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Making Three Teacher Wishes a Reality

In schools across the country, the décor of hearts and snowman is being replaced by shamrocks and rainbows as the winter blahs begin to melt with the rising temperatures.  I often read leprechaun tales to my students in March, encouraging them to write what they would spend the pot of gold on or what they would ask the leprechaun for if granted three wishes.  This time, I'm giving my 3 teacher wishes but I'm going to add some actions that can make those wishes come true.

My first wish is that ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) does not become a "four letter word" acronym as NCLB (No Child Left Behind) and RTTT (Race to the Top) did. I often joked that NCLB should have been called No Teacher Left Standing or No Lawyer Left Unemployed.  Every educator knew that the capricious mandates of NCLB were a formula for eventual system failure. The evaluation mandates in RTTT were not driven by a mission to grow our profession; they were based on a deficit model of "catching" those who weren't raising scores fast enough.  Determining a teacher's competence by student performance on a test that was never written to measure the teacher is like determining reading competency by how well you do on on math story problems.

Henry Ford said "Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently." So let's leverage this opportunity to begin again with ESSA, but let's try to do things a little smarter.  Educators, don't wait for policy makers to invite you to the table.  Start to understand what's in the law (the National Education Association has collection of fact sheets to get you started). Talk with your colleagues, your unions and other advocacy groups about what changes you want to see. Make a call or send an email to your state department of education and ask how you can be involved.  When teachers in Massachusetts wanted to impact their state equity plan, they attended a Teach to Lead Teacher Leadership Summit to design their strategy (see Collaborative Task Force); almost every one of their recommendations were accepted into the state plan. In the words of Milton Berle "If opportunity doesn't knock, build a door."

My second wish is that the words "teacher leader" would become synonymous (ie we don't say "principal leader").  Teaching Excellence Through Professional Learning and Policy Reform , released in conjunction with the International Summit on the Teaching Profession, stated "By initiating improvement and innovation in schools, teacher leadership develops teachers' competence and confidence as educators, advances their professional learning, promotes change and improvement in schools, encourages professional collaboration and collegiality, and boosts professional status and recognition."  I just say "When teachers lead, kids succeed!" 

Allowing teachers real leadership is going to require principals who are willing to share and teachers who are willing to step outside of their comfort zone.  Weak principals are threatened by teacher leadership but strong principals know that collaborative leadership leverages the skills, knowledge and talents of EVERY adult in a building for maximum student impact. My principal acknowledged she wasn't great at scheduling and handed it off to two teachers; they came back with a scheduled that increased time for teacher collaboration and peer observation.  The principal took a risk by admitting her area of weakness; those teachers took a risk because you never make everyone happy when you do a schedule. But their combined leadership positively impacted our school culture and our students' academic achievement. 

My final wish is that teaching would be seen as an esteemed and worthwhile profession, both by the public and my colleagues. Survey after survey tells us that teacher morale is low; teachers don't recommend their profession to others and too many are leaving before they really obtain professional expertise.  The often heard description "I'm just a teacher" is both a diminishment of the important work we do and a reflection of how we value our role in the education system. 

To change the image of our profession, we have to shift the common rhetoric around teaching and public schools. We need more organizations like Nebraska Loves Public Schools; they provide documentary films that showcase the incredible work being done in our schools every day.  As educators, we need to continue to provide the media with positive stories; invite them into your classroom to see your great work.  If they don't come, keep bothering them! Send them stories and include a photo; you are more likely to get coverage if you include a visual.  Invite policy makers into your school also; don't expect them to stay for a day or a week, but make sure they see the great work you are doing and make a direct tie into the policies they developed (or new ones you need them to make). 

None of these wishes are impossible, but none of them will come to fruition unless we make intentional choices to do things differently.  We don't need leprechauns, we need real people - educators, policy makers, voters, and multitudes of stakeholders - who commit to work together to shape a stronger profession for educators and a better system of education for our students.

Maddie Fennell is a National Board Certified Teacher [NBCT] who is currently serving as a Teacher Leader in Residence Office of the Secretary US Department of Education (on special assignment from the Omaha Public Schools).  She can be contacted at [email protected] .

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