Why Teachers Should Be Advocates: An Interview with Teach Plus Founder Celine Coggins

Dr. Celine Coggins founded Teach Plus in 2007 to create policy and practice leadership paths for excellent teachers. During her 10 years at the helm of Teach Plus, Celine set the national agenda for the organization that speaks to both teacher needs and policy opportunities. This September she will be joining the faculty of the Harvard Graduate School of Education; Roberto J. Rodriguez has been named as the new President and CEO of Teach Plus.

Her new book, How to Be Heard: Ten Lessons Teachers Need to Advocate for their Students and Profession, was just released. You can purchase the book here.

Why did you decide to write this book? Why now?

Ask any teacher the question, “Have you ever been frustrated at how a decision made outside your classroom affected the students inside your classroom?” I believe every teacher in America would answer “yes”.

After my first career as a middle school teacher, I started Teach Plus ten years ago to empower teachers to have a voice in the decisions that affect their classrooms. Excellent teachers from across the country can apply for our Policy Fellowship. We’ve had Fellows take leading roles in changes to their district contracts and state laws. A few even met with President Obama to influence his administration’s approach to testing.  So many have completed our program saying, “If all teachers knew what I learned in the Policy Fellowship we’d have a revolution in teacher leadership”.  The book is my attempt to put the power of our Policy Fellowship into the hands of all teachers and advocates.

I believe now is a critical moment for teacher advocacy. First, large numbers of teachers disagree with the current federal administration’s agenda. Their collective power is an essential ingredient to preserving funding for schools and the rights of vulnerable students. Second, today, as the federal Every Student Succeeds Act moves to implementation, states and districts are making huge decisions that need teacher input. Finally, in times of turbulence, teachers are a trusted voice in the eyes of parents and the public. People want to listen to well-informed teachers.

Why is it important for teachers to also be advocates?

Teachers are already instrumental policy actors. They are the implementers. Too often, teachers must react to policies after they have been made. If you asked them the three things they wished decision-makers knew about their class before the policy was set, they could tell you. They can fill in important blind spots at the policy table.

Contrast these two examples:

In the first generation of testing, catalyzed by No Child Left Behind, state departments of education moved quickly to add summative assessments in math and ELA at many grade levels. Teachers had little to no say in the vendors chosen to develop the tests, their content, and the roll out process. Many of these tests did not meet teacher diagnostic needs, were not aligned to the curriculum, and did not address higher order thinking skills in students. Additional tests were added to meet these critical needs leading to national outcry over over-testing and the quality of the tests.

More recently, states have begun to adopt new tests that better align to curriculum, address higher order thinking and reduce overall test-taking time. In that process, several state departments of education have partnered with Teach Plus to host day-long events for thousands of teachers to explore test items from the tests under consideration for adoption. At the end of the day, all teachers weigh in on which tests they prefer and why. After adoption, some of these teachers have been enlisted as ambassadors to share their knowledge of the new tests with other teachers. With teachers as partners at all stages of the policy process, the stuff that makes it to the classroom can work for students.

Teaching is extremely difficult and time-consuming. What are some ways teachers can be advocates and still maintain a healthy work-life balance?

I agree that teaching is both difficult and time-consuming, leaving little room for advocacy. But, I think, sometimes advocacy can be the best thing for your mental health. It’s venting (which we all do about our jobs) with direction and purpose. You share your opinion on an issue and there is a multiplier effect on its potential for impact when it becomes part of a larger group mobilization.

Those of us who run organizations that promote collective voice are responsible for creating entry points that allow different teachers to participate at different levels of depth.

  • If you just want to dip your toe into advocacy? Teach Plus conducts monthly “Flash Polls” on education issues being decided at the state and federal level. Last year, about 10,000 teachers were part of that collective voice.
  • If you want to take a slightly deeper step? Read How to Be Heard as part of a book club with a few other teachers in your school and discuss how it applies to your circumstances.
  • If you want to go “all-in”? Apply for our Policy Fellowship; ask for a meeting with a school committee member or state legislator; organize your peers.

What are some things non-teachers can do to ensure that teacher voice is at the forefront of policy discussions?

I advise education decision-makers, like Superintendents, on this all of the time. Here are the top five things I suggest:

  1. Wherever possible, hold meetings at times when practicing teachers (not just appointed representatives of practicing teachers) can participate.
  2. Find ways for a small group of teachers to take a leadership role in the policy development.
  3. Create opportunities for all teachers to offer feedback.
  4. Help teachers get the information they need to play a real role in decision-making.
  5. Make clear where boundaries to the decision already exist.

Here is an example of how that played out well. In New Mexico this past year, State Superintendent Hanna Skandera recognized that the state’s teacher evaluation system needed changes to allow it to function better with more buy-in from the field. She and her team met with a select group of teachers multiple times (mostly on weekends) for several months. The group studied the research and laws in other states. Skandera set some parameters on how much change was possible (i.e. she was willing to make student learning a smaller part of teacher evaluation but not eliminate it). The select group of teacher leaders were charged with getting feedback from their colleagues and involved over 1,000 teachers. Ultimately,  significant changes to the teacher evaluation system—that are good for both teachers and kids— were finalized.

The first day of school is approaching in many schools. What advice would you give a first-year teacher?

I still vividly remember my first day of teaching, even though it didn’t happen in this century! It was surreal to be doing the thing I’d wanted to do my entire life. I just remember feeling so alive and purposeful. So, my first advice would just be to enjoy it. The job is intense and amazing and you’ll know every day that you matter in your students’ lives.

As a first-year teacher, your only real focus should be getting better and better at meeting your students needs. That means:  building relationships with kids and families, mastering classroom management, deepening your knowledge of the content, getting out ahead of planning, figuring out systems for grading and tracking student work.

If you have an interest in the big picture decisions that affect your classroom, you can start to learn and explore policy and advocacy as a hobby. Read How to Be Heard. Sign up for a few weekly newsletters from organizations like Education First and Teach Plus. Maybe look for a summer internship after your first year in the classroom. After a few years, when you feel like you’ve mastered your own classroom and start to lift your head up and wonder what’s next, that’s the time to dive more deeply into leadership opportunities with organizations like Teach Plus.

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