Learning and Leading: Giving power to the professionals to learn and lead together

Co-authored by Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Deborah S. Delisle, executive director and CEO, ASCD

By the time students around the country are filling their backpacks with school supplies, educators will have already been “back to school” for weeks. In fact, most educators do not take the summer off as so many people believe; they spend their summers teaching summer school, creating new innovative lessons and projects for the upcoming school year, and seeking professional learning opportunities to grow their practice.

As the leaders of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and ASCD, we share a commitment to supporting educators.

Collectively we are dedicated to supporting educators because we recognize that great teachers mold the minds of students to be critical thinkers, effective leaders and productive citizens; and can change the trajectory of a child’s life by unlocking limitless potential. Teachers are lifelong learners and need to be supported through each stage of their careers. Most importantly, we recognize that one of their most powerful learning endeavors is when educators connect and learn from one another.

Through the National Teacher of the Year Program, we experience these powerful connections firsthand. We are constantly impressed by the thoughtfulness and focus with which these educators approach their work. We recently asked the 2017 State Teachers of the Year to share key learning moments in their careers – moments that have shaped who they are as instructors and leaders in their schools. Their stories painted pictures of collaboration in which they learn and lead together. Their reflections demonstrate the power of watching a colleague in action and inviting a colleague to observe them. They shared moments of inspiration, celebration, and even resiliency as they lean on one another when uncertainty about their impact crept into their tired minds. The importance of engaging in peer observations and open-ended conversations framed their desires to continue growing as educators.

These types of authentic interactions, whether formal or informal, are a reminder that teachers value one another’s professional expertise, coaching and mentorship. Their stories illustrate what collegiality and collaboration look like in practice and remind us that we must provide time and "safe” spaces for this powerful learning to occur.

Early in my teaching career I thought that teaching was what happened when I stood in front of a class and imparted my wisdom on group of students,” said Amber Vlasnik, 2017 Nebraska Teacher of the Year, in an interview about how she learned from Darla, an instructional coach in her building. “She asked me two questions that really have come to define how I approach teaching: she asked, ‘Did the students learn the lesson, and how do you know?’ I couldn’t answer those questions and that’s really come to change how I plan my lessons, how I teach when I’m in the classroom, and how I reflect on what I instructed because it’s not about me, or what I said, or what I taught. It’s about the students and did they really understand what I was teaching.”

For Casey M. Bethel, 2017 Georgia Teacher of the Year, teaching was a second career. While he knew the material, he says he did not know how to teach. “Honestly, I almost left this career, but what happened in my second year rescued me. I was lucky to be placed next door to a young, but veteran, English teacher named Ms. Croom. Although she never officially adopted me as a mentee, what she did was teach every day with her door open and every day on my planning period I would stand in the hallway and look through the door of her classroom and I could see how to build better relationships with students, how to get my point across more clearly, how to assess them better. And those lessons I learned from her have made me a better teacher.”

Sydney Chaffee, the 2017 National Teacher of the Year and 2017 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year shares, “In my first summer of teaching, we had this really long day where we had brought 100 8th graders all over the city. At the end of the day I was exhausted. I’m young I’m idealistic, I think I can single-handedly change the world through education, but I’m also just really, really tired. I’m discovering that teaching is very hard. But my boss at the time, his name is Tony, he insists that we have to have a staff meeting. So he circles us all up next to a hot dog cart and says alright, we’re going to share highlights and stories from the day, and he invites the hot dog man to join the meeting. We break on an inspirational phrase, and by the end of the meeting, I felt completely energized. Tony always had this infectious positivity. He always had a smile or a song or something to celebrate.”

Just as Casey, Amber and Sydney demonstrate, State Teachers of the Year are representatives of all educators in their states, but they didn’t achieve this honor on their own. Just as it takes a village to raise a child so, too, does it take a village to build great educators, and education systems. So, as you head back to school this year, remember what teachers need to build a better back to school for your students: time to collaborate, meaningful professional learning, and the safety to take risks and make big gains.

As another school year begins, we encourage you to watch this video and tap into educators’ stories and be reminded that learning never ends. Their stories fuel their passions and, ultimately, influence every student. Their stories define what happens every day in schools across our country. While we believe that our students deserve the best of what we all have to offer them, we also believe that our teachers deserve no less. Stay tuned as we share individual videos from State Teachers of the Year, and follow their journey on Twitter through #ntoy17.

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