Education Nation 2011: Teachers Take the Microphone

For two hours on Sunday, educators sounded off on a nationally televised forum about the challenges facing public education and what the country can do to address them. The forum was NBC’s “Teacher Town Hall,” the kick-off event of Education Nation 2011, which is bringing together educators, policymakers, elected officials, parents, business leaders, and engaged citizens for a three-day summit.


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The town hall aired from noon-2 pm EST and was hosted by NBC News anchor Brian Williams, who described the event simply as “two hours for educators to talk about what they know best” – a voice many in the profession believe was absent from last year’s summit.

Williams noted in his opening remarks that the dynamic around the public education debate had shifted somewhat since the 2010 Education Nation summit. One year ago, the controversial, pro-charter school documentary “Waiting for Superman” was framing much of the debate. However, Williams said, the dialogue had changed, in part by teacher unions’ “new energy.”

One of today’s panelists, Madeline Fennel, a fourth grade teacher from Omaha Nebraska and NEA member, thought the town hall today was much more teacher-focused.

“The town hall actually exceeded my expectations,” Fennel said. “I knew that NBC was working to change the tone from last year’s broadcast but I didn’t realize the extent until I participated. It was a very positive experience. It covered a wide range of topics and the engagement from the educators was exciting.”

Williams, joined by MSNBC NewsNation anchor Tamron Hall and NBC Chief Education Correspondent Rehema Ellis, covered as many topics as could be squeezed in a two hours punctuated by multiple commercial breaks: standardized testing, poverty, community involvement, teacher tenure, teacher evaluation, and the digital divide. The dialogue was fast-paced and ping-ponged between between the panelists on the stage to members of the audience to the “Teacher’s Lounge,” where educators reaction on social media was being monitored.

Although the discussion was wide-ranging, key themes emerged throughout – teachers demand respect as professionals, lack of funding is a crippling problem, teachers need more support from administration and parents.

Kristin Ann Record, the 2011 Connecticut Teacher of the Year, commented that respect, support and a greater voice would compel newer educators to stay on the job – even more than a higher salary would.

“It’s not really about the money,” Record said to applause. “An increased salary will not make me a better teacher. I do a good job every day I go to work. What I would like is a seat at the table.”

Asked by Brian Williams about teacher evaluation and tenure, Fennel took the opportunity to address one of the most often-repeated myths surrounding the education debate.

“We need to debunk this idea that teachers have a ‘job for life.’ It is simply not true,” Fennel said. She added, however, that educators are serious about peer evaluation to help support struggling educators but also to, if necessary, find a better use of that person’s skills outside of the classroom.

Tenure and evaluation is a complex and controversial topic, and, like the other issues that emerged at the town hall today, were only touched upon briefly. An in-depth discussion wasn’t really the intent of what the town hall today, noted Fennel.

“Obviously, we need to discuss these issues in more detail,” she said, “and I think we will over the next two days of the summit. The town hall was a nice broad bush. We were able to identify the problems and hear what was on the minds of educators. That’s very important.”

“It’s so encouraging that educators have succeeded in getting our voices out there,” Fennel added. “It’s been such a tumultuous year. I think people began to see that “teacher-bashing” had become such a bandwagon and that it was time to step back and look at these challenges together. The town hall today helped move us more in that direction.”