Trip to nation’s capitol brings many lessons learned

The 2014 State Teachers of the Year were honored last week in Washington, D.C., at the National Teacher of the Year Recognition Week.

My week was spent meeting with many key stakeholders in public education and national public education reform.  From Teacher Liasons at the Department of Education, to Smithsonian Institute Teacher Ambassadors, to Dr. Jill Biden and the President of the United States himself, my week was literally full of meaningful and insightful dialogue and work.

The Idaho Education Association asked me to provide some reflection on my experiences there, so I have put together a brief list of “takeaways” for you all.  Here are the Top 10 most memorable and most important things I learned last week.  This list reflects the many hours I spent working with the other Teachers of the Year, and the common themes we all found between our states.   While I do not expect you to agree with me on all fronts, I hope this list sparks some dialogue and thoughts as our association moves forward in the face of the many great challenges and changes coming our way:

  1. Education must become nonpartisan.  The further important issues in public education become polarized, the more our students will suffer.  Our country, our states, and our communities are wasting vast amounts of money, time, and energy in promoting a bipartisan educational system.
  2. Education is not a business.  We cannot treat our students’ achievements like products moving down an assembly line, and we cannot approach our roles as professionals as though we work in a factory.  Class sizes must be reduced, curricular materials must be updated, and teachers deserve the best resources available so that we have the opportunity to foster our individual students’ academic growth every single day.
  3. There is a growing national movement to privatize public education and we must not let this happen.  The movement is well organized, well-funded, and highly strategic about the moves that it makes to implement privatization.  If this occurs on the level it wishes to see it occur, it will surely be a detriment to our students’ futures, and the future of our country.
  4. Simultaneously, there is a growing national movement to dissolve organized labor in public education and we must not let this happen.  A strong association and union of dedicated, professional educators is more important now than ever before.  For the sake of our rights as American workers and for the sake of our students’ future, we must commit ourselves to growing our strength and our size as an association.
  5. Our profession deserves the highest of respect and honor in our society.  Behind every great doctor, lawyer, scientist, or business owner there is always a great teacher.  Therefore, we must always make sure we are seated at the table for important decisions that affect our profession and our students.  We deserve this level of respect.
  6. We are currently poised to utilize the Common Core Standards to redeem the No Child Left Behind generation of students.  Teaching students to choose A, B, C, or D no longer needs to be our primary tool to prepare students for the future.   With the CCSS, we are finally armed with the necessary tools to let them ask questions and critically find their own answers, thereby creating a new generation of thinkers, not test takers.
  7. We must never forget about the Arts.  It is becoming easier and easier to come across support for STEM lately, so we must also nurture the importance of art.  How about STEAM?
  8. Technology is a tool that needs to guide and enhance a teacher’s instruction and curriculum; it should not be used to replace either.  A teacher remains the best thing to have in front of a student every single day.
  9. Test scores are just that, and evaluating the true impact that teachers have on their students simply cannot be quantified.  We must move past this if we are to improve the effectiveness of every teacher.  Test scores as a professional evaluation tool are obsolete and a ticket to nowhere.  Properly evaluating professional practice and teaching strategies are the way to growing a body of excellent educators across the country.
  10. In order to truly reform the system, we must begin the work of building healthy relationships with our local lawmakers, our governor, and our state superintendent.  Our relationships with these entities have grown nearly toxic, and we ALL must grab hold of a common olive branch before it is too late.  We must assume that we all have good intentions, good meaning, and the highest of regard for providing students with a quality education.  Then, and only then, can we begin to rebuild and regain the time we have unfortunately lost over the last few years.  All of us (parents, students, teachers, business owners, lawmakers, you name it) must begin to work together to restore healthy communities and teamwork within our public schools.

It has been a great honor to serve our profession and our students as the Teacher of the Year, and I look forward to passing off the torch to one of you this fall.  Each and every one of us deserves this recognition, and I hope you know that I stand in your ranks with great pride and appreciation for your hard work and tireless efforts to educate Idaho’s students.