Third International Summit on the Teaching Profession: Sitting at OUR Table

International Summit Logo

This time of year I typically dream of travelling someplace warm, but today I woke up wishing I were in Amsterdam.

As a Social Studies teacher, I would appreciate the opportunity to dive into the city’s rich history. Today I want to be there to participate in the third International Summit on the Teaching Profession.

Education leaders from around the world, including 150 teachers, are at the 2013 Summit to discuss teacher quality and evaluation. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report prepared for the Summit, 1 in 4 teachers globally never receive feedback from their school leadership. This highlights an opportunity for leaders to learn from each other about improving teacher evaluation and quality at the Summit. For example, today, the Dutch Education Minister shared that Holland is using peer review in teacher evaluation—a best practice learned from the U.S.

The previous Summits have been great learning opportunities for the U.S. delegation and inspired two important initiatives. One is the RESPECT vision statement for strengthening and elevating the teaching profession (shaped by over 4,000 American teachers). The other is Transforming the Teaching Profession, a framework developed by national groups representing teachers, superintendents, school boards, and state leaders that puts forth a common vision for teaching and learning.

Today in the Twitter feed for the Summit, a number of people tweeted a quote from the Estonian delegation, “Education is under heavy pressure. Either we make more and better rules. Or we must liberate the teacher profession…” As a teacher, I know that I want to be in a profession that is shaped by teachers. But owning our profession is not simply about being seated at a table set by others; we need to recognize that is our table.

While teachers and union leaders from the U.S. and other nations are at the Summit, I can’t personally be at the table in Amsterdam this week. Still, I can be informed and engaged. Here are some things I am doing:

  • Following the Twitter feed #ISTP2013 and participating in a conversation tomorrow on Twitter.

  • Reading the OCED background report for the Summit.

  • Reflecting on how I would answer the questions that are guiding this year’s summit and sending responses to the Teacher Mailbox, TeachTalk@ed.gov.

    • How is teacher quality defined by policy makers, the teaching profession and society? What standards are set and by whom?
    • How is teacher quality evaluated? What systems are in place and how are the evaluations carried out?
    • How do evaluations contribute to school improvement and teacher self-efficacy? What impact can be expected on teaching and learning from teacher evaluation?
  • Engaging in conversations with my colleagues.

  • Watching Secretary Duncan’s video played during the opening session.

Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.

Lisa Clarke

Lisa Clarke is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow and social studies teacher on loan from Kent, Washington.

Teaching Computer Coding in K-12

Image from code.org.Where can you go to find— in one place— Arne Duncan, Mark Zuckerberg, Marco Rubio, Stephen Hawking, and Snoop Dogg agreeing with each other? Not sure? Now add into the mix Dr. Oz, Richard Branson, and Michael Bloomberg. Give up?

The answer is the overflowing, impressive testimonial page on CODE.org, a new nonprofit created to promote the teaching of computer coding into America’s schools. Founded by Hadi Partovi, CODE.org shines a light on 21st century society’s need for computer scientists and programmers.  According to stats on the CODE.org website, 90 percent of American schools currently don’t offer coding while, by 2020, there will be about a million more computer jobs than computer science students. Partovi aims to connect engineers with schools and to help educators bring computer programming to their classrooms.

The linchpin of the awareness campaign is a short video featuring Zuckerberg, Will.i.am, NBA All-Star Chris Bosh and a host of other tech leaders and trendsetters. The video, directed by Lesley Chilcott, a producer of An Inconvenient Truth, portrays learning to code as fun, not exceptionally difficult, and the gateway to a creative, fulfilling career. Released February 26, it has already accumulated over 9 million views.

The moment for this is now. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is a priority area for our country. In 2010, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology released a report entitled Prepare and Inspire: K-12 Education for STEM and America’s Future, which claimed:

The success of the United States in the 21st century—its wealth and welfare—will depend on the ideas and skills of its population. These have always been the Nation’s most important assets. As the world becomes increasingly technological, the value of these national assets will be determined in no small measure by the effectiveness of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education in the United States. STEM education will determine whether the United States will remain a leader among nations…“

Through CODE.org, Hadi Partovi is rightly asserting the need to include the teaching in K-12 schools of computer science amongst the critical STEM disciplines. As the PCAST report makes clear, the stakes are high. And if you don’t trust that, just listen to Bill Clinton and Ashton Kutcher.

— Dan Brown

Dan Brown is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education for the 2012-13 school year. He is a National Board Certified Teacher at The SEED Public Charter School of Washington, D.C

Duncan Addresses Gun Violence in New “Ask Arne” Video Series

As a teacher and a parent, what our nation’s education leaders think, really matters to me. And with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about to begin a second term, it matters even more.

Today, we’re excited to announce the launch of a new #AskArne video interview series, where the Secretary addresses the hot topics and burning questions in education today. In light of the President’s announcement to address gun violence, the first episode, titled “Free from Fear,” focuses on gun violence, school safety, and out of school factors influencing student achievement.

For the #AskArne videos, the questions for the Secretary will be derived from feedback the Department receives via social media and through the outreach of EDs Teaching Ambassador Fellows.

The Fellows, who work for the Department for a year, play a key role in connecting with educators and other stakeholders around the country, and then connecting voices from the field with top federal policymakers, including Secretary Duncan. As an explanation, this year I am on sabbatical from teaching at The SEED Public Charter School of Washington, D.C. to work full-time at ED as part of this year’s team of Teaching Ambassador Fellows.

I hope you find this clip from our first interview informative and interesting, and with your feedback, we’re looking forward to future installments that will address the Department’s 2013 agenda and the topics that are on the minds of teachers, parents, students and stakeholders.

Submit your ideas and questions for future #AskArne episodes on Twitter, on Arne’s Facebook page or in the comments below.


Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.

Dan Brown is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education for the 2012-13 school year. He is a National Board Certified Teacher at The SEED Public Charter School of Washington, D.C.

Also, the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship is now accepting applications for its 2013-2014 cohort. More information can be found here.

Language and Learning on the Border

The RESPECT Project, a vision for transforming teaching and leading, is the result of hundreds of conversations with thousands of educators across the country. The Department of Education’s Teaching Ambassador Fellows (TAFs) are continuing to talk with teachers throughout the country about the RESPECT Project and have reached out to other important stakeholders as well. This month the Fellows travelled to Arizona and New Mexico, including a visit by Kareen Borders, Toni Hull, Cindy Apalinski with a group of stakeholders in Columbus, N.M., (Deming Public School District).

School Crosswalk Sign“Unique”, “determined”, “challenging”, “amazing place.” These are just some of the phrases that parents, teachers, administrators and community members used to describe Columbus Elementary School in Columbus, N.M., during RESPECT discussions last month.

A border school located three miles from the Mexican border, Columbus faces unique challenges that include students who are predominantly living in poverty and who are English language learners. The remoteness of the school from students‘ homes also places extra pressure on educators and families.

Despite the American promise of equal opportunity, children of poverty and children of color often lack equal access to educational opportunities. Secretary Arne Duncan recently addressed the opportunity gap when he said, “In America, in 2012, children of color not only confront an achievement gap, they confront an opportunity gap that, too often, is unacceptably wide.” Yet, we found Columbus to be overflowing with hope, happiness, academic rigor and a commitment to bicultural education.

For all of the real challenges to ensuring educational equity, we saw examples of culturally responsive education, rigorous classroom instruction, and structures that are reducing the opportunity gap.  Principal Hector Madrid affirmed that these children deserve the best education. “We do everything we can to make education possible for our students since they are American citizens,” he said.

Classes that include dual language instruction, heritage studies, and rigorous core classes provide a holistic approach that includes recognition of the uniqueness of each student along with high expectations. Teachers plan together and present lessons in Spanish and English. During a math class visit, I observed first-graders working collaboratively on math problems, working one on one with the teacher and principal, and explaining their answers to each other.

When asked what she thought of her school, one first-grader responded, “I like it here. I get to learn and teach my friends. I’ll show you.” Those three simple sentences spoke volumes to me. She feels safe and nurtured in her school and quite simply likes it. She recognizes that she is learning and also has the opportunity to work collaboratively with her peers–a valuable skill. And, she holds the belief that her learning is valuable and can and should be communicated to others.

Being a part of two cultures, two languages, two countries, will give these children a unique grounding—one that definitely allows them to bring multiple perspectives to the table. One of the roundtable participants summed it up by saying, “There’s a lot of respect in Columbus. We are bi-national and bi-cultural.” This recognition of the importance of multicultural perspectives is a step in the right direction of eliminating the opportunity gap.

As classes ended, I watched the children as they bounced out of class, skipped to the buses, laughed and chatted while swinging backpacks, to return home for the evening. In the morning, they will be welcomed by teachers, principals, and an entire educational community committed to closing their opportunity gap.

Dr. Kareen Borders

Dr. Kareen Borders is a Regional Teaching Ambassador Fellow from the Peninsula School District in Gig Harbor, Washington.

View a video of Principal Hector Madrid’s feedback about the RESPECT Project.

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.

Applications for 2013-2014 Teaching Ambassador Fellowship Now Open

“It is critical that we work collaboratively with teachers to develop policies that will truly transform and elevate the profession. I am proud of the work our Teaching Ambassadors do every year to talk with and listen to other teachers across the country as well as the direct input they have given staff.” – Secretary Arne Duncan

We are happy to announce that applications for the U.S. Department of Education’s sixth cohort of Teaching Ambassador Fellows are now open. The application period will run from December 19, 2012, and is scheduled to close on January 29, 2013 at 11:59 pm Eastern Time. For more information about the application process, visit our program page at www.ed.gov/programs/teacherfellowship or go directly to the applications for the Washington and Classroom Fellowships on www.usajobs.gov.

TAFs meet with Duncan

Before their fellowship ended, 2011-12 Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellows gave Secretary Duncan one final briefing. Official Department of Education photo by Leslie Williams.

Since 2008, the Department has employed eighty outstanding teachers on a full or part time basis through the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship program. This highly selective program was created because we believe that teachers should have meaningful opportunities to both contribute to and understand the policies that impact their students and school communities. We know that when families, students, and other teachers want information about education, it is most often to teachers that they turn.

The Teaching Ambassador Fellowship supports the Department’s mission by employing a diverse cadre of teachers to gain significant knowledge about the Department information and resources, share this information with other educators across the country, and contribute their classroom expertise to the national dialogue.

Teaching Ambassador Fellows are outstanding teachers, with a record of leadership, strong communication skills, and insights into educational policy based in classroom expertise. They come with networks of support from their professional communities and have participated in training or development programs that have prepared them to write and speak frequently about teaching, educational leadership and/or policy.

The Washington Fellowship is a full-time appointment based at the Department’s Headquarters in Washington. The Classroom Fellowship enables teachers to participate on a part-time basis for the Department, in addition to their regular school responsibilities, working in collaboration with the Department’s Regional Offices.

All Teaching Ambassador Fellows spend one year learning about key federal programs and policies; sharing their expertise with federal staff members; and providing outreach and communication about federal initiatives to other educators on behalf of the Department in order to help teachers understand and implement these efforts at the federal, state and local levels, to improve the likelihood of their success. For the Fellows, the program adds greater knowledge of educational policy and leadership to their toolkits to contribute to solutions at all levels for long intractable challenges in education.

Teacher leaders — please consider applying and share this information with your colleagues!  Sign up for updates on the application process and call 1-800-USA-Learn or email us at TeacherFellowship@ed.gov with questions.

Click here to read Homeroom blog posts from current and former Teaching Ambassador Fellows.

Moving Toward Better Academics: The Red Hawk Way

On the blacktop and playgrounds during midday recess, Red Hawk Elementary School in Erie, Colo., takes the shape of countless other schools across this country: laughing, red-faced children walking that fine line between having fun and pushing boundaries; forgotten sweaters strewn about on fence posts and tree branches; yesteryear’s worn playground equipment seemingly keeping the whole dance in motion.

Yet this is where the commonalities between Red Hawk and the vast majority of other schools end.

As a 2012-13 Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the Department of Education, I was lucky enough to visit Red Hawk as part of the Department’s back-to-school bus tour across the country.

Red Hawk Elementary

Red Hawk Elementary in Erie, Colo.

Red Hawk principal Cyrus Weinberger was kind enough to put his school on display for me, and in particular the school’s national recognized movement program. Weinberger and Red Hawk physical education teacher Tanya Erands developed and implemented the program that is the school’s lynchpin, and contributed to the school’s recent recognition, including Academic Growth, during the latest round of district reviews.

During the visit, I watched the entire student body—including those with disabilities–engage in their daily dose of “Morning Movement.” The 4th graders collected popsicle sticks as they crisscrossed the soccer field, the 3rd graders jumped rope, and the 2nd graders walked a mile of laps around the building, while the younger grades danced, jumped and twisted to a variety of online dance-alongs in their classrooms.

More than just a catchy subplot and fresh angle, this commitment to movement really seems to be working. If the raw data is not enough, take the word of Jamie Nesbitt, a 4th grade teacher who previously taught in one of the district’s Title I schools. He shared with me that more seat time and fewer breaks ruled his former school, resulting in restless students and more trips to the principal’s office. Principal Wienberger has only dealt with one incident during his fifteen months at Red Hawk, and that surrounded a fight that broke out during a recess football game.

Perhaps the LEED Gold  building is the foundation for this winning culture, or maybe it’s the 1500 square foot student-maintained garden that keeps kids on the up and up. I shouldn’t forget about the Math, Science, Integration of the Arts & Technology Focus this school maintains, or the daring health-food initiatives on which it refuses to compromise (non-food birthday celebrations . . . what?). Together, these many traits represent the well-rounded, 21st century education our children need and too rarely receive.

But in a vast sea of out-of-this world impressive initiatives and programs, I believe just one statistic swims alone in summing up the Red Hawk way: Last year 96% of third, fourth and fifth graders said they look forward, each and every day, to coming to school. Now if that’s not something to marvel at, I truly don’t know what is.

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

Celebrating CTE in Nevada

Brenda Dann-Messier at Veterans

Assistant Secretary Brenda Dann-Messier talks with students at Veterans' dispatch training lab. Official Department of Education photo by Leslie Williams.

Traditionally, education has led many students into a career. However, at some schools, careers are leading students to an education.

Assistant Secretary for Vocational and Adult Education Brenda Dann-Messier recently met with the students, staff, and business partners of the Veterans Tribute Career & Technical Academy in Las Vegas to discuss career and technical education (CTE) and how it benefits students and the community.

Dann-Messier’s visit was part of ED’s Education Drives America back-to-school bus tour, and one of many stops she made during the tour to discuss the blueprint for transforming career and technical education and ways the Department of Education can support CTE education.

Student Marcus Montano explained during the visit that he chose to attend Veterans because he wanted a “real-world education and not just standard curriculum.” The school has two program areas, Law Enforcement Services and Emergency Medical Services, with multiple labs that allow hands-on learning experiences.

The type of CTE taught at Veterans increases motivation for students in all areas of study, as they realize the direct connection between the core curriculum and a career. Student Leah Bories said she felt “limited by not having the right teacher or the right material. I wanted this so bad. I want to learn. I want to succeed.”

Dann-Messier at Desert Rose

Assistant Secretary Brenda Dann-Messier talks to a students in the Environmental Horticulture Science program at Desert Rose Adult High School. Official Department of Education photo by Leslie Williams.

Veterans’ partnership with local employers is the type of community collaboration promoted in ED’s CTE blueprint. The community and business partners are also benefiting from Veteran’s unique career training. Students from Veteran’s are turning internships at local businesses into careers upon graduation. Some students have even used their training at Veteran’s to become dispatchers for emergency services, which is helping them pay for college. Sgt. Dan Lake of the North Las Vegas Police Department believes the program is future-focused, because “students can begin to build a future as juniors in high school.”

Assistant Secretary Dann-Messier also held a roundtable at Desert Rose Adult High School and Career Center, in North Las Vegas, to hear how CTE is being used to help students find success. Desert Rose serves a diverse population of students, many of whom have previously dropped out or become credit-deficient.

At Desert Rose, students can learn multiple trades while obtaining high school credit at their own learning pace. This combination of CTE and personalized learning has led to many students achieving success.

Senior Elizabeth Gomez said that this personalized focus is helping her succeed in school and getting her ready for a job. “I have a really good resume now” she said. The blueprint for transforming CTE calls for accountability for improving outcomes and building technical and employable skills. Desert Rose students are already realizing the benefits of obtaining such skills at a young age.

Some students have already obtained a job through the CTE offered at Desert Rose. After winning numerous awards, including a gold medal from the Skills USA competition, and obtaining multiple certifications from Desert Rose high school, student Keith Griffin was able to find a job in Hawaii and is preparing to move his family “from the desert to the tropics,” he says.

Aaron Bredenkamp is a 2012 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow who teaches at Westside Career Center, an Alternative High School in Omaha, NE. He joined Assistant Secretary Dann-Messier during her visit to Las Vegas.

Teachers’ Voices Heard on U.S. Department of Education Bus Tour

Over eighty meetings with teachers and school leaders in a two-week cross-country blitz—not bad work for a team of twelve Teaching Ambassador Fellows (TAFs) working for a year with the U.S. Department of Education.

The Department of Education’s third annual back-to-school bus tour kicked off at Sequoia High School in Redwood City, California on September 12 and culminates with rally at the Department’s plaza on September 21, with nearly a hundred events in between featuring Secretary Arne Duncan and top federal officials. While Secretary Duncan’s appearances have naturally soaked up most of the attention—whether he is dancing at a Denver elementary school for “Let’s Move” or honoring the Topeka, Kansas site of the Brown vs. Board of Education case—TAFs have been hosting intimate events to ensure that educators’ voices are heard.

The Teaching Ambassador Fellowship, now in its fifth year, includes six teachers from across the country on leave from their schools to work full-time for a year with the U.S. Department of Education, and six who remain teaching in their local districts while consulting and conducting outreach part-time with ED. The September bus tour has been a prime opportunity for TAFs to lead important discussions on how to improve student outcomes. As a TAF just six weeks into the fellowship, it was refreshing for me to hear from folks around the country.

The outreach extravaganza started in California as ten current and former Teaching Ambassador Fellows fanned out across the Bay Area to talk with educators. In one memorable event, Seattle-based TAF Kareen Borders hosted a discussion with current and future science teachers at the NASA Ames Research Center. Locales for TAF-led discussions in California included district and charter schools, where teachers weighed in on the Obama Administration’s education agenda, the RESPECT Project for transforming the teaching profession, and their own thoughts on how to increase student learning.

Travelling to over 30 communities in 11 states, TAFs convened teachers in Silicon Valley, Las Vegas and across Wyoming through Louisville, St. Louis and Richmond and many rural communities in between. At Salt Lake City Community College in Sandy, Utah, Arizona-based TAF Cheryl Redfield and I recruited local National Board Certified Teachers to facilitate breakout sessions at a 200-person educational technology summit. At Emporia State University in Kansas, TAF Cindy Apalinski from Linden, New Jersey met with teachers-in-training and introduced Secretary Duncan at a town hall attended by approximately 400 future educators.

Seeking and respecting teacher perspectives must be a crucial part of shaping policies that teachers ultimately implement. Over the past two weeks, Teaching Ambassador Fellows have been on a mission to learn from a wide range of stakeholders from across the country. The next step after the bus tour dust settles is to report back to senior staff and Secretary Duncan.

Here is a sampling of what TAFs heard along the way:

On the importance of great teaching:

“Technology won’t save education; great teachers with great tools will save education.”

“All you need is a teacher and a program to open students’ hearts and minds to help them become global citizens.”

“Never forget how complex the teaching profession is. Great teachers have to make high stakes decisions almost every minute of their day. Any policy changes that try to teacher-proof the curriculum are bound to fail.”

“Middle school STEM is so important because that’s when they are trying to figure out who they are.”

“We can teach students about heroes, or we can create our own heroes.”

On professional development and career paths:

“I love the classroom, but I need opportunities to advance that aren’t taking me away from being in the classroom.”

“We need to be in an ongoing process of growth, professionally, not just stuck as either a ‘new’ educator or an ‘experienced’ one.”

“I would love to stay in the classroom, but can I afford to stay in this pay grade forever? No. So, unfortunately, I will have to leave. I need the opportunity to stay.”

“We want to better ourselves. Let us. Offer teachers the opportunities to advance, not just by seniority or maxing out by credits.”

“Teachers want to be in positions that allow them to learn while they still teach. They want to learn their subject and their craft.”

“Merit pay is okay as long as teachers are evaluated on what we value.”

“Ideally leaders would move into a leadership role, and eventually return to the classroom. However, returning to the classroom would mean a pay cut, and it’s difficult for someone who has ‘lived the life’ to then go back to their old salary.”

“After five years of teaching, I moved into a mentorship role. From there I could really study the profession and study it from an academic standpoint, rather than an emotional one. I really grew from that. We have term limits for mentors to allow more people to do it and to stay in touch with the profession.”

“We don’t just need mentors at the beginning of our careers—we need them throughout.”

“So much that I’ve learned about good teaching has been by watching great teachers.”

On the future of education:

“The achievement gap won’t be closed by one person working in isolation; we need to work together… a group of teachers together is a real impetus for change.”

“We need to demystify the definition of college and career readiness so that every student can actually attain it.”

“In our work, it’s not that good things aren’t happening; it’s that we aren’t doing the good things enough.”

“Not all education happens in the classroom.”

“We can’t continue to fund schools the way we do and hope to be successful. There’s a possibility of three weeks being cut off our schedule if a sales tax initiative does not pass is November [in California].”

“A huge recruitment issue is respectability—we’re just not respected as teachers, so we need to better educate the public.”

“If we want to improve our schools we need to get back to basics and build relationships in our schools and communities.”

“The idea of a ‘full teaching load’ needs to change. If you asked me what I would ideally be doing, I would teach a 3/5 load full-time, and spend the extra energy on those classes. Class sizes do matter. To think about doing anything else in addition to our full-time load is impossible.”

“It is up to our current and future educators now to lead the country in the direction we need to go.”

On teachers’ realities:

“To go to these meetings where every trainer and attendee has an iPad, but not one of my students does, that’s an issue.”

“I see teachers working their hearts out, one kid at a time.”

“Data doesn’t say what relationships make happen.”

“Our country’s acceptance of mathematics illiteracy is appalling.”

“We have too many things to do, so we can’t do any of them well, and especially not with a 32 minute planning period.”

“We need leaders who make us feel wanted, valued. We need to know our input is valued… we also need this among ourselves, letting each other know that we’re valued and respected.”

“Collaboration is about trust.”

“Teachers don’t operate in a vacuum and kids need lots of other support service to survive. From psychological help, to breakfast programs, to extra support for struggling students, to basic health needs. If that’s not available, no matter how good of a teacher you are you are not able to get the best from students.”

“At one point my contract said that I taught 20% mentored 80%, but in reality the teaching part actually took 75% of my time and 90% of my emotional space. Serving as a leader and a teacher I asked myself the following question, “If you’re teaching, can you do anything else well at the same time?”

Dan Brown is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education for the 2012-13 school year. He is a National Board Certified Teacher at The SEED Public Charter School of Washington, D.C.

Ask Dr. Borders: About How Teaching Fellows Connect Policy with Practice

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?

Kareen Borders

Kareen Borders is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow

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 teacherfellowship@ed.gov 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.

On Charter Schools and Swimming Pools: A Changing Tide in School Choice

Summer is a time when I am reminded that the world is divided into two kinds of people:  those who, when confronted with a cold swimming pool, enter one toe at a time and those who dive right in.

In the world of education, there exists a similar divide: those who are taking their time to warm up to education reform, and those who just dive in.

I was reminded of this analogy earlier this month when I attended the Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s K-12 Education Reform Summit. There an unprecedented collection of Virginia’s education stakeholders gathered in Richmond to dissect, praise, question, and challenge all aspects of education reform. Virtually every education role in the Commonwealth was represented, from university presidents to classroom teachers and principals, union leaders to state board members.

The whole time I was amazed by educators’ changing views about school choice. It seems more and more are simply diving in. 

Charter schools, for instance, no longer seem be the feared, misunderstood pariahs that they once were. Issues that at one time would have caused vigorous debate—for example that public charters are public schools—have shifted toward universal acceptance. Perhaps aided by the creation and continued success of a number of charter efforts in DC (think, the SEED school), Virginia educators are beginning to embrace the charter concept.

Despite this regional warming to the charter movement, presenters were careful to point out that they should not be seen as a panacea for all of education’s woes. There are, after all, terribly ineffective charter schools. But educators I met acknowledged that the charter model itself, if done correctly, offers parents a choice when it comes to their children’s education, and with more choices come more opportunities for success. This was the mantra of speaker after speaker who was handed a microphone.

While at the Summit, I was able to share a few meals with Eric Welch, a J.E.B. Stuart High School teacher in Fairfax County who is in the process of bringing the first public charter to the Northern Virginia area, Fairfax Leadership Academy. Eric lamented the county’s recent actions, caused by budget constraints, to eliminate a few of Stuart’s longstanding services that were really working for students, including an effective summer program. For him, creating a new charter offered a way to deliver many of these educational services that were being taken away. 

Eric no longer fears the charter movement, and many of Virginia’s educators seem to be jumping right in with him.

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

Inspired by Teachers. Again.

Joshua Parker at microphone to ask Arne Duncan a question.

Maryland Teacher of the Year Joshua Parker questions Arne about improving achievement gaps. Following the discussion, about 190 teachers discussed the future of the teaching profession with Teaching Ambassador Fellows. Official Department of Education photo by Joshua Hoover.

It wasn’t just the excitement of spending a pre-service day with Baltimore County teachers.  It wasn’t the promise of a new school year just days away.  It wasn’t even Arne Duncan’s encouraging speech that caused me to feel so connected to my day in Baltimore County.

It was the teachers.

Following the Secretary’s speech, the Teaching Ambassador Fellows participated in discussions with about 190 6th-12th-grade teachers. Their optimism and ownership of their profession inspired me.

Through roundtable discussions held immediately following the Secretary’s Back to School speech at Perry Hall High School, teachers from around the county had an opportunity to do what we so seldom have time to do–talk with each other about the larger issues impacting our work. As is often the case, teachers shared with the Fellows how they felt “empowered” and “inspired” simply because we asked their opinion and gave them a venue to talk with each other about their students, their frustrations, and their ideas to move their profession forward.

What encouraged me was teachers’ willingness to share honestly about “the angst in the details.” Instead of shutting down when the conversation turned to difficult topics, they examined what they can do as teacher-leaders in their building and their districts. Instead of simply lamenting a lack of funding, teachers considered ideas for overcoming financial barriers, suggesting, for example, that “administrators could step up and cover a class”–which happens at one school—so that teachers have time to collaborate or attend professional development.

So often educators look for ways to ignite a spark in our students – that moment when faces light up, and we become overwhelmed with the feeling that our students “got it.” Watching the Baltimore County teachers, however, made me wonder how educators can find – demand –opportunities to look for that kind of spark among our colleagues and within ourselves.

This year, let’s commit to making time to ask the questions and share the ideas.

Jen Bado-Aleman

Jen Bado-Aleman is a 2012-2013 Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan to the Department from Montgomery County, Md.

View the video of Arne Duncan’s speech and Q&A with teachers.

Read the blog, “Duncan Tells Teachers Change is Hard.”