Involve Teachers and They Will Understand

By Christopher Poulos, Teacher-Leader in Residence, Connecticut State Department of Education, and Teacher at Joel Barlow High School, Redding, Connecticut, Mar 20, 2014

This year I have had the unique opportunity of splitting my time between teaching in my Redding, Connecticut, school district and serving as a teacher-leader in residence at the Connecticut State Department of Education. In this hybrid role, I have been able to work alongside policy leaders making decisions that impact public education while reflecting on my classroom practice and representing teachers and students at the state level.

As a teacher-leader in residence, I have focused a great deal of my time on teacher engagement and outreach, bringing teachers and state leaders together to discuss the benefits and challenges of current policy initiatives. My vision for this educator engagement centers on the inclusion of classroom teachers’ perspectives at the policy table, with the goal of collaboratively exploring viable approaches and constructive solutions that promote educational progress, innovation, and improvement.

By addressing the new challenges facing public education in this way, we have an opportunity to enhance teaching and learning, ultimately better serving the students we teach.

For Connecticut state education leaders, the strategy for achieving this degree of teacher engagement is two-fold:

  • Visit schools and classrooms in order to talk directly with teachers.
  • Invite educators to the State Department of Education in Hartford to participate in feedback sessions and collaborate as members of work groups and committees.

Through both of these outreach efforts, we have discovered that teachers are thirsting for opportunities allowing them to remain in the classroom while assuming leadership roles that acknowledge their strengths and ability to improve teaching and learning beyond the walls of their classrooms. Teachers continually report that they are ready to step up--not just at the state level but also at the district and school levels and at national organizations as well.

Connecticut’s approach to engaging teachers in policy is one response to the call for new and differentiated roles for teachers, a call that cannot be ignored if we want to further professionalize the teaching profession and promote a culture of ongoing, sustainable collaboration and reflective practice among teachers and policymakers alike. Hybrid roles like the teacher-leaders in residence and career pathways for classroom teachers offer great potential for:

  • Building capacity to promote sound education policies.
  • Implementing relevant professional learning, effective peer coaching, and standards-based curriculum development.
  • Attracting and retaining high-potential, high-performing educators to the profession.

By giving teachers the opportunity to serve not only in policy design and implementation but also in leadership positions (such as facilitator, mentor, or policy partner), we ensure that an on-the-ground classroom perspective is embedded in the decisions and activities aimed at improving teaching and learning.

To advance this notion, however, we must be prepared to tackle scheduling logistics, compensation structures, and ways to go about defining appropriate leadership roles and training teachers to fill them.  Addressing these challenges will foster the shift toward a teacher-led profession equipped with a perspective that centers on teaching and learning.

A Chinese proverb says, “Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I’ll remember, involve me and I’ll understand.” The more teachers are engaged in leadership roles, the more they will understand the rationale and benefits of the changes that impact their livelihood. At the same time, when we honor and value teacher leadership, we build the trust between practitioners and policymakers that is necessary to work collaboratively and ensure that best practices are in place. Ultimately, by creating opportunities to involve teacher-leaders in these roles, we will be better prepared to craft and implement new policies and initiatives, retain America’s best and brightest, and positively impact the quality of our students’ public school experience.

Now it’s your turn: What ideas do you have for promoting new and differentiated roles for teachers? What structures or logistics will allow teachers to remain in their classroom while contributing to policy decisions or serving in leadership positions at the school, district, state, or national levels? In what other ways can teachers step up their involvement to ensure a teacher-led, collaborative profession?