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Reaching out

Let’s give teachers a bigger voice

Mandy is the 2018 Washington state Teacher of the Year, and she also has the honor of being the 2018 National Teacher of the Year. She came by my office earlier this year so I could learn about her work. She has been using her platform as Teacher of the Year to spread some of the lessons she has learned in her 19-year career. In this post she expands on one of them. – Bill Gates

When I started my career as a teacher, looking out at my classroom of eager teenagers, I never imagined how far beyond my classroom I would have to reach in order to have a deeper impact on my students and my profession. I certainly never imagined that taking a position as a theatre and communications teacher in rural Texas would eventually lead me to teaching recent immigrant and refugee students in Spokane, Washington, and being named the National Teacher of the Year.

As a new teacher, I worried over what I would teach each day, whether it would be engaging for my students, whether they would learn something in my class, and whether I could build their confidence and impact them enough to propel them toward success. It wasn’t until I started teaching in Bronx, New York, that I witnessed many of the negative impacts that our schools, courts, and health-care systems have on students of color, and I began to see the need to expand beyond my classroom.

Those early years in my career, when I only focused on my classroom, were a luxury, one we should afford all new teachers. However, once that foundation is built, we must open our doors and inform policies at the local, state, and federal level. This is how we make a more lasting impact on our profession, our school systems, and the students we serve.

In my tenure as the Washington State Teacher of the Year and now the National Teacher of the Year, I have had the chance to explore education in my state and across the nation. I’ve taken a leave from my classroom in order to learn from my colleagues and to see how different states and districts are serving students. I’ve met with teachers, administrators, state and federal lawmakers, education advocates, and others. I have seen dedicated educators who put students first.

Unfortunately, I have also seen rigid educational systems that have forgotten their paramount purpose – to serve the individual needs of the students. This often takes the form of standardized instruction, pacing guides, and the push to follow scripted curriculum with fidelity.

As a 19-year veteran educator, I can attest that teaching looks different year-to-year and classroom-to-classroom. No two teachers have the same students, so they should be able to serve their students in different ways. That means having the time and latitude to get to know their students and plan instruction to reach the goals we have set.

The same can be said for the system in general. Each school district and each school within that district should have flexibility within their systems to meet the specific needs of their communities.

That’s why educators need to be engaged in making policy—not just at the federal and state level, but at the local level too. Local rules generally dictate what actually occurs in our classrooms, and in my experience, it’s also where educators are most often left out.

Policies about recess are a good example. In 2010, in response to a new federal law intended to fight childhood obesity, Washington state issued a set of guidelines on wellness—how much physical education students should get, what might constitute “active” recess, and so on. But each school interpreted the guidelines differently. Some had up to 60 minutes of recess a day, while others had virtually none. The variation depended a lot on the socio-economic level of the neighborhood. The more affluent the neighborhood, the more time their students spent in recess.

Educators in the Seattle school district saw the disparity and came together to fix it. They helped develop a new policy: all neighborhood schools, whether they’re in a wealthy neighborhood or a low-income one, must allow for 30 minutes of unstructured recess every day. This is a prime example of how educators can use their experience to impact local policy. 

I encourage my fellow educators to follow education policy. Know how federal and state policies impact your classroom, school, and community, and take an active role in implementing those policies. Policymakers, please invite teachers in. Seek their input. As the people who interact with students every day, we know what is best for them in the classroom, and we must lead not only in carrying out policies, but in developing them in the first place.

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