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. 

“Hey Ben, this is Arne Duncan. How are you doing?”

Initially, Benjamin White, a special education teacher candidate from Eastern Michigan University, didn’t know how to react. He thought he was going to spend Thursday morning on the phone with staff from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services discussing his teacher preparation program. Instead, Ben received a call from the Secretary of Education, thanking Ben for choosing to become a teacher. They discussed teacher preparation, special education, and the need for diversity in the field. Ben told Arne that teachers need to spend more time with students, earlier in their preparation, “getting their feet wet.” Read More

As part of Teacher Appreciation Week, Duncan made surprise phone calls several days during the week to show his gratitude for their dedication to the profession and to hear their thoughts on how we can best support teachers in the field.

On Monday, Arne called Helen McLeod, a 39-year veteran at Durham School for the Arts in Durham, N.C., who teaches 8th grade Social Studies and Newspaper. Helen took the call in her classroom, and expecting a parent, was shocked to have a cabinet secretary on the other end. The two discussed the changes Helen had seen during her career, and she told him that the profession is the greatest in the world, “one that keeps you young.”

Tuesday morning, Arne spoke with Misla Barco, a Spanish for Native Speakers teacher at East Palo Alto Academy in Menlo Park, Calif. While Misla’s students are amongst the poorest in the state, with her support, nearly all of them pass the AP exam and over 94% go off to college each year. She spends her weekends shuttling them to college campuses for visits and interviews. Misla’s assistant principal, Jeff Camarillo, brought her into the office under the guise of a preplanned professional development conversation, only to be surprised that she was going to talk with the nation’s top education official. Near tears, Misla said, “Mr. Secretary, you make me a better teacher. I read about the things you are doing to make it better for my kids, and I am inspired.” Though touched by her kind words, Arne made clear to share that he knows its teachers like her who make things better for students.

Wednesday’s call was to Amy Piacitelli, a teacher for 17 years at Charlestown High School in Boston Public Schools.  Amy’s headmaster, Dr. Ranny Bledsoe, called her to the office while she was teaching, much to the amusement of her students. Astonished at the recognition, Amy told Arne that she was flattered, but that she was only successful because she had such strong administrators to work with. As Amy explained, “Good administrators make all of the difference.” How does a teacher return to class, and upon being questioned by a roomful of curious students explain that she just talked with the Secretary of Education? Read more.

Secretary Duncan’s calls were just one of a number of activities throughout the week to celebrate the teaching profession and to listen to teachers on how they think the teaching profession should change. The Department is seeking input from teachers across the country, and recently released a discussion document where teachers and principals can engage in conversations about future policies or program directives. View the document and share your thoughts here.

As we bring National Teacher Appreciation Week to a close, the conversation around reshaping the profession, around elevating it to the level of law and medicine, around showing our respect and gratitude for teachers must continue. Every day should be about appreciating teachers, and every day should be about listening to them as they lead the transformation of their profession.

Watch our collection of Thank a Teacher videos, see how people across the web thanked a teacher this week, and read about “ED Goes Back to School.” 

Greg Mullenholz is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from Rockville, Md.

ED Shows Appreciation by Walking a Day in 50 Teachers’ Shoes

ED Employees went back to school

Steven Hicks, special assistant for early learning, spent the day shadowing a kindergarten teacher at Oyster-Adams bilingual school in DC as part of "ED Goes Back to School."

As I entered the U.S. Department of Education building on the morning of May 9, something felt different. Many offices usually filled with buzzing conversations were empty. Many of my colleagues weren’t in the building. They were in area schools shadowing a teacher.

As part of Teacher Appreciation Week, 50 ED staff in Washington D.C. and across the country participated in “ED Goes Back to School.” Senior officials and career staff, matched with a classroom teacher, spent a full or half day experiencing the life of a teacher. Some co-taught while others observed. Some participated with small groups while others worked with students one-on-one. Regardless of the role they played in the classroom, everyone agreed that the experience was transformational.

“Everything I have done in the last five years was affirmed today,” shared music teacher Mike Matlock.

In a meeting with the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that evening, teachers and ED staff shared stories from the day and implications for their work.

Massie Ritsch, Deputy Assistant Secretary for External Affairs and Outreach Services, spoke of dissecting a pig at Ballou Senior High School. Mike Humphreys, a National Board Certified P.E. teacher at Patrick Henry Elementary School, shared that his shadow, David Hoff, proved to be a great sport throughout the day, even when getting hit in the leg with an errant T-ball bat. Lisa Jones, a 3rd grade teacher at Watkins Elementary School, spoke lovingly about how her shadow, Ann Whalen, Director of Policy and Program Implementation, didn’t hesitate to dance along with the “Fraction Shuffle.”

Through story after story, I sensed true appreciation for the rigorous work that teachers do every day. “Throughout the day I was amazed by teachers who understand the needs of all students,” reflected Alexa Posny, Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, who shadowed Flora Lerenman and Caitlin Kevill’s 2nd grade class at Tyler Elementary School. “I loved that when you walk into their classroom, you have no idea who is the special education teacher and who isn’t.”

ED Goes Back to School PhotoThere were also implications for the work we do at ED.

After spending a day in a turnaround school with Mary Balla, a Spanish teacher at Anacostia High School, Suzanne Immerman indicated that the culture of high expectations is helping to transform the school, but she also acknowledged that we need to recognize that real change takes time.

Many spoke of the strong relationships they witnessed between teachers and students and thought aloud about how we might value students’ social and emotional needs more in the Department’s programs and policies.

Audra Polk, a theater teacher at Ballou Senior High drove this point home. “Teaching is nothing at Ballou if you don’t have a relationship with your students,” she said.

Everyone agreed that ED needs to create a new tradition of going back to school, and to do so more often.  Some staff called for this to be a quarterly event; Secretary Duncan and teachers agreed.

The day that began with an eerily quiet building in the morning had become filled with excitement, conversation, and laughter by evening. Relationships were built, lessons were learned, and teachers were truly appreciated.

Geneviève DeBose is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from Bronx Charter School for the Arts. She wants to give a shout-out to her father, Dr. Herman DeBose, who shadowed her for two days during her 3rd year of teaching. That experience was the inspiration for “ED Goes Back to School.”

Teachers Thanking Teachers

Ms. King (front left) and her 9th grade English class at Washington-Lee High School.

Ms. King (front left) and her 9th grade English class at Washington-Lee High School.

During Teacher Appreciation Week, we’ve seen videos and read countless Tweets from students and former students thanking a teacher who made a difference for them. Over the last few days, I’ve been struck particularly by the number of excellent teachers who attribute their skill in the classroom to another teacher who reached out to them at an important time.

At a National Education Association ceremony this week that honored educators to be inducted into the National Teacher Hall of Fame, I was inspired by Glen Lid, who teaches chemistry in Illinois.

Though Lid described himself as a verbose and proud educator, his first instinct when receiving recognition was to pay tribute to the teachers who he said make his work possible. “I will own and accept my part of this honor,” he began. Quickly, however, he pivoted to lauding his school community, the cadre of incredible teachers whom he has worked with over the past 33 years. According to Lid, these educators deserve the credit for creating the conditions of collaboration and community that allowed him to thrive.

Teachers thanking teachers may have been the theme of the evening with Hall of Fame inductees. Jim Brooks, an English teacher from Millers Creek, N.C., described at least three teachers who made a difference in his life, beginning with an homage to his first-grade teacher, Mrs. Shepherd, who consoled him for the first two weeks of his school career, when he walked into class every day in tears. He ended with a beautiful poem by a university professor who later prepared him to teach well.

Both Brooks and Scott Charlesworth-Seiler, from Crystal, Minn., are National Board Certified Teachers (NBCT). The presence of so many celebrants from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards reminded me that I should thank the many teachers who helped me achieve NBCT status ten years ago. John Douglas, Kelly Crisp, and George Manning met with me weekly and—even after teaching and grading papers all day—volunteered hours to read and reread long entries, to scrutinize videos, to check my packing materials, and to offer honest feedback.

This year, another incredible teacher in Arlington, Va. willingly relinquished her time and her students to help me to renew my National Board Certification while I continued to work temporarily at the U.S. Department of Education. Caroline King, who teaches 9th and 12th grade English at Washington and Lee High School, gave up control of her classroom for many days this winter and proved what all teachers know, that when a teacher needs serious help, she always asks another teacher.

As I addressed Mother’s Day cards this week, it occurred to me that Teacher Appreciation Week is a lot like Mother’s Day. Everyone knows that we should always appreciate the mothers and teachers who have nurtured and loved us, who have made us strong and seen in us hidden talents waiting to be unleashed. Still, it’s nice to have a day to remind us to do what we ought to do every day—appreciate them, honor them, thank them. So, thank you, Ms. King!

Laurie Calvert

Laurie Calvert is a Teacher Liaison on loan from Enka High School in Candler, N.C.

Rethink Teacher Appreciation Week

Great teachers build nations. They inspire, awaken and raise our children’s expectations. They coax imaginations and lead students to discovery. Teachers shape the next generation of decision-makers.

While this work is deeply rewarding, teaching is also incredibly hard—as intellectually rigorous as it is emotionally draining. Over the next five to ten years, at least one million teachers will be eligible for retirement, roughly one third of the work force. Schools are finding it increasingly difficult to draw talented folks into a profession that, in many cases offers:

  • the 50-50 chance they won’t last through their first four years,
  •  the likelihood of underwhelming support and development,
  • a lifetime of low and moderate pay, and
  • the strong likelihood that they’ll reach a point where continuing to teach poses substantial financial hardship.

On this Teacher Appreciation Week, let’s think more meaningfully about what it means to appreciate teachers so that we build a profession that retains its best teachers and recruits the next generation of great talent.

For most teachers, Teacher Appreciation Week is a time when schools bestow small demonstration gifts to staff: mugs, reusable lunch bags with the school logo, chair massages during planning time, lunch catered by the PTA, and so on. While we value these tokens of support, it is far more important for us to reflect meaningfully on the teaching profession and consider what we can do to support great teacher leadership.

True appreciation means understanding what teachers bring to the table and creating meaningful opportunities for them to contribute to the policies and practices that affect their school communities. Let’s engage teachers in policy more directly at all levels. Boston, Massachusetts leads with a strong example. Teachers who serve as Teach Plus Fellows there produced a policy paper advocating for evaluation systems that train evaluators effectively, include peer evaluators and identify high performers. At the district level, districts could create Teacher Advisory Committees where they regularly solicit teachers’ feedback on policies and programs. At the school level, principals could create hybrid roles for teachers, which would allow master teachers to direct new teacher training, perform research on best teaching practices, or design curriculum materials without being completely removed from the classroom. Let’s create a space in which teachers can truly engage in how our schools are run. That is true teacher appreciation.

For the 16 Teaching Ambassador Fellows at the U.S. Department of Education, part of our work has focused on the RESPECT Project, a national conversation we have been having with teachers all over the country about transforming our profession. The RESPECT Project seeks to elevate the teaching profession by proposing a vision that embraces better training, richer opportunities for professional advancement, time for collaboration, higher pay, sustainable hours, and a culture of shared responsibility. We want to attract the best candidates, support our colleagues as they develop, and retain those teachers who are getting it done.

The RESPECT Project and the growing movement to elevate the teaching profession is, as one educator in Rhode Island noted, our generation’s “moon landing moment.” This is the moment when we can rally the entire country around a grand vision to comprehensively remake our education system for the 21st century.

For Teacher Appreciation week, we encourage everyone to honor our teachers by listening respectfully as teachers rethink and reshape the American education system. Let’s collaborate to find practical, community-based and student-centered ways to bring teachers to the table to weigh in on the crucial decisions that affect them and the students they serve.

Now that’s teacher appreciation.

The 2011-2012 Teaching Ambassador Fellows work with the US Department of Education to facilitate the involvement and understanding of teachers in developing and implementing policy efforts at the federal, state and local levels, to improve the likelihood of their success.

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RESPECT Vision Released for Comment

What would it take to make America’s most important profession also America’s most valued profession?

To answer this question, 16 Teacher Ambassador Fellows — active classroom teachers working temporarily for the U.S. Department of Education — have been listening to teachers all over the country. They have held over 200 roundtable discussions with thousands of their colleagues to talk about how they envision a transformed teaching profession.

The result is a teacher-written vision document, available on our website here [MS Word, 164KB].

Click here for more information on the RESPECT Project.

Ask Mrs. Borders about Teacher Appreciation

Teaching Ambassador Fellows answer teachers’ burning questions about education policy. In this issue, middle school science teacher Kareen Borders takes up Teacher Appreciation Week and discusses how to use the contacts made with parents during this time to build relationships between families and teachers.

Teacher Question (TQ):  Why do we celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week?

Mrs. Borders (Mrs. B):  In 2009, Arne Duncan gave a speech to the NEA in which he recounted some of the qualities of America’s teachers. “All of us remember an educator or coach who changed our life. It stays with us forever. It sustains us, guides us, and inspires us. They’re the ones who commit those everyday acts of kindness and love and never ask for anything in return. They counsel troubled teens, take phone calls at night, and reach into their pockets for lunch money for children who are too ashamed to ask…These are the qualities of a great educator and we have millions of them all across America. ”

During teacher appreciation week, students, families, and our whole nation honor the committed and talented teachers who nurture and build our nation’s youth.

TQ:  How does celebrating great teachers support their work in the classroom?

Mrs. B:  During Teacher Appreciation Week, families and administrators make a special effort to show their appreciation for teachers. Although a great teacher has many talents, the teacher operates within a greater, interdependent system that includes students, families, the school itself, and the district. When families and schools support one another to provide a rigorous and engaging experience for the whole child, teachers’ efforts are multiplied.

TQ:  What can teachers do during Teacher Appreciation week to build relationships that make the most of their contact with families?

Teacher Appreciation Week is a perfect time to invite families to get involved at the school and in their children’s classrooms. When a parent sends a note or stops by to thank a teacher, teachers can take the opportunity to foster a deeper and collaborative relationship. This partnership can also build upon the parent’s strengths. Perhaps the parent partner has a skill set that would be ideal for a particular unit or for a particular group of students.

TQ:  Why is it important for teachers to reach out to parents beyond Open House and fundraisers?

Mrs. B: A great teacher recognizes the individuality of each student and makes an effort to understand each’s unique strengths and challenges. Parents can contribute much by sharing insights they have about their children. They can also help to reinforce good learning habits and practice skills at home. It is important for communication between home and school to be regular and two-way, so that parents and teachers can reinforce a student’s growth and alert one another when problems arise in either arena.

Teachers we have talked to also recommend a shift from the school talking TO families to one where they work WITH parents and guardians, so that conversations about meeting the needs of the whole child can be richer and deeper.  The most helpful attitude for a teacher to have with a parent is: “I know my subject and how to teach, but you are the expert on your child. Let’s put our heads together to think about the best ways to reach him/her.” When a teacher knows another perspective about a student, instructional planning can capitalize on this knowledge.

TQ:  What can principals do to support teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week (and all year)?

Mrs. B: Just as I would encourage a parent to engage in ongoing, two-way communication with a teacher, principals should also engage in two-way conversations with the teachers at their school. Teachers tell us that the best principals really know them and take time to step beyond the twice- a-year-evaluation, often engaging in real-time conversations with them.  They are true instructional leaders who support teachers and build their leadership capacity.

Principals could spend more time in classrooms and offer helpful and positive feedback.  Teachers tell us that they love a short, hand-written note from a principal who has observed something positive in a classroom and that every teacher has an envelope, file, or drawer full of these notes that they save to boost their confidence when times are tough. Principals might also offer to co-teach a lesson or to brainstorm with a teacher about a challenge he or she is facing with a class. Finally, because teachers are inundated with non-teaching tasks that take away from their work in the classroom, they value a principal’s efforts to lighten their load for the week by arranging for the week’s copying to be done, setting up a lab, making the bus arrangements for a field trip, or finding someone to take on hall or lunch duty.

E4E’s Advice to Schools: To Keep Great Teachers, RESPECT Their Careers

After earning her law degree while teaching full time, Lori Wheal thought she might leave the field of education. She had spent 10 years as a middle school teacher in the Bronx and was tired. Thanks to low pay, little respect, and limited opportunities for growth, she was at a crossroads. Should she leave a profession she truly loved for something more financially lucrative and well-respected?

Before Lori had to make that decision, she was encouraged to apply for a new position at her school as a master teacher. In this role she would teach fewer classes and spend the remainder of her time observing and mentoring her colleagues. She got the position and returned to M.S. 391 in the fall. “That position is what kept me in the classroom,” Wheal said. “If I hadn’t had this opportunity, I would have left the entire system.”

Teachers from E4E’s Pay Structure Policy Team present recommendations from their report on teacher compensation.

Teachers from E4E’s Pay Structure Policy Team present recommendations from their report on teacher compensation.

Providing career lattices that give excellent teachers opportunities to lead in their schools is just one of Educators 4 Excellence’s (E4E) recommendations in their new report on teacher compensation. “A New Way to Pay: Reimagining Teacher Compensation,” penned by 16 New York City teachers on E4E’s Pay Structure Policy team, suggests that a different compensation structure can elevate the teaching profession. Their recommendations include increasing starting pay to $60,000 and providing incentives for promising candidates to teach hard-to-staff subjects.

Many of the recommendations made in the report align with the U.S. Department of Education’s RESPECT Project, which stands for Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence, and Collaborative Teaching. The project seeks to engage teachers, school and district leaders, teachers’ associations and unions, and state and national education organizations in a much-needed transformation of our profession.

I had the opportunity to attend the release of E4E’s report and participate in a panel discussion about their recommendations. The room was filled with more than 100 teachers who chose to spend a schoolnight discussing education policy. They probably had papers to grade, families to call, and their own lives to lead, but they decided to join their colleagues in a conversation about elevating their profession.

I was truly inspired when I left the room. I was also reminded that we, as teachers, need to be involved in education policy at every level. Alongside unions and other associations of educators, more policy-focused organizations like E4E and programs like the Department of Education’s Teaching Ambassador Fellowship must exist at the school, local, and state levels. How do we ensure that teachers have a voice in creating policies that affect our students and our profession? How do we challenge states and districts to make these opportunities the norm? Our future depends on it. We can’t afford to lose more teachers like Lori. Neither can our students in the Bronx.

Geneviève DeBose is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from Bronx Charter School for the Arts in New York City

Ask Ms. DeBose About Teaching the Middle Grades

Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow Geneviève DeBose answers teachers’ burning questions about middle grades education.

TEACHER QUESTION (TQ):  Why are educators using the term middle grades or middle level instead of middle school?  What’s the difference?

MS. DEBOSE:  When I was a kid, I went to John Burroughs Junior High School in Los Angeles. Today that school is called John Burroughs Middle School. When I attended, it included grades 7, 8, and 9. Today John Burroughs serves students in grades 6 through 8. Why all the changes? Because students in the middle grades today attend many different types of schools, the term “middle school” doesn’t always fit. Some are in schools that serve grades 6-8, others are in K-8 schools, while additional students may be in a school setting that serves only grades 7 and 8 or K through 12.  While their school structures may be different our young adolescents experience similar changes and challenges.

Middle level youth are recognized as students age 10 to 15, often in grades 5 through 9. Regardless of the type of school setting they are in, as educators we have to ensure that we work to meet the academic, social, and emotional needs of students in the middle grades. Whether the school my 13-year old cousin attends is called a middle school is not nearly as important as what takes place inside the building. As the Association for Middle Level Education says, “We’re about kids ages 10 to 15, not the name on the school.”

TQ:  What makes someone a good fit for teaching in the middle grades?

MS. D:  Middle school teachers need to have a diversity of skill sets to be effective with this age group. First, teachers must truly enjoy working with young adolescents. If you like the quirkiness that comes with being 10-15, then this is the right fit. Middle school students say that they want a teacher who is both demanding and caring. They want to be challenged and held to high expectations, but they also want to know that their teacher loves them and is there for them. Teachers need to be flexible and easily adaptable because every day with middle level kids is like a “Forrest Gump” moment:  you never know what you’re gonna get. Lastly, we need to be creative and engaging. These years are critical in influencing the ultimate success of our students. So many students check out in grades 5-9 that we must work diligently to create opportunities for learning that include student voice and get our kids excited about coming to school.

TQ:  I’ve heard a lot about middle level students and brain development. What’s actually happening up there?

MS. D:  Researchers tell us the adolescent brain develops faster than any time other than birth to two years old.  Early adolescents are moving from concrete to abstract thinking and are developing their ability to think critically, solve complex problems, plan, and control impulses. (So for all of the 6th grade teachers who wonder why one student keeps yelling out the answer after constant reminders to raise their hand: don’t worry; it’ll get better.) Many of early adolescents’ skills are dependent on the frontal lobe of the human brain, which neuroscientist Jay Giedd says is the “part of the brain that most separates man from beast.” During adolescence the frontal lobe is not fully developed, often resulting in poor organizational skills and decision making. According to Giedd, “[It's] not that the teens are stupid or incapable of [things]. It’s sort of unfair to expect them to have adult levels of organizational skills or decision making before their brain is finished being built. …”

The good news is that the adolescent brain is developing so that the cells and connections it does make will survive. Increasing the opportunities students have to engage in music, athletics, debate, robotics, the arts, and other diverse, hands-on learning experiences will result in lasting patterns that will be “hard-wired” into the brain. 

To learn more about adolescent brain development, check out this interview with Jay Giedd.

TQ:  So, what do all of these changes mean for a middle level student?

MS. D:  Our middle level youth often demonstrate a heightened sense of self-consciousness and feel like everyone is as concerned with their behaviors and thoughts as they are. They also tend to believe that no one else has experienced similar emotions. This is shown through overly dramatic reactions like outbursts of, “No one understands what I’m going through!” Early adolescents may also make poor decisions and take unnecessary risks because they don’t think anything bad can happen to them.

For some this sounds overwhelming, but there are benefits to working with this age group. Because these students are developing abstract thinking, they have heightened interest in causes and justice, interests that teachers use to draw them into learning. Involving them in student-led school or community campaigns is an excellent way to channel this energy. Their interests will also develop and change a great deal during this time, which means they will be open to trying new things in an attempt to find what they are good at. Students who want to try new things and explore? A teacher’s dream!

TQ:  What do all of these changes mean for a middle level teacher?

MS. D:  Given that students encounter these changes at different times and develop at their own pace, our jobs as middle level teachers can be difficult. Peter Lorain, a retired middle school principal, from Beaverton, Ore., wrote an article that offers advice in this area. Lorain states, “The middle school classroom should be an active, stimulating place where people talk and share, movement is common and planned for, and the teacher uses a wide array of approaches to introduce, model, and reinforce learning.”

TQ: Sounds good Mr. Lorain, but how exactly, do teachers do this?

When planning lessons, middle school teachers must keep the goal clearly in mind and make sure that students can reach the goal in multiple ways. Teachers must check in with students along the way to keep them working toward the learning objective. As thinking and learning become more abstract, students need predictable and safe environments so that they can risk, explore, and grow. Teachers must structure and facilitate these experiences. Students need to learn how to problem solve, think critically, and develop processes for learning. Teachers need to structure and facilitate these, too. Teachers should:

  • Teach students how to study. There are many resources for teachers to structure these experiences.
  • Establish, teach, and practice consistent expectations and routines. Don’t expect to tell students once and have them remember and follow the “rules.”
  • Use process charts to detail steps on a long-term project and revisit these steps periodically.
  • Use graphic organizers to assist in visualizing problem solving.
  • Distribute assignment sheets that clearly articulate benchmarks and timelines.
  • Color code materials (e.g., assignments in blue, new information in red, long-term project information in violet) to help students put the material into a context and take away the thinking and categorizing work to orient the brain as to what should be done next.

These steps and others are tools teachers can use to facilitate learning through the new experiences and adventures in thinking that are part of the young adolescent’s life.

TQ:  What are effective practices used to help middle level students develop strong relationships and an awareness of the world around them?

MS. D:  There are a variety of ways middle level schools can meet these goals. I’ll share two ideas from my 10 years in the classroom as a middle level teacher.

1)     Advisory: There are many different ways to create and conduct an advisory, but the opportunity for students to meet in a safe, small group with the same students and adult on a regular basis is key. The space should provide students with an adult advocate at the school while promoting opportunities for positive social development, relationship-building and academic support. I have been in schools that didn’t have an existing advisory structure, so I worked to create these opportunities within my classes or at my grade level. 

2)     Service Learning: Because young adolescents want to be engaged in hands-on experiences, to try new things, and to create a more fair and just world, service learning is an excellent opportunity for them to do all three. My students and I participated in school-based service learning programs, becoming reading buddies to younger students or starting our school’s first recycling program. We also connected with community organizations like a local food pantry to pack bags of food for hungry families twice a month. These activities gave students the opportunity to see themselves as agents of positive change in the world and helped them recognize how their actions impact others. 

TQ:  What new and relevant research exists about middle level education?

MS. D:  There is a body of research that focuses on the middle grades. I have listed some of the articles below.

  • Robert Balfanz and the Association of Middle Level Education’s report Putting the Middle Grades Student on the Graduation Path
  • The Southern Regional Education Board’s Middle Grades Commission’s report A New Mission for the Middle Grades: Preparing Students for a Changing World
  • The Bush Presidential Institute’s Middle School Matters Initiative
  • EdSource’s study Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades: Why Some Schools Do Better

TQ:  What different middle level organizations can I get involved in?

MS. D:  The first that comes to mind is the Association for Middle Level Education (formerly the National Middle School Association). They are a national education association dedicated exclusively to the middle grades. They publish a number of publications that are helpful to middle level educators, and they hold excellent national and state-level conferences each year. There is also the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform which is an alliance of educators, researchers and national organizations committed to promoting the academic performance and healthy development of young adolescents. They seek to make every middle grades school academically excellent, responsive to the developmental needs and interests of young adolescents, and socially equitable. One way this is accomplished is through their Schools to Watch program.