Reflection on My Visit to the Ivory Tower

February 25, 2015

(Photo: Center for Inspired Teaching, featuring a work by Jeffrey P., a student at the Inspired Teaching Demonstration Public Charter School.)

This piece was written by Jennifer Brown. Jennifer is a 2014 BLISS Teacher Leader and a DC Public Schools social studies teacher at Roosevelt STAY Senior High School. On February 5, Jennifer was invited to participate in a conversation at the US Department of Education that brought together teachers, Department of Education leaders, and Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellows to discuss the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and its reauthorization.

Being outspoken and vocal can have its benefits, especially as a teacher who tries to encourage her students to pursue justice and advocacy for themselves. But, it can also alienate new acquaintances and cause problems, which is why I was hesitant to accept a request to participate in a “Tea with Teachers” at the US Department of Education. Secretary Arne Duncan, his staff, and the Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellows had invited local teachers from the DMV area to express our ideas on the proposed ESEA legislation and to share experiences from our classrooms.

Having been close to burnout last year from the overwhelming demands of my job, I felt I had learned the hard way how federal oversight and the trend towards privatization of education has led to the deterioration of morale among educators. I was fearful these feelings would propel me into a ranting and raving mode if I were given the chance to be in the same room as Secretary Duncan or other education policymakers. I resolved to create a more positive mindset, however, and accepted the invitation knowing that I might not be offered an opportunity like this one again. I promised myself that I would not start critiquing as soon I arrived. I kept up this positive attitude for a whole two minutes (personal record!), until I looked around the room and realized that the demographics of the educators selected for the session represented part of the problem of public education. Most of the people selected were young and white and most had ten or less years of experience in the classroom. (Full disclosure, I am guilty of belonging to both of those categories.)

Of the fifteen teachers present, there was only a handful of veteran teachers and among those veteran teachers, two were no longer teaching but were providing support as specialists or instructional coaches. To me, this was evidence of one of the key issues of having federal oversight over education standards and teacher evaluations: politics and elections cause huge turnovers in the Department of Education in both leadership and policy direction, which leaves few experienced employees to iron out the everyday obstacles of reforming education. This constantly causes teachers to be the rope in a game of Tug-of-War, never knowing in which direction our profession will be pulled, which causes many teachers to leave the classroom for other opportunities, sometimes leaving the education world completely.

To my surprise, though, once we were finished with our initial introductions, my outlook on the session improved dramatically. Not only were teachers encouraged to be open and honest on our opinions of the ESEA, but it seemed like the policymakers in the room were listening to our opinions. They took into consideration how the current evaluation tools and lack of resources are affecting teachers on a day-to-day basis. The term “accountability” became a buzzword, with a debate of where and when this should be found in the scope of assessing student progress. I was pleased to hear how many other teachers felt the need to have tools created that evaluate a student as a whole person, rather than a bar graph on a data print out.

Two weeks later, I continue to feel as though I have a more positive stance towards the ESEA. Do I think it’s perfect? No, nor will it ever be. But if Congress and Secretary Duncan’s department incorporates even one idea from our discussion, then the ESEA will be more realistic and relatable to our classrooms and the dreams we teachers strive to achieve with our students.

DC teachers: the application to join the 2015 cohort of BLISS Teacher Leaders is now open. Learn more about BLISS and apply before the March 27 general deadline.

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