No topic in education has garnered more attention and controversy over the past few years than teacher effectiveness, and the U.S. Department of Education has played a critical role in that debate, first in Race to the Top, and more recently through the ESEA Flexibility Waiver process and proposed RESPECT initiative. The Department's Teaching Ambassador Fellowship program seeks to engage and give teachers a voice in that process by bringing a cohort of teachers to the Department for a year, where they work on policy issues and teacher outreach.
Genvieve DeBose brings diverse experiences and perspectives to her role as a teaching ambassador fellow. A National Board Certified Teacher with over 10 years experience in the classroom, she began her career as a Teach for America Corps Member in Los Angeles, where her first year of teaching was features in the PBS documentary The First Year; helped found a charter school in Oakland; and taught at an arts-themed charter school in the Bronx before becoming a Teaching Ambassador Fellow last year. Raised in Los Angles, DeBose, 34, earned degrees from the University of California Berkeley and Mills College. She currently lives in Washington, D.C. In her free time, she enjoys Irish step, Cuban Salsa and Afro-Brazilian dance, running, and boxing.
You're a Teaching Ambassador Fellow--what does that mean you do?
The Teaching Ambassadors program is a great program that brings in a cohort of practicing teachers from across country to come learn about education for a year. We are responsible for being a teacher voice at the Department and sharing what we learn with other teachers. We're all placed in different offices with a senior staff member as a mentor and do targeted work in that area, as well as teacher outreach.
I'm working in two main areas: First, I'm working with Greg Darnieder, senior advisor to the secretary on college access, to look at whether what we're doing in middle school prepares kids for college. Research shows that we can identify as early as 6th grade the students who will drop out, and that there are specific interventions we can put in place to prevent that. So I'm looking at ways we at the Department can better support young adolescents.
Second, I'm engaged, along with all the Teaching Ambassador Fellows, in teacher outreach around the Department's RESPECT initiative to transform the teaching profession. We've facilitated over 150 roundtables with teachers across the country about this initiative, and we make sure that teacher voice is represented in policy discussions in this building.
Why did you decide to participate in this program?
I'd been in the classroom for 10 years. I love teaching--well, I love it and I hate it. I love working with young people, because I see our education system as great equalizer of society. The kids I teach are all low-income, all kids of color. People hold low expectations for them, but I know they're smart. At the same time, teaching is really grueling work, and what we expect of teachers is unsustainable.
So the question for me way "how do we change this?" My principal told me about this program, and I thought it would be a really excellent opportunity to take a step out of the classroom and learn about our education system from a national perspective--a lot of teachers don't have that. Teaching can be very isolating. I wanted to look at education from a different lens and learn and thinking about how I could help engage and mobilize teachers. We as teachers have really important perspectives and expertise to share.
How did you become a teacher in the first place?
I grew up in California and went to the University of California, Berkeley as an undergraduate, majoring in integrated biology. I love biology and the sciences, but when I got to Cal, my freshman year, I took an education class, race and education, taught by Pedro Noguera and I was blown away. I have a mixed background--My dad's African American, my mom's Irish America--and I learned things about my background I hadn't known. Then I took an ethnic studies class and became an ethic studies major.
At the same time, I was volunteering in a middle school in Berkeley with an amazing 8th grade teacher. It was clear to me that black and Hispanic kids were being left behind. I was seeing huge discrepancies, and I felt like I had to do something about this. I've always liked working with young folks and felt like teaching was one of the best ways I could have a direct impact, so I decided to become a teacher.
After I graduated I did a Master's in Berkeley, applied to Teach for America, and became a TFA corps member in 1999. I taught in Los Angeles for two years, then went back to school for a year at Mills College in Oakland, and then helped found Lighthouse Community Charter School with a group of Oakland teachers. After starting that school and working there for three years, I was exhausted, so I took a year off and did some different things, and then I moved to New York City and taught at the Bronx Charter School for the Arts.
What do you see as the biggest challenge or opportunity related to teaching?
I believe that our 3.2 million teachers are one of our nation's greatest assets. But we need to rethink, first, how we value teachers as a society, and second, how we value their expertise in the policy world.
We need to figure out how to restructure our education system and the teacher's day so that teachers have time not only to teach but also to collaborate and to work with families. Good teachers do these things already, but they do it by going above and beyond the expectations of the job and then it becomes unsustainable. How do we create spaces where, for example, someone can teach fifty percent of the time and do family and community outreach the other fifty percent? Of how do we create opportunities for Master Teachers so that new teachers get more support to succeed?
If we do this right, we can make teaching both more sustainable and more effective.
We talk a lot about how to retain teachers. We lose a lot of teachers in the first five years, and it's so clear why that's the case. Being a Fellow this year, the quality of my life has improved tremendously because I have more freedom. Teachers' days are so regimented and overly structured in a negative way.
We have the opportunity to rethink that. The Department of Education has requested $5 billion to transform the teaching profession--in one sense, that's a lot of money, but it's small compared to what we spend on education nationally. We need to create systems where districts work with teachers to make the work more sustainable, give people opportunities to grow, training, compensation.
I understand you've also made some artistic, as well as policy, contributions at the Department?
I'm a big advocate of the arts and I'm always thinking about creative ways to bring teacher voice into the Department of Education. I worked with a group of local teachers to do some reflection about our profession and policy thinking, and I took the results of that and turned it into a script that we performed for people in the Department. It was called "The Teachers Lounge," and it gave an opportunity to share some of teachers' experiences and concerns in a more visceral, emotional way.
I've always seen the arts as a way to learn and connect. As a teacher I see my students as whole beings and educate the whole child. They may be great mathematicians and scientists, and critical thinkers, and artists, and spoken word artists. Enabling my students to express themselves with arts gives multiple entry points to content.
What do you hope to be doing 5 to 10 years from now?
I want to be in some kind of role where I'm still teaching, but also helping to create opportunities for teachers to grow professionally and to have our voices heard in the larger policy conversation about education.
My biggest "wow" takeaway from this year is that when teachers have opportunities to be mobilized and heard we can actually move policy farther and faster. New York City, for example, should have a group of at least 5-10 percent of the teaching population teaching part time and spending the other part of their time on teams to address challenges in the district. It's a no-brainer; they're the experts and provide that perspective. There are other folks who have a voice that teachers don't bring that are important, but often teachers aren't in the conversation at all. I want to be in a capacity--state, local, national--where I'm helping mobilize/vocalize the role of teachers in policy. At the same time, it's critically important to stay rooted in the classroom, in the work.