01/17/2013 01:20 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Game Changers: Education Leaders In Their Own Words


By Celine Coggins, Founder and CEO, Teach Plus

I recently turned 39, the same age my mom was when she became terminally ill. I think every day about my own mortality and what it means to infuse one's life purpose with urgency and passion. As I've participated in the struggle to improve America's schools, I have been continually inspired by the kindred spirits I have met on this path. Today I'm introducing Game Changers, a series of interviews with outstanding educators who are working to transform the teaching profession from the ground up.

When I founded Teach Plus, we started with a basic premise: "Teaching is awesome." In the four years since we got underway, that foundational value has been under attack in any number of ways. Schools have faced significant budget cuts impacting every classroom; teachers have frequently been the subject of negative media attention. Headlines about the struggles and failures of American public education drown out space for coverage of the everyday miracles that still happen in urban districts nationwide. Game Changers will showcase the awesomeness that is happening in classrooms and districts across the country, in teacher-led conversations: Akosua Osei-Bobie and Deb Opar, a Teaching Policy Fellowship alum, developed the Game Changers questions and conducted the interviews.

Over the past several years, a false dichotomy has emerged. Education "reformers" have been cast as a group that is not only separate from teachers, but often opposed to them. This characterization assumes that "reformers" want change, while teachers want to preserve the status quo.

Game Changers is a column for people who not only think that distinction is wrong, but also that it is dangerous. Reform is meaningless unless it gets to the place where it can actually make a difference for kids: the classroom. As classroom leaders, teachers are, by definition, the most essential reformers. And it matters that reform is led by those in the teaching profession, because ownership in decision making is a hallmark of what it means to be professionals--a distinction that teachers have often been denied.

I recognize that many teachers feel disempowered, and that change in their profession is being done to them, rather than with them. But everywhere we look, teachers are challenging that paradigm. The reality is that some of the bravest change agents are teachers. In Game Changers, you'll meet Carrie Bakken, a teacher and co-founder of the Avalon charter school in St. Paul, MN, one of the few wholly teacher-led public schools in the country. You'll also meet teacher James Encinas, who founded a nonprofit to better engage the parents and the community in raising achievement at his Los Angeles school, and then became a founding member of NewTLA, the political reform caucus within United Teachers Los Angeles.

Those are just two among many. In my work with teachers around the country since founding Teach Plus, I've seen so many inspiring examples of teachers solving problems big and small to make sure their students get a better education, and challenging their colleagues to do the same. The innovative teachers and former teachers in this series, I hope, will help other educators feel empowered to be the change they seek. They remind us all that leadership is not a gift bestowed on a lucky few--it is mostly about taking the first step.

Read the first Game Changers interview.

Know a Game Changer we should interview? Let us know.