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The Teacher Voice in the US Department of Education

Reading Mr. Eckert and Mr. Raymond's article "Friends to Teachers at the US Department of Education (ED)?" encouraged me to reflect on my own ongoing experiences as a Classroom Fellow in the US Department of Education Teacher Ambassadors Fellowship (TAF).

Mr. Eckert and Mr. Raymond state their beliefs very clearly:

"The tone of the conversation between teachers and policymakers needs to change. The tone would change if policymakers took the time to understand the perspectives of teachers. The same is true of teachers and policymakers."

As I approach my fourth month with the TAF, I continue to digest my ongoing understandings. (Disclaimer: These are my own opinions.)

1) There are educators with classroom experiences working at ED.

From Mr. Eckert and Mr. Raymond's article and my own experiences, I am encouraged knowing that there are classroom teachers with backgrounds similar to mine who are engaged in policy at the federal level at ED.

Yet, knowing this makes me realize that the issues in education policies are far more complex than I originally understood, even with my education policy coursework at the PhD level.

I remember my TAF orientation in July where we received an ESEA briefing from Mr. Steven Means, a senior policy and program advisor at ED. I, and the other teacher ambassadors, all had our own classroom stories and concerns about NCLB. In responding, Mr. Means explained his own recent experiences as a principal, district teacher of the year, and professional development leader.

Mr. Means could speak our language of classroom stories and experiences.

This conversation was both hopeful and humbling. I think many teachers operate under the assumption that ED does not know the problems with NCLB from the classroom perspective, that somehow policies would change overnight if we classroom teachers could just tell our own stories.

Knowing that there are educators at ED with far more experiences than my own credentials, working away to solve these issues made me realize that perhaps these problems were much more complex, with potential solutions far more ambiguous.

2) Teachers crave time and opportunities to discuss their profession.

In the teacher discussions I have participated in, I continue to be encouraged that teachers want to discuss, share experiences, and learn from each other about what happens beyond their classroom. We want to talk about our craft, the policies, and concerns in a professional and collaborative forum.

I believe that the challenge for ED, the state and local school districts, and the various professional organizations is to provide a forum for teachers to have these professional dialogues with ED officials directly. In my own experiences in these hosted forums, the conversation is direct, yet mutually respectful, and collaborative.

3) Many teachers are concerned, upset, and even angry by the recent educational debates in the media that have collectively unfairly criticized and bashed the profession.

This continues to be the most difficult issue in education debates. In my experiences with other TAF and ED officials, how the message is interpreted and misinterpreted continues to be a heavy concern. The TAF have produced our own brochure to highlight the issues from our own classroom perspective to address the issues of assessment, evaluation, charter schools, etc.

I continue to write about this bashing through my various blog posts here on Teacher Magazine. We as teachers have the right to be angry about the simplistic portrayal of the problems in public education, yet, that anger has to be channeled to steady and productive dialogue that engages stakeholders to question previous assumptions, and even analyze the consequences when simplistic solutions are imposed.

Unfortunately, we operate in a political and media environment that often thrives on superficial examination of complex issues. Other interests, separate from ED, enter this arena to criticize public education.

We all need to examine how the education profession can better advocate for internal leadership where we advance our own realistic solutions that meet the goals for addressing the "civil rights issue of our generation". We cannot remain in our current reactive and defensive stances on our issues. We also have to begin the process of examining the structures of our own profession and analyze if our traditional foundations are suited to meet the challenges of the future.

4) When teachers can interact directly with ED officials in a professional manner, clear and concise dialogue occurs to advance issues on all sides.

At the recent 2010 National Middle School Association Annual Conference, Mr. Greg Darneider, a senior advisor to Secretary Duncan, Leah Raphael, a Washington Fellow, and I were able to participate in roundtable discussions with various educators.

Mr. Darneider could build connections with the audience since, as he stated "We were all once middle school teachers."

From his middle school teaching experiences early in his career, to Ms. Raphael's very recent middle school experiences, to my middle school experiences from the day before, each of the NMSA educators with classroom, administrative, and higher education backgrounds could all discuss the specfic middle school concerns and initiatives.

The educators from NMSA highlighted their message This We Believe.

We could discuss our various education issues, answer questions, and highlight the challenges advancing all the issues we care about from the larger national perspective.

These panel discussions were insightful and encouraging. The direct, honest, and respectful tone from these panel discussions demonstrate a model for others to follow- educators working in different contexts from classroom, school, central office, to university, to federal levels all addressing the same concerns.

At the same time, as one panel member respectfully challenged all of us, "Let us not just admire the problem." Too often such discussions just highlight the issues, but not move forward or make progress.

We all should not "just admire the problem." Yet, we all understand that moving forward will happen only when open dialogue can occur from all sides to clearly define the problem and discuss potential steps to a solution.

5) How can teachers get more involved and learn more about policy directly?

How do teachers learn about ED policies and proposals? With no or few opportunities for direct connections to ED officials, teachers often learn about ED through other sources, whether it be the media, the Internet, local unions, pundits, or other teachers. Learning from second hand sources is OK, but can often dilute, selectively filter, or misinterpret the message. This is only natural, but one should take the effort to access the ED messages directly.

Read the entire Blueprint for yourself and the various publications. Perhaps you may agree or disagree with some of the various proposals or interpretations, but it's important to identify for yourself your own beliefs directly from the source, in its entirety and in its context.

Understand the role and limitations of the US Department of Education. More importantly, realize that state and local interpretations of federal policies also often impact what happens in your classroom. In this process, there are shared responsibilities.

We share the domain of public education with others. Teachers also need to appreciate that other groups, organizations, and interests also believe they have an important role in public education.

For example, at the recent National Policy Forum for Family, School, and Community Engagement in Washington DC, I was challenged to shift my school centered perspective to understand that many family and community groups advocate that, in fact, they, not teachers, are the center of public education where schools should be designed around to serve the community through comprehensive services, where education is just one of a school's many potential functions.

Moving Forward

Teachers do have an important voice. The tone can change as teachers are better informed to be specific, precise, and realistic in their concerns.

Most importantly, the US Department of Education must continue to reach out to teachers through the various outreach programs, the Teacher Ambassador Fellowship, bus tours, ED Blog, the Teacher Ambassador Blog , and other opportunities.

With everyone better informed, then the tone will change, and educators who represent the best of our profession from the classroom to the federal level can begin to solve our complex and difficult challenges.

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