Once upon a time in a land far, far away , I worked in a district where the majority of teachers were unhappy -- unhappy to the point of down right disgust. Almost every employee I saw walk into a school building there was a smirk followed by a frown and immediately followed up with a collective eye roll. Teachers were tired. School-based administrators were scared. Students were disengaged. Through this horrible time in district history, a new superintendent was named and with them came a lot of fanfare, promises and press conferences on how this education 'visionary' would change things within a year.
Too bad, six months later none of those things promised had happened. Teachers were still unhappy, administrators were even more scared (many of their colleagues had been abruptly fired or transferred without reason) and students continues to not come to school or perform at any level.
District administration, still totally oblivious to how their employees were feeling, continued to push initiative after initiative to their teachers unaware of just how "on the edge" the majority of teachers felt. One evening I was invited to a black tie event put on by one of the local school reform initiatives to increase student achievement (their words not mine) and I happened to be sitting at the district table next to the Chief Academic Officer's Secretary. As I tried to keep feeding my face so that I wouldn't say something that would make everyone know who I was, I heard some other district personnel ask the question, "How can we make teachers feel like they are important stakeholders in the district.
I promised I tried to keep my mouth shut. I stuffed my mouth with more Caesar salad and drank some more sweet tea , but as the conversation continued I blurted out, "Give them opportunities to show they matter!" As soon as I said it, I realized that this was the point of no return. Almost simultaneously all of the eyes at the table looked at me with a collective, "Who is she?" Knowing I had already broken cardinal sin #1 of all teachers (thou shall not intermix with anyone at the district level who makes double your salary) I figured I may as well give it my all before I was put on the infamous "blacklist" that all school districts have. So for the next 45 minutes I discussed ways for school districts to engage their teachers in authentic ways. After the dinner and dancing was over, I was surprised that several of the people at my table came and shook my hand and gave me their cards with promises they would reach out to me.
Looking back at that night I know that while times have changed, the way teachers feel in school districts have not. Teachers are still angry. Administrators are still scared and students are still disengaged. The only difference is that there is a visible surge of teachers who have decided to brand themselves in attempts to stay in the profession and still be happy.
Recognize the experts in your district at the school level. That night I pressed that there were teachers in the districts who are school rock stars who do not receive any type of recognition at the school or district level. I suggested that the district create a blog made up entirely of teacher voices that address everything teaching and learning that's occurring in the district. The blog would be picture heavy and would show exactly how the teachers employed in our district are leaders in education. Right now most people get their educational news from blogs -- so why haven't districts tapped into that seamless and pain free advertising for their district and their employees.
As I look back to almost three years ago when I started The Educator's Room, I think about all of the emails we receive from teachers about what they're doing in their classrooms.
Build real, meaningful PLCs that tap into knowledge that's already on your school payroll. Meaningful PLCs are not built in a room where a principal groups people together by content areas or grade levels. Instead they are the most meaningful in the ones that come together naturally by the same concerns/suggestions sometimes that means that teachers who teach the same subject area and grade level meet while other times they don't.
One of the most meaningful PLC I've ever been involved in was when I co-taught with the same PEC teacher for three years. We worked together seamlessly and it wasn't forced or contrived by people who weren't in my classroom. The same goes for with all of the writers for The Educator's Room. We all teach various subjects and grade levels, but we help one another tackle our issues and celebrate our successes. It doesn't matter that someone teaches elementary school in Kansas or someone supports teachers in Connecticut, we all learn from one another. That's a true professional learning community.
Encourage your teachers to present at district, state and national conferences. This is a big morale booster, but many (if not all) teachers know absolutely nothing about how to present at conferences and even more importantly the district does not support them when they are chosen to present. About five years ago a fellow educator decided to sit me down and show me how (and why) I needed to take my expertise out of the classroom and into a bigger setting. School districts need to use their blog to advertise various call for proposals for upcoming conferences. Once teachers have been selected it would nice for districts to use the plethora of Race to the Top, Title I and Title II money to help teachers cover the cost for hotel rooms and travel expenses. That is how you empower teachers to not only be content area experts, but you support them as they build their resumes to eventually leave the classroom and help other teachers.
Listen to your students and their dissatisfaction. Children mainly do not lie about what it'll take to transform their school. There are always people 'waiting in the wings' to complain, but how many times do district officials REALLY listen to what is being said to them? So many times there are surveys and town hall meetings, but how many times are ideas/suggestions from those venues taken and implemented in the schools? For years our students have complained about the lack of classes in our high schools? They've asked for cosmetology and auto mechanic to name a few and still our schools push every student into the college bound track. What sense does that make? Do we not want to train our kids to be electricians, auto mechanics, cosmetologists, etc. Aren't these also noble careers?
Despite my advice, six months later I was forced to reapply for my job by some of the same people who sat at the table with me and nodded their heads in agreement. However, weeks after having to reapply for my job, I decided it was time to start something that would give teachers a voice and The Educator's Room was born and for the past three years we've focused on empowering teachers. While our fairy tale is far from over we are confident that we've helped teachers -- can district officials say the same?