01/17/2013 01:24 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Game Changers: Chris Eide


Read the introduction to Game Changers.

Today's Game Changer is Christopher Eide. A classroom teacher in high-poverty schools for five years, Chris is the founder and executive director of Teachers United, a growing organization of educators who share the value that students and student achievement ought to be the first consideration in all education policies.

You went from dreading teaching middle school to absolutely loving it. Why the dread?
Initially, I think, it came from my own recollections of middle school. Imagine a kid with engineer glasses, sweatpants and headgear... that was me. Middle school is a time of awkwardness. Someone once nearly convinced me that kids should not be in school at all at that age because it is just too awkward to be around others.

What do you love about teaching?
Teaching makes you vulnerable. No one can expose a weakness in a person like a middle schooler, and the way in which you react to this type of vulnerability holds power. Teaching also teaches you resilience. When you plan a lesson that you think is going to be the single most impactful educational experience in your students' lives, only to have it bomb entirely, a degree of humility and grit is required in order to try again the next day. I love a challenge, I love to learn and grow as a person, and nothing has pushed me harder in that regard than teaching.

You say you've worked in "functional and dysfunctional" school environments. What distinguishes one from the other?
A functional organization has a clear mission and an effective leader who inspires and is in turn inspired by everyone else in the organization. In the dysfunctional school environment in which I taught, the mission was unclear and did not value the students above all else. The leadership turnover occurred every two years, which created cynicism in the faculty and an overall skepticism of new ideas and changes. It was not an environment in which adults and students were thriving.

The functional environment had a leader who carefully steered the school along its mission. It had the flexibility to innovate in a variety of areas that allowed the school not only to respond quickly to the needs of its students and teachers, but also to try out new ideas. No matter what, the needs of the students were first and foremost, because serving them was at the heart of the school's mission.

What did you learn from working in those different environments?
Strong leadership at the school level that is empowered to make decisions that best fit that school's mission--and that's held accountable for those decisions--can produce incredible schools for students. Great teachers with an ineffective leader can only go so far, and the converse is true as well.

When you and fellow teachers Kirby Green, Bob Ettinger and Nathan Bowling came up with the idea for Teachers United, how did you get started organizing the movement?
We started having conversations at schools, learning the perspectives of other teachers. Teachers are brilliant, and are looking for opportunities to make positive change for students. So we set out to get those teachers' perspectives heard and taken seriously.

You testified on Washington's "last in, first out" staffing policy before the House Education Committee in Olympia. What moved you do that?
We saw that a number of really good teachers were being laid off each spring. While of course those teachers suffered through not knowing if they would be in a classroom the next year, and whether or not they should start looking for other work, it was ultimately the students who were going to lose great teachers. That part affected us the most. If the school system is designed to do what is right for students, the practice of seniority-based layoffs has to be changed. So we went to Olympia and testified in front of the House Education Committee to get it changed.

What were some surprises or challenges you faced as you began to address the issue of LIFO in particular?
One challenge that we embraced early on was how to address the differing beliefs among teachers that we met. When we framed the issues in terms of their impact on students, we began to see more accord, but we found that the debate was fantastic. With time, trust, and resources to facilitate the dialogue, the right answer will emerge.

We were also labeled 'anti-union' in the beginning, mainly because our perspective didn't mesh with our union's prevailing ideology. We weren't out to take down our union; that would be absurd. We did want to stand up for what we believe is best for kids, just like most all teachers do. Speaking your opinions based on what is best for students should be encouraged. It is one of our core values.

What came out of your testimony?
First, the number of people who wanted to join Teachers United went up. Second, it put us on the map in Washington. We joined the steering committee of the state's largest education coalition. In the following year's legislative session, we brought more teachers back to testify about the same issue and were instrumental in getting our law changed so that seniority and effectiveness will be equally considered if teachers must be laid off. Now, we have legislators calling us to ask about what teachers think on various issues.

It seems like early-career and later-career teachers are often pitted against each other in the education dialogue these days--especially when it comes to issues like seniority-based staffing. Can you talk a little more about how early-career and veteran teachers can learn from one another and collaborate?
I've been reading some of Albert Shanker's "Where We Stand" pieces that he used to have run in the New York Times, and it amazes me that we are again talking about some of the things that he was back in the 60's and 70's. We should be talking now about why some of those reforms did and didn't work and how we ought to improve upon them. Our senior teachers and many education leaders were around and may have worked to implement some of the changes. They can help us to make sure we don't go down the same road, give us leadership, and be our master teachers, our respected elders. Early-career teachers need to pay heed to the senior teachers and learn from them, both inside and outside the classroom.

How would you like to elevate the teaching profession?
I would like to elevate the teaching profession by having the most informed among us be thought leaders in education reform. I would like to see our best teachers become our union leaders. I would like the image of a teacher to be vaunted through excellent leadership governing and informing our profession.

Ten years from now, what do you hope to be different about education?
I hope that we have incredible teachers in every classroom who love teaching and love their union.

What advice would you give to teachers who are looking to be change-agents inside or outside of their classrooms?
Don't be afraid to speak up for what you believe, but make sure that you have friends who will be there with you. The voice of the teacher is immensely important and in policy decisions, can be the most credible.

Just for Fun

Dinner with someone alive or dead?

Albert Shanker.

In order to unwind I...

Play Bob Dylan tunes on guitar.

Teachers are...

Intense, powerful, with great coffee breath.

Do you know an education Game Changer we should interview? Let us know.