08/14/2012 10:17 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Teachers' Lounge: The Lifelong Eighth Grader

The Teachers' Lounge is an ongoing series of interviews with inspiring educators. Today in the Lounge, teachers are doing the asking and the answering. High school English teacher Shekema Silveri interviews Sandy Hayes, President-Elect of the National Council of Teachers of English and current middle school English teacher.


How many years have you been teaching, and have they all been at the middle grades level?

This was my 39th year as an educator. I have taught all grades from 7th to Honors level juniors and seniors, but I've always had at least one class of 8th graders because that's where my heart really is. For me that's just the perfect age. You can still read some more mature books, and enjoy some really in-depth conversations about the literature. In fact, I often tell people that although this is my 39th year teaching, it's actually my 40th year as an 8th grader.

I know you've had several opportunities to leave your classroom to pursue leadership positions. Tell me what makes you stay.

The 8th graders -- just watching their growth in that one year. 8th grade is about helping students develop a need -- a desire to read. To help them see literacy as an essential in making a living, making a life, and making a difference.

Okay, so let's talk about the hot topic of ed reform. In your opinion, what are our nation's most pressing educational issues, and what role(s) do teachers play in restoring the prestige of our profession?

Without a doubt, it's assessment. I know that some people are still struggling with embracing the Common Core, but no matter what we do there are standards. Perhaps we, as educators, haven't done the best job of identifying what we're teaching and why, but we certainly always have a goal for everything done in our classrooms. I do think it's important that we have agreed upon standards at some level. Other teachers should be able to count on kids entering their room who have the skills to be engaged in the work

However, all standardized tests do is take kids' temperature. People think that testing actually proves what kids can do, but the tests are far too limiting in their scopes. So much of the testing only proves whether or not the kids understand the questions on the test.

That's why national leadership organizations like NCTE are so important. If you're not at the table, you're on the table. Teachers are definitely on the table right now. We haven't yet found a way to make our collective voices heard, to be where we really should be -- at the head of the table. Now is the time for speaking out about the importance of the teachers' role in formative assessments and about what good summative assessments look like, what they can tell us, and what limitations are inherently present in standardized testing.

How have you been able to reconcile your duties as President-Elect of National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) with those of being a classroom teacher?

Well, I was really lucky this year. I love every class I've ever had, but this class was something special. There were so few zeros in my grade book because they all completed their work. This, of course, is not to say that they were all always perfectly behaved, but they really wanted to learn and dig in to do the work.

My school's administration was tremendously supportive, and NCTE's staff and leadership were much kinder than I probably deserved.

The other piece of being part of a professional team is that I get to showcase classroom teachers being professional and on-point. Most of us are good workers and good ideas people, but I am passionate about teachers showing their professional side and our expertise and our passion -- all those things that aren't evident in standardized test scores.

What advice would you offer aspiring teacher leaders at the following levels in the profession: new teachers (0-5 years in the classroom), mid-career teachers (6-10 years), and veteran teachers (11+ years)?

New teachers should seek out professional mentors and kindred spirits. Seek out those influential thinkers in your profession. Follow them on Twitter, their blogs, or online chats. Never be satisfied with seeing only one path. Purchase professional books; join professional organizations; participate in local or state affiliates; learn.

Mid-career teachers should be a mentor for an early career teacher. Spend more talking about the profession than they do talking about the kids. Helping develop new leaders tends to help us remain positive.

Veteran teachers should look for ways to improve the profession beyond what's taking place inside their own buildings. Join state and national organizations. Seek out ways to influence policy or at least be at the table when these conversations are taking place. Give back to our profession. We do make a difference.

Shekema Silveri teaches AP Literature, AP Language and Composition, and Senior English at Mt. Zion High School in Jonesboro, GA. Sandy Hayes teaches English at Becker Middle School in Becker, MN.