ON THE AGENDA | SEPTEMBER 24TH, 2014 | Allison Rizzolo

Focusing on Teacher Voice

How a trip to Hawaii helped boost teacher voice in education policy.

Back when I taught high school Spanish, September was a time ripe with anxiety. I was worried about maintaining strict discipline during the crucial first month, navigating curricula and textbooks for new classes, and setting up my classroom so I could keep a semblance of organization throughout the year (I've never quite figured that last part out).

I had it easy. These days, teachers have a lot more on their minds, especially with the trifecta of new teacher evaluation systems, new Common Core learning standards, and new assessments that often have high stakes attached to them.

Isaac Rowlett leads a discussion on focus group facilitation with Hope Street Group teacher fellows.

These reforms are not without controversy, as is evident from opening any newspaper. Implementation of these reforms has been shaky at best, divisive and distracting at worst.

It is our belief at Public Agenda that education policy as with any policy is stronger, more sustainable, and better aligned with over-arching goals when those affected by policy are key partners in its design and implementation. For this reason, we joined forces a few years ago with the American Institutes for Research to develop Everyone at the Table (EATT), an initiative devoted to boosting teacher agency in education reform.

EATT pursues this mission by providing clear methods and strategies, practical materials and tailored trainings to help teachers engage their colleagues in productive, solutions-oriented dialogue about teacher evaluation and other education reform issues. We provide these resources and trainings directly to educators, schools, districts and education leaders. We also partner with other organizations and associations dedicated to improving teacher practice or boosting teacher voice in policy. (We also wrote a book about the project that explores the theory and methodology behind teacher and other stakeholder engagement in depth.)

For example, we have been working with Hope Street Group to provide their teacher fellows with skills and resources to help them facilitate focus-group-style conversations with their colleagues. These discussions typically concern controversial issues like teacher evaluation, professional development and Common Core. Most recently, my colleagues Isaac Rowlett, Katie Barth and I headed down to Hawaii (poor us, I know) for a training with Hope Street Group's newest cadre of teacher fellows.

The EATT team was fortunate to have some time to enjoy the beauty of Hawaii. From left to right, Isaac, Allison and Katie.

Hope Street Group, like EATT, is dedicated to ensuring that teachers' voices are heard when shaping better education policy. It does so by working with states to bring teachers to the table on policy formation.

Hope Street Group teacher fellows recruit and organize a group of their colleagues from their region and work with these colleagues to explore and develop collaborative, crowd-sourced solutions. This process gives thousands of teachers a sought-after seat at the table and a voice in shaping education policy. Focus-group-style discussions are one of the ways, along with surveys and virtual engagement, that Hope Street Group fellows engage their colleagues.

Teachers have natural facilitation skills, thanks to the work they do every day in their classrooms. Still, it's tricky under any condition to facilitate a conversation about a thorny subject. Now imagine trying to act as a neutral facilitator during a discussion with your colleagues on a topic that hits close to home for everyone.

Hope Street Group's fellows were up to the challenge. We started with an interactive session, during which Isaac talked about what exactly focus groups are, the role these groups play in stakeholder engagement, the types of skills a focus group facilitator needs, and the challenges some of the fellows may encounter as they facilitate a focus group.

Following this session, the fellows broke into small groups and took turns practicing their facilitation skills. Their colleagues acted out to demonstrate some of the difficult behaviors facilitators may encounter. Some dominated the conversation. Some did their best to derail discussion. Some tried to sow conflict. Some didn't say a word. Some let the conversation lag. Some played on their phone the whole time (on purpose!) Though we laughed a fair bit, the fellows also took maximum advantage of this opportunity for hands-on facilitation experience before going out into the "real world."

A group of Hope Street Group fellows practice their facilitation skills.

For the most part, the fellows responded gamely and skillfully to role-playing. After each fellow took their turn, a period of feedback from our team and their colleagues helped develop confidence and fortify their facilitation expertise.

The training in Hawaii was our second with Hope Street Group; back in July, we had the good fortune of working with their Kentucky and national fellows. With all the Hope Street Group fellows we've worked with, we're continually blown away by the intelligence, professionalism, composure and dexterity these fellows display.

We are fortunate to lend a hand in the Hope Street Group fellows' development as teacher leaders through our work with EATT, and we look forward to their contributions to stronger and better education policies.

You can purchase the book Everyone at the Table to read about how to meaningfully engage teachers and others on controversial education policies, as well as how doing so can cultivate teacher leadership and elevate the teaching profession.


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