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.”

Great Teachers Harness the Energy of Students

Editorial Note: During this year’s Teacher Appreciation Week, 50 of ED’s senior officials and career staff went “Back to School.”  Each staff member was matched with a classroom teacher and spent a full or half day experiencing the life of a teacher. ED’s Dennis Bega shadowed 10th and 11th grade teacher Lisa Clarke in Kent, Wash. Last week, Clarke was named as a 2012/13 Teacher Ambassador Fellow at the Department of Education.

If the country ran on the energy of high school students, we would never run out.

The goal of every teacher is to harness and channel this energy into an enjoyment of learning—but learning in a way that engages students almost before they know it’s happened.  Like all great teachers, Lisa Clarke knows how to do this.  In her 10th and 11th grade history and social studies classes at Kent-Meridian High School, students thrive.  They plug in and contribute to their learning and achievement.  This is not magic; it’s motivation – working with kids where they are. Clarke’s students say she “…just gets us.  Ms. Clarke relates to us without giving in to us. She makes learning cool and we want to do our best.” Said another, “Ms. Clarke is focused but flexible.”

Clarke’s classrooms are electric with student participation, small group discussions – a constant learning commotion that brings students into the center of the subject and lets them own the material.  Students come to the class early and stay until the last possible second when they race off to the next class before the bell—actually the music—stops. Then they come back again. The room is ALWAYS busy with students.

Kent-Meridian is multicultural, multi-lingual, and multi-racial. Each class has a cross section of students from all around the world, bringing with them their accents, biases, learning styles and issues—plenty of issues. One teacher called the school “…a mini UN, with all the possibilities and problems.”

Eighty percent of the school’s 1,937 student body receives free and reduced lunch. It is a challenging environment for teaching and learning to high standards and expectations.  Yet here is where Clarke has chosen to be. Described by her colleagues as “the definition of a world class teacher,” Clarke arrives at school by 7:15 am and stays until after all the kids have gone home. And she didn’t start out to be a teacher. Her first love was human rights advocacy. But, in her words “I found myself drawn to teaching when I discovered I wanted to spend more time talking education with the interns than I did doing the policy work.” This second career has led her to teaching posts from one end of the country to the other.

Part of Clarke’s success is that she’s surrounded by caring and committed teaching colleagues all of whom have formed various Content Learning Teams and a robust Professional Learning Community that supports good instruction and the exchange of innovative approaches to teaching and learning.

Shadowing Clarke during Teacher Appreciation Week was a powerful experience.  Being a witness to an outstanding example of teaching and seeing those intangibles of instructional excellence reaffirms why this work matters. But students may have said it best when, in a small group, they offered, “It might be Teacher Appreciation Week, but we appreciate Ms. Clarke every day of the year.”

–Dennis Bega is Deputy Director of Regional Communications and Outreach based in ED’s Atlanta Regional Office. 

Teaching Fellows Represent, Respect Teachers

Secretary Duncan speaks with Teaching Ambassador Fellows

Secretary Duncan talks with Teaching Ambassador Fellows (from left) Genevieve DeBose, Shakera Walker and Greg Mullenholz. Official Department of Education photo.

Last week was bittersweet at the Department of Education. After a truly incredible year working with some of the best teachers in the country, we released our 2011-2012 Teaching Ambassador Fellows to return to their work in classrooms and school districts across the country. All of us at the Department are grateful for their amazing work.

The most recent cohort of 16 Teaching Ambassador Fellows (TAFs) helped to shape ED’s policies and programs so that they truly benefit students and teachers.  Five took a leave of absence to come to Washington and work on real issues that they are personally invested in:  labor/management collaboration, teacher preparation, early learning, technology, and middle schools, to name a few. The other 11 kept their regular teaching jobs and consulted with us from their classrooms.

One of the most impressive responsibilities that the Teaching Ambassador Fellows took on was their work on the RESPECT Project, which is an initiative to transform the teaching profession so that teachers are as well prepared, developed, compensated and respected as other professions. To this end, the TAFs held more than 250 roundtable discussions with more than 3,500 educators—teachers of just about every subject, school counselors and leaders. They asked questions, presented ideas, and listened to their advice and experiences. They continually brought the teachers’ recommendations back into the Department, giving voice to teachers everywhere and putting real names and faces up against our policies.

Because of their honest feedback, hard work and commitment to their students, the Teaching Ambassador Fellows contributed exponentially to teachers across the country. So to Geneviève, Shakera, Greg, Maryann, Claire, Kareen, Juan, Sharla, Madonna, Bruce T., Gamal, Robert, Dexter, Leah, Angela, and Bruce W., I want to say thank you.

You left very, very big shoes to fill. If our next group of Fellows follows your example, I am confident that they will accomplish much.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education

Teachers Reject “Captain Bligh” Principals

As Teaching Ambassador Fellow Greg Mullenholz ends his tenure at ED, he reflects on what he has heard from teachers and principals about effective school leadership.

My wife has an uncle, Craig, who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and, as with many of his colleagues, Craig has an utter fascination with all things nautical. Take, for instance, one particular t-shirt that Craig wears with the Jolly Roger, emblazoned with the slogan, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” A satirical take on the ineffectiveness of punishment or forced adherence, this phrase, of unknown origination, says a lot about what qualifies one to take on a leadership role on a ship—or a school. Dictators only encourage mutiny.

The role of principals in student achievement is critical. Principals are in fact the “captains,” guiding the direction of the school through calm and stormy seas, tasked with ensuring the safe passage of all souls aboard in reaching the intended harbor. This is a tough job because lately school systems have been asking the principal to play multiple roles, including the quarter master, taking care of all of the supply ordering, furniture procurement, and food shipments. Many principals also juggle the role of boatswain—handling large-scale maintenance issues—or rigger—running the sails, and single-handedly analyzing the winds to identify the appropriate tack in order that the ship stay on course. The role of the principal is so overloaded that if we are asking these leaders to implement new evaluation systems or oversee college- and career-ready standards implementation, we need to shift their role back to being that of the captain.

Here’s why. According to the research,

    • Many schools across the nation are facing a money-crunch. This, compounded by a predicted uptick in student enrollment is causing districts to have their principals take on the yoke of many more executive-level decisions, including finances, hiring, and management operations. This takes a great deal from the time that a principal has to be in classrooms working with teachers and students.
    • The level of stress for administrators is increasing. Safety concerns, budgeting, teacher shortages, overcrowding, and a bevy of other factors are constraining administrators.
    • The Government Accountability Office finds that the amount of time administrators spend on disciplinary, referral, and suspension matters has begun to rise and that they are becoming less and less the instructional leaders they envisioned themselves being.

The job is certainly a challenging undertaking, but it has a great impact on student achievement. We’ve heard all year, from teachers across the country, that they would follow a great leader to the depths of the Earth and back. Teachers would probably agree with a recent research study that showed that these administrators were more likely to have “pervasive and sustained” student learning, communicated clearly, established priorities, and created professional environments where expectations were high for staff and students while ensuring that everyone felt like they had a stake in the success of the organization.

During my conversations with the NAESP Distinguished Principals and the NASSP Assistant Principals of the Year, these leaders didn’t speak a whole lot about textbook ordering or maintenance issues. Instead, they spoke about their passion for student learning, their willingness to get into classrooms, and their expectations that teachers continually grow and students continually improve. They spoke like teachers, like what we teachers call a “teacher’s principal.” And, given that the role of the principal is so critical, it might not surprise many that a core tenet of Title II, the same pot of money that is distributed to states for professional development, focuses on the preparation, recruitment and development of high-quality principals who can positively impact student achievement. We need these leaders in schools!

With the role of the principal being “maxed out,” the importance of a culture of shared leadership becomes paramount. The principal must be an instructional leader who can step into a classroom, observe and analyze teaching and learning, and offer the actionable and meaningful feedback that can help a teacher to “right the ship.” They are—or should be—Masters and Commanders of effective teaching.

Greg Mullenholz

Greg Mullenholz is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from Montgomery County, Maryland.

Ask Mr. Mullenholz about Supporting Students with Disabilities

Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow Greg Mullenholz answers teachers’ burning questions about education policy. In this issue, he takes up Federal Special Education Policy.

Teacher Question (TQ):  What is meant by the term “disability” as it applies to education?

Mr. Mullenholz (Mr. M):  Currently in United States federal law, there are over 40 definitions of what it means to have a disability. The most widely used definition comes from the Americans with Disabilities Act. The law sets out the criteria for disability as a record of, or being regarded as having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities. In education, to meet the definition of disability and qualify for relevant services, a student’s educational performance must be adversely affected due to the disability. “Adversely affected,” however, does not mean that a child has to be failing in order to meet the requirements for special education services and supports.

TQ: What do teachers need to know about teaching students with disabilities?

Mr. M: Teachers need to know that states have the responsibility to provide a free and appropriate education to students with disabilities. This isn’t just a requirement, but a core tenet of American education – that education should prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living. This is the basis for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, known as IDEA. 

Most students who are eligible to receive special education under IDEA do not have significant cognitive impairments. The vast majority of students with disabilities have speech/language disabilities, specific learning disabilities, physical disabilities, or other impairments that do not in any way diminish their ability to master grade level content and meaningfully participate in the classroom community. We also know that students who do have cognitive disabilities can learn challenging academic content when they are properly taught and supported. Studies have shown that the instructional strategies needed to support students with disabilities enable other students to learn more effectively, too. Additionally, social, emotional, and civic responsibility of all students is enhanced in an inclusive educational environment.     

TQ: What is IDEA?  Where did it come from?

Mr M: IDEA is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and  was enacted in 1975 (it was called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act) due to the fact that only about 1 in 5 students with disabilities were receiving any type of education at all, and the vast majority were receiving ineffective or no instruction at all. There were even states where the laws on the books prohibited students with certain types of disabilities from attending school. IDEA, which was last reauthorized in 2004, requires that all children receive an education. At the outset, IDEA was about access. Now, it is about getting results for students. Under the law, federal and state monitoring activities focus on improving educational results and functional outcomes for students with disabilities.

There are three parts to the IDEA legislation:  Part A outlines the general provisions of the law; Part B covers the education of students from age 3 to age 21; Part C emphasizes children from birth until age 3. 

TQ:  How has IDEA changed the way schools operate and teachers teach?

Mr M:To insure  that students with disabilities receive a free, appropriate education, IDEA requires the creation of an Individualized Educational Program (IEP) for any student with a disability. The IEP should detail services, supports, interventions, and goals for each student. To avoid the issue of segregation or “warehousing” of students with disabilities, school systems must ensure that all students are placed in the Least Restrictive Environments, or LRE and that they “be involved in and progress in the general curriculum.” This means that students with disabilities should receive their education alongside nondisabled peers, unless the severity of the disability is such “that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.” IDEA has important provisions that protect the rights of children and families.

TQ: At the federal level, who oversees the education of students with disabilities? What is their role?

Mr. M: Within the US Department of Education, the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) oversees the implementation of IDEA and other federal laws related to individuals with disabilities.  OSERS’s mission is “to provide leadership to achieve full integration and participation in society of people with disabilities by ensuring equal opportunity and access to and excellence in education, employment, and community living.” OSERS does everything from assuring compliance with IDEA to administering grant programs to supporting research efforts. OSERS is actually comprised of three program components including the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), and the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA). NIDRR provides leadership around research and other efforts aimed at assuring improved life outcomes for individuals with disabilities, from birth through adulthood. RSA oversees grant programs that help adults with disabilities live independently with gainful employment through the provision of support services. And, finally, OSEP provides supports for children from birth to the age of 21 indirectly by providing states with financial support and technical assistance. 

TQ: What resources are available from the Department of Education to help me teach students with disabilities?

Mr. M: OSEP supports an extremely helpful resource for teachers called Bookshare. For teachers of students with disabilities, this is a must-have resource.

Bookshare is an “online accessible digital library for print disabled readers.” OSEP awarded Bookshare, a nonprofit based in Palo Alto, Calif., with a $32 million grant over five years to support their work in assisting students with disabilities in accessing high-quality texts. Bookshare’s volunteers have uploaded thousands of book titles that are accessible and can be used through many widely available screen reading programs. As a teacher who worked in a fully inclusive classroom, my students with disabilities had access to Bookshare and assistive technology that gave them the access to texts in our reading class and the ability to do research. Before, my students with disabilities were disappointed when the class was abuzz with discussions about Captain Underpants or The Series of Unfortunate Events. Now, thanks to Bookshare and OSEP’s funding and support, all of my kids are excited to read a wide variety of texts that might have been previously unavailable to them. “Through an exemption in the U.S. copyright law Bookshare serves a community of individuals with qualified print disabilities, such as visual impairments, physical disabilities or severe learning disabilities that affect reading”.  And the best part….Bookshare is free!

OSEP also funds the Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). PBIS, as many educators who work in PBIS schools know, is not a curriculum, but a decision making framework that guides the ”selection, integration, and implementation of the best evidenced-based academic and behavioral practices for improving important academic and behavior outcomes for all students.” So, as a teacher, OSEP indirectly funded the work that was done at my school, Twinbrook Elementary, to transform the schoolwide behavioral system that sought to reduce the number of office referrals and the rate of suspensions. Our school was awarded the 2011 Silver Award by PBIS Maryland for successful implementation of our schoolwide programming and the ability to demonstrate that it had a positive impact.

Another fantastic resource for all is the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (Formerly known as NICHCY).  The Dissemination Center is an information and referral center serving the United States, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Territories.  They provide families, students, educators, and others with information on disability-related topics regarding children and youth, birth through 21.  They also provide information to help you locate organizations and agencies within your state that address disability-related issues.  You may contact them at (800) 695-0285 or visit them on the web at http://www.nichcy.org.

The Office of Special Education Programs also funds the National Center for Educational Outcomes (NCEO), which takes a leading national role in designing assessments and accountability systems that monitor educational results for all students, including students with disabilities and English Language Learners. OSEP also funds the Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Education (CADRE) which works to increase the Nation’s capacity for dispute resolution involving special education,  the Technical Assistance and Dissemination Network which coordinates special and general education technical assistance initiatives across regions and topics, and many other wonderful programs that impact the lives of our students and their families.

For more information and resources relating to the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, visit http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/osers/index.html

Teacher Creates Museum Experience in Classroom

Stepping into Keil Hileman’s classroom was like being magically transported to a wing of the Smithsonian. This archeology teacher at Monticello Trails Middle school in Shawnee, Kan., has decorated every square inch of his space with a fascinating array of artifacts such as tribal masks, model airplanes, a jousting lance, dinosaur skeletons, and miniature replicas of ancient pyramids, to name just a few of the hundreds of items that adorn the room.

I had the opportunity to visit Hileman’s class as part of National Teacher Appreciation Week, when more than 50 ED staffers around the country went “Back to School” for a day to shadow teachers. I quickly discovered that it’s no wonder students line up to take Hileman’s classes.  But it’s not just the unique scenery that draws them in. Hileman never allows a dull moment to creep into his daily instruction.  His classes are like field trips to another land and a different era: alive with authenticity and intrigue.

Mr. Hileman in his classroom.

Mr. Hileman in his classroom.

During my visit, his students gave their final presentations on subjects ranging from the Mayan calendar to John F. Kennedy. One group even gave a live demonstration of a catapult they had built (instead of rocks, the contraption hurled tennis balls).  What made the presentations even more interesting however, was Hileman’s interaction with the students where he demonstrated his vast knowledge of history, science, geography, and numerous other subjects.

No matter how obscure the subject, Hileman appears to know something about it. The man is a walking encyclopedia; and funny, too. And his students clearly eat it up.

Hileman, a Teaching Ambassador Fellow for ED in 2008-2009, has been teaching for 19 years.  When asked about his inspiration for his one-of-a-kind classroom instruction, he relayed a story from his early years that dramatically changed the way he approached teaching:

“I passed around a Civil War bullet during class after watching a film on the war,” he said. There was something about holding a tangible piece of history that really resonated with his students.  “This bullet taught them more than any text books, curriculum, or worksheets ever could. I made a connection with them that I had never made before.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Hileman continues to inspire students who may have otherwise never discovered the many fascinating worlds that lay beyond the classroom.  Finding a teacher like Hileman is like unearthing a hidden treasure. With nearly 2 million baby boomer teachers retiring in the coming years, we need to inspire a new generation of great teachers to join those already in the classroom.  They’re a wonder to observe, and are priceless in value.

–Patrick Kerr is the Director of Communications and Outreach in ED’s Regional Office in Kansas City.