I decided to apply to Hope Street Group’s State Teacher Fellowship, the State Collaborative on Reforming Education’s Tennessee Educator Fellowship, and Education Pioneers Summer Fellowship. I was surprised to be accepted to each of them! At the conclusion of this year, I have completed each fellowship. Reflecting on them, I see they each offered unique experiences that have equipped me to be a better educator.
My Education Pioneers Fellowship placed me at the Tennessee Department of Education in the Office of Licensure and Educator Preparation. Last summer I worked on a project that explored the opportunities and challenges of school districts collaborating with education preparation programs to create partnerships. Working at this level helped me to see education from a broader lens, especially regarding an initiative like that. That experience helped me to reframe my thought process and view situations from different perspectives. It also gave me access to executive directors across various departments, professional development with the Commissioner, and a chance to view the Department’s five Education Priorities at work in real time.
I participated in both the Hope Street Group and SCORE Fellowships at the same time during the 2016-2017 academic year. The Hope Street Group Fellowship connected me with other teachers and local and national policymakers to give feedback on critical education policy issues, while serving as a spokesperson for positive change in the profession. I also was able to provide feedback to the Department of Education regarding professional development, chronic absenteeism, and RTI2. Additionally, Fellows convened throughout the year to receive advocacy training to aid in our roles. Three of the most helpful things that I learned are how to utilize Twitter for professional development, how to participate in and host Twitter chats, and how to conduct a meaningful focus group.
The SCORE Fellowship selects teacher leaders from across the state to train them to advocate and elevate their voices to support and advance student-focused education policy. SCORE provided the historical context of education policy in Tennessee, including where the state started and how it became the fastest improving in the country. This Fellowship connected me with key individuals and policymakers who played a role in the state’s improvement. It also equipped and empowered me to lead my own advocacy project, which centered on supporting educators of color in Tennessee. SCORE convened Fellows four times throughout the year to provide both advocacy training to support our projects and opportunities to meet key stakeholders, including Commissioner McQueen, executive directors from national education reform organizations, state legislators, and gubernatorial candidates.
My participation in each one of these fellowships has left me feeling enlightened, equipped, and energized to continue to engage in the policy work that I have begun. As my fellowships concluded, I remind myself that the work is just starting. We need more educators involved in education policy and engaging policymakers. When highly effective educators inform and shape education policies based on their practical knowledge and experience of excellent teaching and learning, the results are better for students. I highly recommend any of these fellowships to any educator who is looking to advocate on behalf of students and make an impact in the policy space. Each one of these fellowships proclaim once a Fellow, always a Fellow. For that, I will forever be connected to these organizations, their ongoing work, and the future Fellows who participate in them.
Diarese has taught Business courses at Clarksville High School for the past three years. In that time, he has served as a lead instructor for the school’s career Academy, member of the Instructional Leadership Team and an Academy lead in cross-curricular collaboration for project-based learning. He is a graduate of his district’s Leadership Development course, and a district-wide Professional Development facilitator for Microsoft Excel training. Diarese holds a BBA in Marketing and Management and M.A. in Corporation Communications from Austin Peay State University, MBA from University of Phoenix and an Ed.D. in Leadership and Professional Practice from Trevecca Nazarene University. He also serves as a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow, engaging his colleagues in providing classroom feedback to the Tennessee Department of Education on public education policy issues.
Before finalizing the state’s ESSA plan, the TDOE tasked the Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellows with collecting feedback from teachers across the state of Tennessee about their experiences with chronic absenteeism and with student discipline. This spring, the Fellows released a report based on the valuable input of over 2,000 teachers who participated in an online survey and nearly 400 who provided their insights in focus groups. The report includes six recommendations that the Fellows presented to Commissioner McQueen and the TDOE and is now available for the benefit of all stakeholders in Tennessee education.
The report details the results of the survey and summarizes the trends of teachers’ comments in focus groups, and a look through the report shows many connections between teachers’ experiences and the recommendations made to the Department of Education.
Recommendation 1 focuses on helping schools and teachers address the problem of students chronically missing school. Based on the survey data, even though 95% of teachers affirmed that chronic absenteeism affects student achievement, many teachers also reported that they have received little or no training in how to reduce student absences. 90% of teachers reported that they had not received training on strategies for reducing chronic absenteeism, and 92% reported that they were unfamiliar or only somewhat familiar with the state’s initiatives in addressing this issue. In response to this feedback, the Fellows recommend, “To ensure that teachers are fully aware of TDOE efforts, CORE offices could build teacher awareness of the draft ESSA plan (2016) through trainings that highlight key plan features that are designed to reduce chronic absenteeism.”
Recommendation 2 seeks to provide schools and teachers with more resources to address this issue. On the Fall 2016 survey, 69% of teachers reported that they believe problems at home are the most significant barrier to student attendance, but only 30% report that they are aware that Family Resource Centers are available to help families and students who struggle with absenteeism. In fact, teachers who chose to write in their own answers about the family support services offered by their schools overwhelmingly responded with none. As a result, the second recommendation says, “To alleviate teacher concerns about this issue, TDOE could build awareness of an increased TDOE focus in 2017 on reducing chronic absenteeism through Family Resource Centers. Additionally, TDOE could remind teachers of the 103 Family Resource Centers in 78 districts and highlight the various needs-based services and training provided to parents and families through these centers.”
Recommendations 3 and 4 focus on student behavior and discipline. In focus groups, teachers shared various obstacles they encounter in implementing effective discipline policies. The third recommendation connects these teacher concerns to resources the TDOE could provide in conjunction with Response to Instruction and Intervention for Behavior (RTI2-B): “Because TDOE focuses on RTI2-B in the draft ESSA plan (2016), TDOE could expand the RTI2-B framework to reach more districts and schools through CORE offices or Tennessee Behavior Supports Project (TBSP), thereby providing additional targeted support in areas highlighted as obstacles by teachers.” The fourth highlights strategies for improving student behavior that are both research-based and frequently cited by teachers themselves in their focus group responses: “Through CORE offices or Tennessee Behavior Supports Project (TBSP), TDOE could emphasize how the following teacher suggestions for improving student behavior are research-based and addressed in RTI2-B: promoting positive behavior and prevention efforts and encouraging restorative behavior practices; involving parents in student behavior efforts; nurturing positive student-teacher relationships; and providing appropriate consequences in response to student behavior issues.” This recommendation encourages the TDOE to promote these research-based practices which teachers also know to be effective.
Recommendation 5 addresses the all-too-familiar concern of bullying in school. 14% of teachers report they feel unprepared or very unprepared to handle incidents of bullying in their classrooms, and 20% rate the effectiveness of their schools’ response to bullying as ineffective or very ineffective. These numbers show that many schools and teachers need additional support in addressing the issue of bullying and validate the fifth recommendation: “Because 20 percent of teachers shared that their schools’ response to bullying is ineffective, TDOE could provide resources to CORE offices for dissemination to districts and schools.”
Recommendation 6 highlights previous Hope Street Group findings about RTI2 and urges using prior teacher feedback to inform implementation of RTI2-B, Response to Instruction and Intervention for Behavior, which features in the state’s draft ESSA plan. This recommendation reads: “TDOE could revisit the recommendations provided in the Spring 2016 Hope Street Group Report on RTI2, including those related to scheduling and structuring RTI2; promoting whole school support and reducing negative perceptions of RTI2 effectiveness; and providing funding for additional RTI2 resources (e.g., professional development) and staffing.” This previous report, detailing teacher feedback regarding RTI2, is also available on the Hope Street Group website.
To learn more, visit the Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellows website and download the full 2016-17 report. You can also stay connected by liking and following the Tennessee Teacher Fellows’ Facebook page, Tennessee Teacher Voice.
Natalie has taught seventh grade language arts at Shafer Middle School for eight years and was named Shafer Teacher of the Year for 2013-14. She sponsors the school literature and arts magazine, was a TNCore Learning Leader for 2014-15, and has served on district planning committees and as part of the Mid-Cumberland CORE Region Teacher Roundtable Discussion. Natalie graduated from Vanderbilt University in 2009 and was awarded Peabody College’s Kevin Longinetti Award for Outstanding Secondary-Level Teaching. Outside of school, she tutors for Begin Anew (formerly CWJC of Middle TN), where she has volunteered for nine years. She also serves as a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow, engaging her colleagues in providing classroom feedback to the Tennessee Department of Education on public education policy issues.
As a veteran teacher of nineteen years, I had always been under the impression that a classroom teacher had absolutely no involvement in state initiatives and education policies. In fact, over the years, I have heard colleagues make comments like, “It’s just something new THEY are telling us we have to do.” Assuming that THEY were the people at the state level (those in legislative positions etc.), I never imagined that those same people may actually want to hear from “us,” the teachers.
SCORE Student Achievement Day on the Hill was revolutionary for me as a teacher! Not only do policymakers want to hear from educators, but they are truly listening to what we say. I had the great honor to sit in several meetings and talk personally with five amazing representatives! Although each representative had very unique personalities, a common characteristic was that each one of them was eager to hear our concerns. The questions they asked were sincere in seeking to clarify why we thought they should or should not support a particular bill.
I have developed a greater appreciation for what our legislature does each day. In fact, in a way, I feel they are a lot like teachers. Just as our list of responsibilities never ends—not only do we have to teach a lesson, manage discipline, analyze data, collaborate with peers, serve on committees, the list goes on and on—the same is true for our legislators. They are faced with so many responsibilities beyond education policy. There were droves of individuals from different businesses and organizations lined up waiting for a few minutes of their attention, hoping to impact the hundreds of decisions they face.
Representative John Forgety, of the House Education Instruction and Programs Committee, our introductory speaker that morning, made the perfect analogy. He asked us to reflect on a student for whom we have gone the extra mile, spent extra time, encouraged, and supported. How often do we receive recognition or praise from that parent? Yet, one unfortunate incident or circumstance in that child’s school day, and the parent is often quick to call and voice anger at the teacher/administration and demand justice. Just as teachers can often feel underappreciated, that is indeed how policymakers must sometimes feel. I can only imagine the number of phone calls, letters, and emails they must have received in the wake of the state testing debacle last year. I wonder how that number would compare with the amount of gratitude they got for supporting a salary increase for teachers this year.
In conclusion, for me the theme of the SCORE Student Achievement Day on the Hill was relationship building. Representative Forgety also made an extraordinarily powerful point when he gave all the educators in the room that day a test. The test was simple:
Not one person in the room made a 100% on that test. Then Representative Forgety asked us to take the following test:
His point was crystal clear to me. Relationships are what make a difference. I believe educators desperately want support and respect from policymakers, and in turn, I believe policymakers crave the same. The time has come for us to bridge the gap between “us” and “them.” Together we must continue building relationships and having critical conversations about policy and practice. Together we can make a difference in the lives of our great students in the state of Tennessee.
Maureen teaches fourth grade at Greenbrier Elementary School in Robertson County. Previously, she taught sixth grade at Greenbrier Middle School. She has been an educator in Robertson County for seventeen years. Maureen has served as a grade level leader and as a chair for the school’s math committee. During the 2015-16 school year, Maureen served in the capacity of teacher representative for the Hope Street Focus Group and the Tennessee Teacher Leader Network. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology from Georgian Court College and Master’s degree in school counseling from Western Kentucky University. She also serves as a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow, engaging her colleagues in providing classroom feedback to the Tennessee Department of Education on public education policy issues.