“The power of your expertise is important. We’re going to tap into the passion, creativity, and power of everyone who spends their lives in the nation’s classrooms,” National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel announced at the kick-off event for NEA’s new “Raise Your Hand for Public Education” Campaign on Tuesday. Van Roekel then handed the microphone over to a host of dynamic and respected educators—from the classroom and from the research community- who engaged a standing-room only crowd in a day of professional rejuvenation and educator empowerment, part of NEA’s Annual Meeting and Representative Assembly being held in Atlanta this week.
Although the discussions — facilitated by Bill Raabe, senior director of NEA’s Center for Great Public Schools – centered around serious issues like assessments, collaboration, and community engagement, the energy in the room was upbeat and infectious, thanks to the enthusiasm of the participants and the music breaks supplied by DJ Spinderella.
Collaboration is Key
The first speaker, Dr. Jerry D. Weast, former superintendent of schools, Montgomery County, Md., applauded the Raise Your Hand campaign’s focus on collaboration, which he said was critical to Maryland’s success in raising student achievement.
“When we worked together, that’s when the magic happened. You cannot be successful and move forward if folks aren’t on the same page, or sharing the investment of time, energy and resources,” Weast explained. “To move forward, the structure and the culture of the system has to be changed and educators can take the lead. The NEA unit in Montgomery Country took that lead.”
Weast has a business background, one that helped inform him of what not to do when motivating staff.
“CEO’s don’t speak badly about employees, and they don’t use pejorative terms like ‘reform.’ Go home and tell your spouses you’re going to ‘reform’ them. How would they react?” he asked to audience laughter.
Donna Nielsen, an Indiana school bus driver who leads the School Safety team in La Porte, Indiana, described how lawmakers and school leaders are now working alongside Education Support Professionals to make schools safe.
“When bus driver Chuck Poland was shot, the bus drivers had to learn how to look at their job in a totally different way, and everyone had to look at the bus driver differently. Bus drivers keep the students safe — just like the teachers did at Sandy Hook,” Nielsen said.
The first key to collaboration, Nielsen explained, is never single out the staff.
“We don’t say there is the teacher, there is a secretary, there’s a bus driver. It’s the education team and it’s the team who educates the students. The union is important because you have a unified voice. With one voice, the administration hears you.”
Introduced by Bill Raabe as “the expert in education in the country,” Linda Darling-Hammond, Professor of Education at the Stanford University School of Education, addressed the future of assessment and implementation of the Common Core State Standards. Darling-Hammond acknowledged that the hope surrounding the CCSS has given way to fear and dread among many educators. But it’s up to educators to step up and see to it that instead of “new wine in old accountability bottles,” we build accountability systems that incorporate all kinds of information, such as portfolios and school climate.
“The test and punish era has to be brought to an end. Assessments have to be used for information, not for sanctions,” Darling-Hammond said to applause.
“Teachers will be very important to make sure this happens,” she continued. “We must be actively involved in the how the Common Core affects the profession. It is not an imposition for teachers to contribute to the design of high quality assessments. That’s what we want to do as professional teachers. Education policy is too important to be left to policymakers!”
Jonathan Knapp, president of the Seattle Education Association, urged educators to look at new organizing avenues and break out of the boxes that so-called reformers have put the profession in. “Every issue there’s an opening and you can find it” said Knapp. ”We have to do this from the ground up. It’s about going out in the community and building relationships and partnerships. We must build consensus around what public education should be and where it should be going. There is no easy quick-fix and its hard work.”
The critical role schools play in the community resounded throughout today’s event. Dr. Valerie Kinloch, Professor of Literacy Studies at Ohio State University, urged all educators to get to know the community their students live in and reach out to community organizations. “We all need to get out in the community. We all need to get to know the community we work in. This work is very political and very personal but it is serious. We can’t teach our students without a support system,” Dr. Kinloch remarked. “We have to be responsive to our community and that must be reflected in our classroom practice.”
Community engagement can change students’ lives – an outcome illustrated by a service learning project carried out by Tori Washington’s students from Beechcroft High School in Columbus, Ohio. Washington brought four of her students to the Raise Your Hand event to tell their inspiring story of how they were affected by the community garden, made possible by a three-year grant to help teachers connect their classrooms with community service.
Columbus Education Association (CEA) President Rhonda Johnson says the service learning course, which was developed jointly by CEA and Ohio State University, is a winning scenario for everyone involved, especially the students.
“Students see themselves differently. Maybe they didn’t see themselves going to college, but now they do,” Johnson said.
Student Rendell Buckhalter moved the audience as he tearfully recounted how working on the project connected him to the community and instilled in him a confidence he didn’t know he had.
“I didn’t know what my purpose was in life. Was I going to go to college or not? Community is now a big aspect of my life that I need to carry on. I now have confidence in myself, and believe I can accomplish something. My teacher, Mrs. Washington, empowered me and helped me look past the statistics about black males not graduating. Now I get up every morning and look at success right in the eye.”
When students like Rendell succeed, Washington said, the community stands up and takes notice. “My students discovered themselves, how to be a part of the community and work in the community. It wasn’t always the case, but today the community looks at the school with respect and pride.”
NEA Secretary Treasurer Becky Pringle closed out the day with a passionate call-to-action.
“Raise your hand if you’re tired of others thinking they know what’s best for our students. It is time to reclaim our profession, our schools, and public education,” declared Pringle. “It is time, NEA, to storm the castle.”
Photos: Scott Iskowitz