Roundtable Reflections of a Teacher Ambassador

By Leigh Cooksey, a former and future high school English teacher, who currently works at the state department as the teacher ambassador. Follow her on Twitter @TNedAmbassador.

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Having some fun with teachers at this year’s Regional Education Summits!

When I joined the department as teacher ambassador last fall, I was thrilled that part of my new role included leading small teacher roundtables across the state, as well as attending roundtables hosted by members of our Teacher Advisory Council. This was one of the most intriguing parts of my new job – I would get to meet many talented teachers, engage in rich discussions about education, and share what I learned with my new colleagues.

As I expected, hosting roundtables was an absolute delight. I met teachers from a variety of districts, content areas, and grade levels. They were friendly and eager to dive into discussion – proudly sharing their successes and candidly sharing their challenges.

These events are some of my favorite moments from this year. There was no PowerPoint presentation; there were no training manuals or scripted speeches; there were no new acronyms. There was simply a small group of passionate professionals, gathered in a room, celebrating their successes, voicing their challenges, and sharing their vision for how we can improve our practices and policies for the benefit of students.

Roundtables add tremendous value to our work. They provide the opportunity to connect department leaders with classroom experiences, fostering the mindset that we all need to be listening and learning from our teachers.  Here are my top three reasons why I believe these informal discussions are incredibly important:

Roundtables reveal insights only a classroom teacher can have.

210_26914TMIt’s critical that education leaders who are currently outside the classroom listen to those who are still in, and vice versa. For example, in one roundtable, a teacher mentioned how Part I of the state assessment affected momentum in her classroom. She shared that while students were used to a writing assessment in February, taking a series of tests signaled to them that the end of the year was here, and her students’ motivation lagged after Part I was completed.

I consider myself still very much in touch with the classroom (my car trunk is still littered with school supplies), but the metaphorical light bulb was flashing over my head. Yes! I thought. That makes so much sense. It also made a lot of sense to my colleagues at the department when I shared this feedback.

This was an important moment for me, because it illuminated that no matter how fresh from the classroom I am, or no matter how many years of classroom experience someone else has, unless you’re still there, there are some things you just won’t realize on your own – they have to be felt in the classroom. Fortunately, I meet with groups of dedicated teachers eager to share their wisdom, and I continue to learn from their experiences.

Roundtables foster connections.

296_26914TMWhile the primary goal of roundtables is to gather feedback, regional roundtables also provide teachers the opportunity to make connections across schools and districts. My favorite moments in conversation occurred when a participant would share a solution and another participant would stop them and say “This is great! Can you tell me more later?” Teachers would scribble notes when they heard great ideas.  Then, after the official roundtable ended, the room would buzz with multiple conversations, as teachers lingered to chat with one another – sharing ideas and email addresses. Roundtables expose participants to other perspectives and help them clarify their own points of view. Teachers crave and deserve these kinds of opportunities to reflect, discuss their work, and make connections with one another.

Roundtables highlight that we should be talking about “teacher voices” not “teacher voice.”

One of the broad goals of my job and the work of the Teacher Advisory Council is to “amplify teacher voice.” I firmly believe this is an incredibly important goal, but I’m an English teacher, so naturally I have a minor revision. Let’s add an s.

I’ve always been a little irked by the phrase “teacher voice” (singular) when referring to educators’ perspectives. Teachers aren’t a homogenous mass, with identical experiences and opinions. Rather, they are individual professionals, each with unique experiences, interests, and opinions. “Teacher voices” (plural) is more appropriate to describe teachers engaging in meaningful discussions about their work.

21429360661_5318d72a1b_zAt roundtables, I was able to learn just how varied and nuanced teachers’ opinions and ideas are. I might encounter multiple teachers in one roundtable who all think we need to do one thing, and then the next day, meet others at a different session who firmly believe the opposite – and that’s okay. When this happens in the same session, the discussion is rich and dynamic. While disagreement can be uncomfortable, it can also be really productive in moving the conversation forward – a diversity of voices contributes to the larger discussion about what’s best for our students.

Thank you to all the teachers who led or attended roundtables this year. You were so generous with your time and expertise. I’m grateful for having learned from so many dedicated, talented teachers this year, and I’m also grateful to work with colleagues who are eager to listen to what I’ve heard from teachers in the field. I appreciate your time, trust, and candor. Most importantly, thank you for lifting your voices on behalf of your students. I look forward to meeting many more of you in the coming year.