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Voices for Change: The Responsibility of the Teacher at the Microphone

capitol buildingOn June 24, NCTE brought a handful of educators to the Department of Education to speak to staffers about issues of concern to them in their various teaching contexts. In all cases their conversations went back to issues of equity and how best to serve students who are most in need. The message they received from everyone they met was this: Keep talking, loudly, and make your voice heard. Those who make education policy need to learn from your perspectives.

This sentiment was echoed by Jody Zepp, the 2015 Maryland Teacher of the Year, who spoke recently at a Capitol Hill briefing. Jody, a government and psychology teacher in Howard County, Maryland, talked about her work in minority-majority schools and the “real and crushing problems including poverty [and] prejudice” her students face every day. She said, “As a result, I have learned that a student can talk about a future only when they can see one . . . that the best for the best of students is the best for all students . . . that education must be an equalizer . . . .”

She noted that “one in thirty students in the US is homeless—low income students are now a majority of the schoolchildren attending public school. Child poverty has reached record levels.” So when asked what she had done as Teacher of the Year, she answered, “I have found my teacher leader voice and purpose.” Speaking to the Congressional staff in the room, Jody stated, “Policy that is shaped and informed by the experiences of expert teachers is going to be better education policy.” She invited them “to reach out more actively to expert teachers for their voice and contribution.”

Jody continued, “I am aware of my students’ learned self-fulfilling prophecy of failure and the all-too-present ‘stereotype threat,’ which are heavy loads to bear. I’ve had many conversations with all-too-many . . . young, gifted students of color who, when looking in the mirror, have learned to see someone other than their true selves.”

Former NCTE President Kylene Beers wrote similar words in “The Genteel Unteaching of America’s Poor,” recognizing all those teachers who advocate for their students every day:

In public schools, teachers take students as they are, respect all as they are, and promise to teach all, as they are. It might be the plaque on the Statue of Liberty that says, “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” but it’s public schools that live that message daily. Somewhere along the way, we’ve forgotten that the teachers in our midst do live that message daily. We’ve forgotten that the best teachers are thoughtful, creative, independent thinkers, not passive, restrained script-followers; these teachers teach from a cornucopia of pedagogy, choosing the right instructional strategy for each student . . . The best teachers and principals demand that those kids receive the same rigorous education we want for all kids, the rich education each student deserves. Those teachers and principals—the ones I see far more often than not—stand boldly against such bigotry, such racism, such low expectations. Those educators will lead this nation in true educational reform. In so doing, they will remind us of all that is lost with the genteel unteaching of America’s poor.

It’s not always easy to get the microphone, but when we do, telling our stories is critical.