear how things are going in their classrooms, in their schools, and in their districts. Then I present that feedback to policy and program folks at ED, giving them critical information to process and, in many cases, act upon.

This formula is singularly responsible for a recent initiative coming out of ED called the RESPECT Project. RESPECT aims to transform the teaching profession so that teachers are as well prepared, developed, compensated and respected as other professionals. One result of this movement is a short vision document written by teachers that outlines ways the teaching profession must change if it hopes to be on par with other respected professions in this country.

Highly visible in this document–and certainly pushed to the front in many of the teacher roundtables in which I have been involved–is the importance of teacher voice in the ongoing conversation about reform. For too long the educators on the ground have lacked an effective way to directly inform and influence education policy and programs at the federal, state and district level. Many of those serving in education offices may not have seen the inside of a classroom from a teacher’s eye view, and it is important they understand our view as they develop and implement policies that affect us in the classroom.

The good news is that recently more and more states have begun to realize the importance of listening to teachers and have made plans to bring the wisdom and experience of teachers into the education reform movement by creating teacher cabinets.

Most recently, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, proposed the the formation of a Virginia Teacher Cabinet, and other states have similar efforts under development. Virginia’s Teacher Cabinet will be comprised of teachers from each superintendent region of the Commonwealth, will be led by the Virginia Teacher of the Year, and will provide an annual report to the governor on the “State of Teaching in Virginia.”

As a Virginia public school teacher, I am excited about the opportunity for fellow educators to be able to lend their invaluable experiences and insights to state-wide reform efforts. I believe this will serve as the crucial catalyst to move reform-talks into reform-action. And as more states follow suit with their own versions of these teacher-led panels–which will undoubtedly take place–I firmly expect a wave of teacher reform to roll over our country, transforming this beloved profession into what it deserves to be.

Mike Humphreys

Mike Humphreys is a 2012-2013 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow who teaches physical education in Arlington, Va.

19 Comments

  1. Mike,

    How much pull do you have with Secretary Duncan? I am attempting to put two cents in on this gun safety issue – since we are all finding ourselves so square in the crosshairs these days.

    When Sandy Hook happened, I sent email to all of my colleagues urging them to refuse to get caught up in the gun control/school safety debate. My reasoning for this, as a school counselor, is to draw attention away from these known to be deadend debates and on to the real issue – the guy behind the gun. I was elated to hear the Vice President has enlisted the help of Secretary Duncan to seek out the views from an education standpoint.

    I told close colleagues at the time, a more pressing safety concern for us in Alabama was what we might do if a tornado hit one of our city schools. I always say, I hate it when I’m right, and this time was the worst. On Christmas Day, a tornado hit the historic high school where my daughter will become a fouth generation graduate this year and the church where my children and I are members. We can only be thankful the children were not in school.

    So without digress, I would like to say I feel I have come up with an innovative solution to funding the necessary social services, mental health, and school safety programming Americans have good cause to demand at this time. I proposed, in an email to the Vice President, the gun safety committee should pose two choices to the NRA. We know in education how powerful choices can be and, as the leader in the character education program in my school, one thought occurs to me over and again – with rights come responsibility.

    The NRA is faced with the same problem as the rest of us, but they have the funding to do something about it. Either they go along with whatever legislation/bans the White House feels will ostensibly quell the fears of America’s parents, or they pay – not unlike the tobacco companies – for the largest social service, mental health, and school safety initiative ever attempted by an NPO in the history of our great country.

    Someone has to do this. I am guessing, despite the hype, Obamacare will be able to do little more than set the legal precedent the President had to have when he made the compromise. The veterans are on their way home with, undoubtedly, the toughest strain this country has ever seen on social services and we don’t even want to think about how guns might factor into this equation! It’s time for the NRA to get off of their laurels and do something besides fighting Americans who grieve for the lives of their children.

    Our responsibility, as educators and adults in America today, is to be certain those children at Sandy Hook – and the victims of every other school shooting in our nation’s history – have not died in vain. It’s time the NRA take a bullet for America instead of Americans continually taking the bullets for them.

    Savvy? Please pass it on…

  2. Reform with a longer school year won’t help students if many of the teachers and administrators are deranged. How can we expect to produce good students if those in charge conduct themselves like dictators or Gestapo?

    We must deal with the root causes of why students are not achieving. That has more to do with teaching methods, pedagogical philosophy and the upbringing of the students.

    We need more teachers with common sense methods rather than simply enforced standardization, frameworks or state mandates. It is better to hire a teacher with less than perfect test scores and methods that actually work rather than overly trained teachers with no vision or world view.

  3. Thank you Cyberike! I couldn’t agree more! I can’t even tell you how tired I am of hearing that it is the teachers who are dropping the ball and should be held more accountable. It makes no sense to me that the people who are making the rules and policies that govern how we do our job, have never done our job and have no idea what it is like to try, yes I said try, to teach the youth of this generation in today’s society. We need people making the rules to be people who have been in the trenches and understand our perspective. The powers-that-be are so concerned about “No Child Left Behind”, but yet they have no idea that by spoonfeeding and pampering those kids who, through a lack of proper parenting, spend so much time creating disruptions and being disrespectful to everyone around them, that it creates an environment in which those students who want to learn and care about their education are the ones being “left behind”. We teachers end up spending so much time dealing with discipline and documentation (which as a special educator I understand all too well), that we aren’t able to provide a proper education to those who want and deserve it. I am so tired of bending over backwards to cater to the kids who refuse to do what is asked of them, giving them chance after chance to complete their work, allowing them to make up absences (which for some of them are many), doing credit recovery after they goofed off all semester, and then rewarding them for the few times they display “good” behavior by doing what is required of every other student in the school. I could get on my soapbox and write a book with all of the grievances I have as an educator in today’s society, but I will save that for a later date….Hey! Perhaps I will save it for the day we are actually allowed to have a voice and be heard by our leaders! I won’t hold my breath…;(

    • Kooltchr really strikes a nerve in this post. Why has our beloved profession failed to draw the necessary respect from the masses. I totally agree with these comments and many other writers that for too long teachers have been left out of the education discussion at the national, state, and local level.  Those of us at ED are trying to do something about it (the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship program–teachers performing various forms of outreach on behalf of the department, having a teacher liaison, listening to teachers when writing and refining the transformative RESPECT document).  

      While we have not hit a home run with all of our initiatives and policies, we believe we are moving in the right direction. We are encouraged that states are catching onto the importance of having teachers at the table at every phase of the process–states like Tennessee, New Jersey and Virginia. One thing we have learned is that there is no one teacher voice, that teachers are individuals with unique values and experiences. Many of the teachers we have spoken to are really hungry to have teaching become a more professional and respected profession.

      Mike Humphreys
      Teaching Ambassador Fellow

      • Reviving the “brand” for education and teachers is essential if we’re ever to solve the challenges many of the commenters describe. A small group of us has created a website & blog http://www.teachersspeakup.com to help teachers speak out to the wider public, not so much to complain as to tell about the good things we do for kids. (We linked to your blog-post today.) Most people (including policy makers) don’t really know WHAT WE DO EVERYDAY THAT MAKES A DIFFERENCE. So we hope you & others reading this will write letters to local newspapers & community orgs & tell your story. Then tell us about it, too!

  4. I applaud any effort to change the teaching profession so that it is on par with other respected professions in this country. It is a profession you can go into with having a degree in its “science”. It is a fall-back career for many and a transition career for most. It has become easy to fall into teaching jobs. Many schools have faculty and staff, who are not equipped with the passion or competency, to lead or teach. Please change teacher education programs. Require continual education (Masters and Doctorate) program for teachers. End teacher emergency/alternative certification programs. Grade teachers on a quarterly system. And while we are asking teachers how they feel, let’s bring the students to the roundtable as well.

    • I agree with ELPS. Teaching should not be a “transition” career or a back-up career. I also agree that continual education is a must. I began my college career to become a doctor because it was expected of me to choose an outstanding profession, but I kept having dreams of helping children learn, especially the ones others had given up on. (Yes I had these dreams as an adult). I finally gave in and became a teacher. I am always seeking legitimate information and training to help me teach my students, not programs designed to sell products. I cannot be graded on my performance as a teacher by an administrator spending 30 min in my classroom when I spent 3 hours preparing the lesson. I refused to be judged by the abbreviated lesson plans that are written to meet the curriculum coach’s criteria when there isn’t enough room on the paper to write what I actually plan to do in class after staying up all night writing down a more creative way to present a lesson. It is not fair to say I don’t participate in the school community because I don’t co-sponsor a club or make the grade level team meeting a priority, when I spend before school, between classes, plan time, lunch, and after school collaborating with my peers about individual students or cross-curricular activities. I AM A TEACHER!

  5. Referring to Cyberike’s comment: With all of my respect to the President Obama, I have a little bet comment on his slogan: “Race to the Top” … which Race? & which Top? Are we racing each other? Is our ultimate goal just getting the top before each other for the sake of defeating each other? Or being the first and the others should be behind? Then this is machines race not Humans one or a Human Being race with the main concentration on “Being” more than “Human”…that’s why I prefer to say “Being Human” more than “Human Being”… I will never forget, around 8 years ago, when I was doing a seminar about Industry Structure using Porter’s five factors model and I said “to be successful in your business you have to be able to compete and defeat your competitors”… then one of my very respected professors “Gary Boyed who passed away in April 2011″ stopped me and said: “I know Metwalli what you are talking about from business point of view, but you know what! My father was always telling me “Gary, Don’t Compete with others Gary, Compete with yourself, don’t compete with others “… That’s why I prefer the slogan to be “Race to the Sky” where everyone should do his/her best regardless whether there are competitors, and for sure at the end of the life this “Sky” will be our souls eternal destination and we are racing to the sky by default… this means, for all of us, to work hard and try to perfect our job as much as we can up to the last second in our lives… because in reality we are not just working for ourselves but for those who will come after us for the sake of the sustainable development and for the sake of achieving the welfare and happiness for the humans who will come after us not “US”…:) and this is a part of what we call it Moral Education and educating for good character.

  6. Dear Mike: According to national surveys, the vast majority of teachers oppose merit pay, teacher evaluation based on test scores, the current over-emphasis on high-stakes standardized exams, and the trend towards larger classes –all policies that have been promoted by the US Department of Education. If the US DOE really respected teachers they would take their views into account in formulating education policy. How do you feel about these policies and do you intend to bring these issues up with Duncan and/or his top staff?

  7. As Cyberike said (above), giving lip service to teacher involvement is not enough. Isn’t it about time that those in charge recognized that classroom teachers have education and experience, and are considered to be “experts” by many Americans. I believe that without the input of experienced classroom teachers, we will never achieve the goal of true reform. If I was ever asked, I would be thrilled to sit on one of these boards/committees. After teaching for 28 years in 7 different positions, and with two degrees plus about 40 more credits, I feel that returning something to the field is a responsibility. I only wish more teachers could see this!

  8. It is worth noting that the position of “teacher advisor” was uniquely (I think) utilized by former North Carolina governors, including Mike Easley, Beverly Perdue and Jim Hunt. When I worked at the National Governors Association from 2001-2004, NC was the only state governor’s office that had formalized this role.

  9. “Teacher Cabinets: Bringing Teacher Voice to the Education Reform Conversation” is an excellent title, but is this all what we need?.
    I think, before or at least with this movement, we have to think deeply about the Teachers Professional Development programs and what Professional teachers need and should get to be able to have the right and the most effective voice.
    My suggestions:
    1. Establishing or at least, including former educators as a part of these teachers cabinets, to represent former educators voice and their experiences
    2. Thinking deeply about new teachers professional development program that must include Moral Education and Educating for characters, and “Complexity Theory and the Philosophy of Education” …

  10. I am glad that the Department of Education is willing to listen to teacher voices. However, I think that these types of programs which purport to listen to teacher voices provide only feel good lip service where teacher input is actually ignored. Let me give you an example.

    In testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, Deborah Delisle, Assistant Secretary, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, U.S. Department of Education, says: “Given the feedback we’ve received from educators – that student misbehavior often interferes with instruction – school climate and student supports must be part of this conversation.” However, nothing in her testimony recommends any such thing. Her actual recommendations include the following: “As part of this effort, the Departments of Education and Justice have supported the efforts of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, in concert with members of the philanthropic community (including the Atlantic Philanthropies, the California Endowment, and Novo Foundation), to lead the development of consensus-based recommendations on how to keep school environments safe and students productively engaged in school. Over the course of the next year, this national consensus-building project will convene groups from multiple disciplines – including education, behavioral health, juvenile justice, social services, law enforcement, and child welfare—to first identify key issues related to academic success, juvenile justice concerns, and safe and engaging learning environments, and then recommend solutions that keep students engaged in school and out of the justice system.” Barely any mention of teacher input at all.

    In another part of her testimony she says: “In this year’s Race to the Top – District competition, a $400 million investment to help school districts to implement comprehensive education reform, we included a program requirement that districts with students of color or students with disabilities overly-represented in the district’s discipline rates must conduct a root cause analysis and develop a plan to address these root causes. Further, the sole competitive priority of the competition was devoted to integrating public and/or private resources to augment school capacity to provide student and family supports that address the social, emotional, and behavioral areas of high-need populations.”

    These types of policies harm education. As a teacher, the single biggest problem I had in my classroom involved student discipline. Students who are able to pay attention can learn, students who are not paying attention cannot. They hurt themselves and they hurt the other students in the class. Forcing teachers to perform root cause analysis for these behavioral issues on top of teaching and lesson planning (which is already a full time job) can be nothing but detrimental to the profession.

    I think the attention needs to be focused on the impact of administrative policy to student discipline. As emphasis shift toward teacher responsibility students seem to be able to get away with more and more disruption and disrespect with no consequences. Without consequences, behavior will not change. These types of policies make teachers increasingly powerless when it comes to controlling their own classroom.

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