12/17/2014 11:30 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Solution to Teacher Equity? Empower Teachers

By Janis Dingels

Last month, the Obama administration directed states to focus on teacher equity, making sure the students in high-need schools have access to the same experienced, effective teachers as other students. This is something I know about. I teach in the shadow of the capital, working to turn around a struggling school. And I teach there by choice. I can hear one of my students from clear across the playground, a special needs four-year-old who does not speak English at home, "Look Ms. Dingels! A deciduous leaf!" The next day another student, who did not speak at all last year, raises her hand to inform us that trees come from seeds. These are my kids. These are the moments for which we work together seven hours a day and for which I plan several more hours at night.

When my niece, Sophie, was born, I thought about her being able to attend the excellent school in our community because of little more than the accident of a zip code. And I also thought about the mom a half-hour away, holding her child and standing on the other side of that coin. The great idea of public education is that it is about every child, regardless of the location of their birth, the education level of their parents, or the income level of their household. Regardless of all these things and more, the child zoned to go to one school should have the same quality of learning as a child zoned to go to another school. Every child I teach is someone's Sophie who deserves an excellent education. These children are why I and so many other teachers I know stay in high-need schools. The sense of personal satisfaction with our work -- knowing that we are truly making a difference -- trumps so many other job benefits. It even trumps a bigger paycheck.

While the teacher equity law has been on the books for the past twelve years, it has been largely unenforced. The result is unequal education. Studies show that students in high-poverty schools are more likely to be taught by less-experienced teachers or those who teach subjects out of their field. Despite the clear need for change, the obvious question remains: How do we get highly effective teachers into high-need schools? The answer, my own experience tells me, is simple: Empower teachers as leaders so that the difference they are making can be that much greater.

But how can schools, districts and states create personal satisfaction? How do you legislate making a difference? The solution lies in creating programs that allow teachers to affect more change, both through teacher leadership and with school leaders who empower and trust teachers. Teacher leadership is both broad and flexible, and is adaptable to different schools depending on what works for that community and those educators. Teachers can lead initiatives, mentor others, and be involved in the real decisions of the school. In one of the schools where I worked, the kindergarten teachers were encouraged to create a new set-up for the reading block so that struggling readers could get more support. I've seen a teacher become energized by the chance to tackle a playground in need of renovation. As part of the Teacher Turnaround Team (T3) program run by Teach Plus, I now lead a data analysis team at my school and I am more motivated than ever to impact not just the students in my classroom, but all those at my grade level.

No one turns around a school alone. Experienced, effective teachers know this. This is why teacher leadership can only work when there are principals and administrators who really believe in it. They have to have a vision for the school as a place of multiple leaders working for a shared purpose. The chance to be empowered to make changes for the students you care about is what can and will bring experienced, effective teachers to high-need schools. This means that an investment in shared decision making and in teacher empowerment must become non-negotiable for principals in high-need schools.

Shared leadership brought me to my school. And, as long as I feel that I am making the most difference I possibly can, I will stay there. When one of my students writes his name by himself for the first time, I can forget about the broken heater in my classroom. When another finally masters that fifteen comes after fourteen, I no longer care that I stayed up all night planning for next week's data meeting. I can teach through just about anything... as long as I am empowered by my school leadership to make change in my school. For my kids.

Janis Dingels teaches Pre-K at the Walker Jones Education Campus in Washington, D.C., where she also leads a data team of six teachers. She is a Teach Plus T3 Teacher Leader.