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NEA's Gift to Teachers

Tis the season for gift giving, and the National Education Association has given America's teachers a beautiful present wrapped, tied with a bow, and perfect for use in 2012. The gift was a guide to a substantially elevated teaching profession and, best of all, the responsibility for that profession.

About a year ago, Dennis Van Roekel, President of the National Education Association (NEA), created a commission to look at effective teaching and effective teachers. He did something that was unprecedented at NEA. He selected some of the best teachers in America, gave them complete autonomy, and invited some of the best minds on teacher quality to listen to these practitioners and advise them rather than the reverse of teachers listening to "experts"--- which is most typical when it comes to commissions charged with studying our profession. Dennis knew that teachers care deeply about their profession, are weary of the demonization occurring, and have little tolerance for unprepared and minimally committed teachers who make cameo appearances in America's classrooms.

People who know Dennis were not surprised that he took this bold step and risked his re-election by challenging some long held policies that had become irrelevant in the 21st Century. You see, Dennis Van Roekel is a great teacher himself. He proudly introduces himself as a math teacher of 20 plus years from Paradise Valley High School in Phoenix, Arizona, rather than the president of the largest professional union in the United States. He is a leader on a mission, and he knows that the NEA---with one in every 100 Americans as a member---has the presence and the power to make the changes needed to assure that every child will have an effective teacher every year.

This report, Transforming Teaching: Connecting Professional Responsibility with Student Learning, is a pathway to a systemic approach to teacher quality like that used by the highest performing countries. I think one sentence in the report sums it up: "We envision a teaching profession that embraces collective accountability for student learning with collaborative autonomy that allows educators to do what is best for students." Imagine that: teachers with the ability to decide and implement what is best for the kids in their classrooms and schools and the accountability that goes with decision making. That's what happens all the time in Finland and Singapore and other countries that lead the world in student achievement.

The report identified three guiding principles to transform the teaching profession. It proclaimed that student learning is the center of everything a teacher does. I know that sounds like a "duh" moment, but we live in a world where bureaucracy reigns and a "one size fits all" mentality drives public policy that strangles a teacher or a school's ability to customize for every child the best education plan. Trust and authority, the report's authors said, must be closest to the child---and "closest" is not Washington, DC.

Another guiding principle was that teachers must take primary responsibility for student learning. The operative word is the plural "teachers." In today's world, collaboration and collegiality are necessities for maximizing effectiveness. (I would add that high stakes testing and compensation undermine this principle.)

The final guiding principle centers around teacher empowerment and responsibility for who gets hired and fired, how evaluation occurs, and how teachers might advance in teaching while remaining in touch with students. We know the power of peer assistance and review systems, but too often, school systems ignore the best practices if funding is an issue.

This commission was led by a highly regarded teacher. Commission Chair Maddie Fennell was 2007 Nebraska Teacher of the Year. Maddie is the face of millions of teachers who spend 24/7 thinking about a better lesson for the student who seemed confused in class today or for the child who needs extra support through a personal crisis. Like all teachers, Maddie is always looking for better ways of connecting with parents and the community. And Maddie is also, like most of her colleagues, thinking about how to improve America's system of teaching and learning. We owe it to all the Maddie Fennells to read this report, use it as a resource for conversation and change, and assure that teachers and their profession are considered the most important in America.

Stay tuned for future blogs that will provide more specific information and opinion on this report. I will share mine, and I hope you share yours. It's not a perfect report, but it's the best roadmap to a stronger and more effective teaching profession than we've seen in a long time.

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