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Teacher Leaders: Expanding our Spheres of Influence

Note: Last week and this week RHSU is featuring guest bloggers from the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. For more on NNSTOY, check them out here. Today's post is from Greg Ahlquist. Greg is a social studies teacher at Webster Thomas High School in Webster, NY, and was New York teacher of the year in 2013.

"Mr. Ahlquist, why aren't you teaching more this year? We really miss you." Lizzie, a bright red-haired AP World History student, leaned in and pointedly asked me that question during the second week of classes this fall. And it was a thoughtful, fair question that deserved a long, deliberate answer but I only had 25 seconds before the bell rung and we arrived at different classrooms. So I offered this explanation: "Lizzie, I have the opportunity to be part of team that is revising New York's K-12 social studies program, and the chance to impact learning and students in social studies throughout the state for the next ten years or so was one I could not ignore." She turned her head to look me square in the eyes, tilted her head and said, 'Oh! That makes perfect sense."

I have had variations of that conversation--not all with the same positive understanding--over the last year with colleagues, friends, and family as I have explained the unique hybrid role I have this year teaching part-time at Webster Thomas High School and also working as a consultant hired by the New York State Education Department. As a teacher with one foot in the classroom and another in the Department, I work in a role the Commissioner of Education has crafted that I am hopeful will be a replicable model.

Teachers bring on-the-ground credibility to such work and can speak powerfully about perception and reality through real stories about real students. And, while I recognize the limitations of my perspective, I have grown through the year as I listen to teachers across the state from Jamestown to New York City share their perspectives on our social studies frameworks and resources that would add value to their work.

One of my roles this year has been to bridge the perspectives of the Department and the field. All teacher leaders serve as bridges between colleagues, between administration and colleagues, between the community and the school, and even between education departments and teachers. And, I have found that I have had to listen even more than speak. Listening carefully to concerns and perspectives is critical because it allows us to communicate ideas thoughtfully to all parties and move the entire system toward solid common ground. Listening lays the foundation for us to use our voices, and I have felt the weight and responsibility of speaking to and on behalf of teachers.

Teachers are uniquely positioned to use our voices to affect change. Admittedly, I continue to grow and wrestle with this role since I first caught a vision of what leadership and using my voice might look like after talking with leaders of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY), including my friend and 2007 New York State Teacher of the Year, Marguerite Izzo. NNSTOY's commitment to raise up and encourage teacher leaders, coupled with New York Commissioner John King's vision to craft a role for a teacher inside the State Education Department, encouraged me to step into this hybrid role this year. The timing could not have been more perfect because the frameworks for Social Studies were being revised, and I jumped into the work last July.

I am proud of the product that the team has produced. From the cadre of teachers who advised and offered feedback to the team of writers I joined to the leaders in the Department I serve, we have collaboratively created a product that I hope will shift learning and instruction in New York. We are reframing the usual dichotomy of content vs. skill to build a creative integration of content and skill that is driven by questions and the inquiry arc as articulated in the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework (http://www.socialstudies.org/c3). We are re-imagining social studies so that inquiry, careful reading, and analysis drive our classrooms so that the invaluable insights of history, geography, economics, and civics become more than dull words but translate into deep understanding, a sense of civic responsibility, and ultimately into action. One of our noble goals is to prepare our students for citizenship in a locally and globally interconnected world.

And, it is that civic responsibility and action that ultimately pushed me to accept this position. As a social studies teacher, it was a moment in time for me to put into practice so many of the lessons I taught and learned in my classroom. It is not surprising that a student like Lizzie immediately understood and appreciated that vision. I hope that my role in the Department is a replicable model at the state level for other disciplines, departments, and states. The responsibility to lead where we are, to listen carefully, and to use our voices to build bridges is one that every teacher leader should carefully consider.

--Greg Ahlquist

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