From Within the Ranks: Teaching Fellowship Trains New Educators on Advocacy and Leadership
By Brenda Álvarez
For the past several months, dozens of NEA members—from biology, social studies, French and Spanish teachers to reading interventionists, AP chemistry, music and dance teachers—have established a national network through a fellowship that allows the group to exchange ideas and best practices to improve teaching and learning.
The Future of the Teaching Profession fellows virtually meet once a month and have twice gathered in Washington, D.C. to deep dive educational issues that impact America’s schools. The goal of the fellowship is to train early career educators to examine policy issues so they may better advocate for their students and profession back home.
Bill Farmer, a biology and chemistry teacher from Illinois says one of the most valuable components of the fellowship has been the ability to interact with other early career teacher.
“We get a sense of similarities and differences, and we’re able to identify common problems,” Farmer says. “Hearing from teachers who have done transformative work was an eye-opening experience and it helps to build up ideas back home,” he says.
The exchanges among the fellowship are already taking shape in home states. Tanika Johnson, for example, is a special education teacher from Memphis, Tenn. She teaches students in grades kindergarten through third.
Through her involvement with the fellows program, which was created through a partnership with the National Education and Teach Plus, Johnson has picked up several skillsets that have empowered her insert her expertise in areas that impact all educators in the Shelby County School District.
“I continuously motivate my colleagues in building their professional skills and talents, educating them on reform and policies, and ensuring that the teacher voice remains at the forefront,” Johnson says.
She has also had the opportunity to introduce her colleagues to the implementation of the Peer Assistance Review (PAR) program, which Johnson says has the advantages of “teachers supporting teachers with professional growth and development in a non-punitive manner.”
“From my interaction with a number of teachers at professional development and networking events, PAR has been a positive experience. Teachers are receiving quality coaching and support while increasing their professional growth and development in the classroom,” she says.
This is the school district’s first year implementing PAR. Johnson says that roughly 17 schools are not involved in the tiered coaching that is offered by the program, which has led to some frustration. The tiered system offers three levels of targeted support to educators with various levels of experience, from early career to veteran.
“Some teachers weren’t feeling they were getting the right professional development so I decided to work more toward making PAR a part of the Shelby County School district,” Johnson says. “We know that the coaches and mentors are teachers who are leading the education profession and we believe when we have teachers influencing systems there’s more of a positive impact on public education.”
The Future of the Teaching Profession fellowship has afforded 53 educators an opportunity to gain invaluable experience without leaving the classroom or their students. This is an important aspect of the program.
“This is enticing for me to work with kids and also have the chance to make a difference in public education,” says Farmer. “It’s been important to me to maintain my roots in the classroom—it gives me credibility when I talk about how policies affect me in the classroom.”
The fellows come with a diverse background in association work. Farmer, for example, comes to the group as the former local president of the Evanston Township Education Association. Others became involved with their local association years after they became educators—Johnson was one of them.
“I joined the local association two years after I became a teacher,” she says, adding that, “This is our profession. We have to own it…and if I’m not a member how can I be a part of it.”
The first cohort of fellows will end in May. The group plans to present to NEA leadership on effective ways to empower educators to move student-centered policy issues at the local, state, and national levels.