By Dwight Davis
On February 15, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan held a town hall meeting with teachers to launch Project RESPECT: Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence and Collaborative Teaching. I was one of the lucky teachers in the room representing the concerns of my colleagues, students, and community that day. It was inspiring to be among the teachers and educational leaders who have the power to impact the work we do on a daily basis.
The goal of RESPECT, as stated by Secretary Duncan, is to "work with educators in rebuilding the profession- and to elevate the teacher voice in shaping federal, state, and local education policy." Ultimately, said Secretary Duncan, teaching should be recognized as "America's most important profession, the most respected profession."
Project RESPECT wants to invite teachers to the table to be a part of the development of pioneering innovations in the way that educators are recruited, selected, prepared, credentialed, supported, advanced, and compensated. In a nutshell, RESPECT is all about learning from exemplar teachers and principals. Its aim is to improve educational practices and create schools where educators and educational leaders work together to lift each other to new levels. What an endeavor!
As I listened to the various components of Project RESPECT, I thought back to my teacher preparation experience. Although I felt prepared for the varied demands of the classroom, I realized very quickly that there were limits to my professional knowledge that needed to be strengthened right away. Like many first year teachers, I struggled particularly to teach reading. I knew very little about the implementation of a reading intervention program, the difference between phonics and phonemic awareness, or the importance of a student's awareness of her or his independent reading level. Instead, the focus of my efforts was on moving through the curriculum as efficiently as possible.
Eight years and many reading courses later, I now have a thorough understanding of what it means to effectively engage students in reading instruction. I have a strong understanding of various reading intervention programs and can tell you the independent reading level of every student in my class. My focus is no longer on quickly moving through the curriculum, but on tailoring my instruction to facilitate growth in each individual student. Should the acquisition of these skills and knowledge base require an additional 8-10 years of training and experience? What about all those students who were forced to wait while I honed my practice?
More than ever we -- teachers -- must be a vital part of this national conversation. As teachers, we have a responsibility to our students and communities to share our collective wisdom in an effort to facilitate quality reform. In order for teacher preparation programs, educational leaders, and policy makers to get this reform effort right, teachers must be seated at the table demanding the type of change that will be in the best interest of our children, our fellow teachers, and our country.
Reforming our great profession is a necessary step in the development of our nation in general. We have a unique opportunity to share our stories, the good and the bad, in an effort to equip our colleagues to more adequately prepare their students for the future that awaits us all. I echo Secretary Duncan's words, "This is not a time for timid tweaks around the edges of the profession. This is a time for transformational change."
At the close of his speech, Secretary Duncan mentioned that over a million teachers are set to retire over the next decade. The cohort of teachers entering our noble profession can't wait ten years to figure things out -- the stakes are just too high for their students. They need us to pull up a seat at the table, share our experiences, and push policymakers to actually implement changes that that will equip them with the skills they need now. As teachers, we must lift our voices and be heard.
Dwight Davis has taught in D.C. Public Schools for seven years, and currently teaches 5th grade. He is also a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.