Elevating Teacher Voice

  • Allison Ashley by Allison Friedlander, 2017 Texas Teacher of the Year

    This column, published in the summer 2017 issue of INSIGHT, is part of a series called "Teacher Perspective."
    Every now and again, I think back to my beginning years as a teacher and ideas I had on education reform. If only we could strengthen the teacher recruitment pipeline, I would think, then we would have stronger preparation programs and better outcomes for kids. Or perhaps if we just took best practices from schools in regions of the world where students grew up multilingual, then we be able to improve bilingual education here in the U.S., I would reason. Solutions seemed so simple. Quickly, I learned, they are not.

    As my understanding of our nation’s education system grew over the years, I began to realize that indeed there is no silver bullet. I sought out and participated in different learning opportunities such as graduate work, fellowships, and National Board Certification. Through these, I started to gain a deeper understanding of education reform, learned how to collaborate with and elevate the voice of fellow teachers, and learned how to engage with a range of stakeholders on issues teacher and students face.

    Through it all, I have had the support of administrators who have helped me develop these leadership and advocacy skills. Below, I have listed a few ways in which teachers can expand their impact beyond the classroom and how administrators can support these efforts.

    Campus and district leadership opportunities

    Over the past few years, I have served on both my Campus and District Advisory Councils. Having worked at only one school in Southeast Austin for six years, it wasn’t until joining Austin ISD’s District Advisory Council that I realized our school’s strengths and challenges didn’t necessarily parallel those of other campuses with similar demographics. I also learned about policies on school finance, bilingual education and accountability, to name a few. This helped me see how policies translate into programming and practices in our districts, schools, and classrooms.

    Equipped with a growing understanding of education policy and the range of needs present in our schools, I felt better able to serve on these committees as a teacher representative. I was also able to share back with fellow colleagues what I had learned through these experiences. Administrators can support teachers’ leadership development by ensuring opportunities exist for them to serve on such committees and by encouraging them to learn from and contribute to the work of these groups.

    Fellowships and partner organizations

    Administrators can also encourage teachers to apply for fellowships that provide training and opportunities for them to work on different policy issues. As a former National Teacher Fellow with Hope Street Group, our team worked in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Education on a teacher-led research project on teacher preparation programs. We later created and shared our report with policymakers at the national and state level. As a member of Teach Plus’ Texas Teacher Advisory Board, I held focus groups with teachers to gather their input on Texas’ ESSA plan. Our team then wrote and presented a report summarizing our findings to members of the Texas Education Agency.

    Through these opportunities, I learned how to engage teachers and elevate their voices on critical issues we face, developed the knowledge and skills needed to work with a range of education stakeholders, and deepened by understanding of how to present policy recommendations created by teachers. Furthermore, engaging in these leadership opportunities connected me with a diverse range of educators across the city, state, and nation.

    Professional development

    There seem to be an increasing number of teacher leadership resources available for professional development over recent years. Among these, Rick Hess’ Cage Busting Teacher was a particularly useful guide that helped me reflect upon my own leadership and identify how to have a greater impact on teaching practices on my campus. An additional resource administrators might point teachers toward is Teach Plus’ five-course online series. This tool trains teacher in how to create changes in practice and policy through advocacy.

    Earlier this year, I was invited to participate in a teacher roundtable with Governor Abbott. Among the questions he asked our group was, “What are some things that make you feel valued as a teacher?” My answer was simple: having a proverbial seat at the table. When teachers are brought into the decision-making process, they contribute to, and thus are more invested in, the outcomes created. I am grateful for the administrators I’ve had over the years that have looked to shape policy and practice in collaboration with us teachers.