Who's in Charge Here? Teachers!

By Mary Ellen Flannery

From the moment he wakes at 6 a.m., Dion Haith thinks about teachers and the practice of teaching. In the shower, he reflects on what it means to be a mentor and a professional. Over coffee, he considers how to deepen his working relationships—with the 6-year-olds learning to read and the 26-year-olds learning to teach.

Then, Haith climbs into a car full of files, drives to a Milwaukee public school, and sits in a child-sized chair. With a clipboard across his knees and a pen in his hand, he watches and listens, smiles and nods, thoughtfully planning a conversation that may gently begin, “Let’s talk about what worked well today in your classroom.”

In a world where so many non-educators—especially those seeking personal or corporate profit—want to tell teachers exactly what to do and say, it’s important to listen to people like Haith. Because those who know best how to lead the teaching profession are not the education profiteers seeking to get rich by privatizing education in school districts like Milwaukee’s.

The people who know best are teachers—professionals like Haith and Stephanie Wilde, a Milwaukee teacher who says, “As teachers, the one thing we have going for us—the best thing we have going for us—is each other.”

That includes the 52 teachers recently selected in the NEA/Teach Plus partnership as “Future of the Profession Fellows,” the hundreds who volunteer in union-led Peer Assessment and Review programs, the thousands who lead their peers as nationally board certified teachers, including the 6,780 in Washington state, and the millions who—like Dion Haith—thoughtfully plan their days around their students’ needs.

A Nation of Colleagues

Within the next decade, more than 1.6 million teachers will enter the profession, and each must be fully prepared and fully qualified to teach on Day One. Every child deserves a great teacher. But great teachers aren’t born—they’re made—and the making of great teachers is a responsibility shared by all teachers across the profession, and along the continuum of their careers. Whether you’re a new teacher or a veteran educator, you’re working to improve your practice. Fortunately, you don’t have to do it alone. This is collaborative work done best in partnership with other professionals. Along with its state and local affiliates, NEA is leading the way.

“It is time for us to transform public education by taking charge of our profession, and that means taking responsibility for our profession,” NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said to delegates at NEA’s 2013 Representative Assembly (RA). “If we don’t, then who will? Congress? Governors? State politicians? Michelle Rhee? Maybe the Koch brothers?” he asked, referring to the billionaire businessmen who invest in attacks against workers and public education.

This isn’t just rhetoric. Last year, NEA helped pay for more than 50 teaching and learning projects from Portland, Maine, to Seattle, Wash. In Las Vegas, 150 early-career teachers have enrolled in “Take One!” a National Board program that improves teacher planning, implementation, and reflection. In New York, Utah, and Illinois—via new NEA-funded Peer Assistance and Review programs—teachers are doing the hard, but necessary work of teacher evaluation. And in Seattle, teacher training has received an innovative dose from the medical model of doctor residency. Meanwhile, a partnership with the national advocacy group Teach Plus has brought 52 of the nation’s highest performing teachers to Washington, D.C., to learn more about education policy.

The Future is Now!

“If that’s the future of the profession, I’m joyous about it,” whispers Stephanie Wild, nodding toward two University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee students at the front of her Burbank Elementary classroom.

The women are leading Wild’s seventh graders in a discussion on bullying, a precursor to their showing of the 2011 documentary film, “Bully.” The duo spend a few hours with Wild’s class each week. Later, they will fully immerse in Room 31 for two weeks.

Teachers who make themselves responsible for the education of a new teacher make a huge contribution to their profession, and Wild has done it time and again. “When I student taught and did clinical (experiences), I had some really positive experiences, and I had some tough experiences,” says Wild, now in her eleventh year of teaching. “I made a promise to myself that if I could help others learn, I would do that.”

Stephanie Wild pledged years ago that if she could help other teachers learn she would do that—and she is.

Wild believes in communities of learners. That includes collaborative groups of students, students and teachers, and teachers and teachers. Conversations with her student teachers always start with their strengths, and her criticisms are offered as building blocks. “It forces me to be a better teacher,” says Wild. “It makes me thoughtful, so that I can explain what I do and why I do it.”

All teachers have a collective responsibility to follow Wild’s example, says Segun Eubanks, director of NEA’s Teacher Quality department. The same way that doctors train doctors, teachers must train teachers. Nobody else can do it better. And the best is what all students deserve.

That’s why NEA supports pre-service performance assessments like edTPA (Teacher Performance Assessment), a classroom-based assessment process developed by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education and others. The process requires candidates to demonstrate the knowledge and skills required of teachers to help students learn in real classrooms. NEA also supports the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) accreditation standards.

“My barber has to prove that he is prepared to be a barber and earn a license before he is allowed to cut my hair, yet some states and districts allow individuals to be in charge of classrooms and student learning before proving that they should be there. Every student deserves to have a ‘profession-ready’ teacher,” Van Roekel said at the RA.

In the Heartland

Reimagine your union, suggests Bob Peterson, president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA). Shove aside your traditional ideas of what unions do, or care about. Make room for MTEA’s year-old Milwaukee Center for Teaching, Learning, and Public Education, a place where teach- ers can reclaim and lead their profession.

“I’m all for taking responsibility. … What I say is we should be child-driven and child-informed,” says Peterson. “The other thing I say is if there’s a teacher down the hall or a school down the street who you wouldn’t send your own child to, then we have work to do.”

Here’s how that work looks when you hand it over to office bureaucrats: costly, out-of-town consultants standing on an auditorium stage, reading from a script, opening an old box of one-size-fits-all tricks— and not inspiring anyone. But at MTEA’s new Center for Teaching, where teachers Jeffery Baas and Amy Mizialko have taken charge, the work of teachers claiming and leading their profession looks like this: 150 teachers freely asking questions and receiving quick, customized answers about the state’s newly required educator effectiveness plans.

Amy Mizialko and Jeff Baas run MTEA’s Center for Teaching, Learning, and Public Education. Both are full-time release teachers who can deliver the training and support their colleagues need to do their jobs.

This year, Baas and Mizialko brought Linda Christensen, author of the book Reading, Writing, and Rising Up: Teaching about Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word, to help teachers create curriculum explicitly connected to the lives of students. (“There was a moment in that training when you felt the possibility of transformation. It was like a church moment!” Mizialko exalts.) The center also hosted a study of Delpit’s book Multiplication is for White People, which challenged common assumptions about the achievement gaps. (No, this isn’t your corner pub’s book club. When MTEA hosts, participation and preparation are expected, and continuing education credit is provided in return.)

Especially in Milwaukee, it’s hard for teachers to feel hopeful. For the past 30 years, through a voucher program instigated by right-wing campaign donors, the state has diverted nearly $1 billion from public to private schools—about 85 percent of them religious. Add the attacks on public employees and organized labor from the state’s governor, Scott Walker, and throw in near-impossible working conditions (no art, no music, no physical education, and no planning time). Is it surprising that Milwaukee Public Schools had 700 teacher vacancies to fill this year?

“We’ve moved into a time where people have to fight for their profession in a way that they never expected,” says Mizialko. “And there is some anger and grief about that. But we have to move past our anger and grief and do something. … We need each other to keep each other,” she says.

Relevant and Competent

The first-graders at Forest Home Avenue Elementary School carefully place paint chips on their arms, matching skin tones to paint shades under the instruction of Melissa Bellow Tempel, a culturally responsive teacher leader who spreads her services across 10 schools.

“Does this match me?” asks one boy, squinting at a cardboard square labeled molasses. “I think you are a little more chocolate-y than that! Find something tastier,” answers first-grade teacher Lisa Schmidman. Tempel has skin the color of single malt, thanks to her Korean-American parents. The students she is teaching today—almost all African American—have skin ranging from caramel sugar to glazed pecan.

“People come in shades, not colors,” she says. “Colors are red and green and purple. Are you red or green or purple? Even if you’re all [African American], you’re different shades.”

Bob Peterson, president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association.

The activity leads to a class conversation about the wonderful words that describe the students’ skin—smooth, strong, glowing, the words come fast and faster—then, to a writing exercise about skin. Later, the first graders will mix their own shades and paint self-portraits.

Tempel’s point? To model the kind of culturally responsive lessons that research has shown engages diverse groups of students, bridges the gaps between home and school, and motivates their achievement.

At least seven out of 10 teachers in Milwaukee public schools are Caucasian, but at least nine out of 10 students are not. More than 80 percent of students also qualify for the federal lunch program. “There are so many differences between us and our students, and that’s not bad,” says Tempel, “but it does mean we have to work at understanding.”

In classrooms like Schmidman’s, and in larger forums provided by MTEA, she helps colleagues confront their own cultural beliefs, backgrounds, and biases, learn about students’ beliefs and backgrounds, and integrate them into culturally responsive and relevant lessons aligned with the Common Core State Standards.

“As teachers and colleagues, we know what our needs are,” says Schmidman, who credits collabo- ration with Tempel for helping her to build closer bonds in her classroom, and with students’ families.

What is a Professional?

“My name is Dion and I’ve been assigned to support you.”

With that introduction, Dion Haith makes clear that, as a Milwaukee Public Schools mentor teacher, he’s on the side of the teachers. “I’m a teacher first, and their success is my primary goal,” he says.

On a recent morning, Haith grabs a little chair near Kristina Torres-Ilk during her small-group phonics work with three boys. While Torres-Ilk helps them build words, Haith jots down a few sentences— a reminder to help Torres-Ilk find bilingual resources online. He smiles when Torres-Ilk says, in Spanish—it’s a bilingual classroom—“Do you want your ticket? If you want your ticket, you have to keep participating and learning.”

You can’t talk to Haith about teaching without repeatedly hearing two words. The first is “relationships.” For Haith, teaching is largely about building relationships. The classroom is a community, he says—over and over again. He’s pleased to see Torres-Ilk using the reward tickets, which are redeemed by students for prizes—a feature of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). “I came out of college thinking I knew everything,” he recalls, “and the 5-year-olds kicked me to the curb! It’s all about building relationships.”

“Reflect” is the other word Haith repeats. To improve your practice, he says, you must make time every day to reflect on what went well in your classroom—and what did not. And, after 30 years in the classroom, Haith certainly knows the difference. “It’s about holding yourself accountable. It’s never ‘the kids’ fault, no, no,” he says.

Haith’s conversations with his students—they are his teachers—are kind and constructive, but also honest, and sometimes hard. Each one is directed by his desire to improve the conditions for learning for students.

“People say, ‘You don’t look like a teacher.’ I don’t want to look like a teacher!” Haith exclaims. “I want to be identified as a teacher by the work I do, not by my image. I don’t ‘look’ like a teacher.

“I am a teacher.”