Maine Education Leadership Consortium
COMMON GROUND VI
A View from the Inside: Learning to Thrive in the Age of Standards
By Sarah Mackenzie, Betty Morrell, and Stephenie Cook
This report discusses the work completed at Common Ground VI A View from the Inside: Learning to Thrive in the Age of Standard, sponsored by the Maine Educational Leadership Consortium (MELC) and held at The Waterville Elks Club on February 2, 2005. MELC sponsored Common Ground VI, a statewide meeting of its member organizations focused on what the educational community can do between now and 2008 to begin to improve the preparation, induction, and professional lives of teachers as they work to improve student learning. The attendees of Common Ground included some of the teacher respondents in the original MELC report, A View from the Inside: Continuing the Conversation about Teaching in Maine, and members of the various policymaking organizations belonging to the MELC and their constituents: practicing teachers, principals, superintendents, special education administrators, department of education personnel, university faculty and administrators.
This report explains the process of the group discussions and describes the results of the public recording of conversations regarding specific aspects of the report’s recommendations and reflective feedback participants offered that day. In addition, the writers analyzed the written responses of the teachers who were involved in the original study. These teachers completed a questionnaire designed to gauge their reaction to the day’s conversations. The researchers’ goal was to consider the extent to which the teachers felt their voices were heard not only in surfacing the issues but also in planning for amelioration of problems.
We organized our investigation around these areas of inquiry:
The first question provides the context and sets out some of the public outcomes of the meeting. The second question is the heart of our study because these teachers represent all of those whose interviews provided the grist for the recommendations of A View from the Inside. We analyzed responses of the teachers to explore their feelings about and understanding of their roles in the day’s activities. The third question moves back to the outcomes of the day and provides another perspective on the essential question of the extent to which teachers and their expressed needs were heeded by other participants at the Common Ground.
The authors of this report wrote the 2004 report, A View from the Inside: Continuing the Conversation about Teaching in Maine. We analyzed interviews of 46 mid-career teachers regarding induction and preparation, support and collegiality, and the perceptions of negative impacts on teacher effectiveness and satisfaction. The goal of the study was to provide school leaders and policymakers some insight into the experience of teachers as they contemplate strategies to retain and sustain the teacher corps.
A View from the Inside examined the retention of teachers who had been selected as “Select Seminar” participants either in 1993 and/or 1997. During 2004, these teachers were interviewed to find out what had kept them in education, what caused them stress, and what factors within the schools supported them in their careers. They described how working with children and watching them grow and learn gave them the most joy, satisfaction, and commitment to the profession. They also indicated that deep and ongoing professional development with support was critical to their professional learning. The collegial connections provided a great deal of satisfaction for these teachers, and they expressed strong feelings about the importance of principals.
In addition to the sustaining aspects of their work lives, the teachers mentioned many things that could be improved. Many described induction and mentoring programs that failed to meet their needs as beginning teachers. Although they felt that principals were very important to the school, few of them wanted to become principals. Teacher salaries were also mentioned as an area that needed to be improved. These teachers also described the continuing struggle to implement and assess the Maine Learning Results, especially because of the changing rules and regulations that came from the Maine Department of Education.
As these 46 interviews were analyzed, the authors of the report were able to flesh out common themes as well as develop recommendations to make changes in Maine schools to affect the further retention and sustenance of our teachers. The report’s recommendations are in Appendix A.
A Common Ground meeting brings together the governing boards and senior leadership teams of Maine’s professional education organizations to examine significant issues that have implications for policy, planning, and practice for all educators. The goal of a Common Ground meeting is two-fold: to promote the understanding of the dimensions of an issue from points of view of the organizations represented and to identify avenues for collaborative action that will improve learning for the children and adults in Maine’s public schools. A View from the Inside was the focus of the Common Ground held on February 2, 2005. The goal was to stimulate conversations among various constituents that would lead to plans for addressing identified needs.
Common Ground VI began with the View from the Inside authors elaborating on major themes they saw in the teachers’ interviews. Betty Morrell pointed out, “One of the threads that wove its way throughout the many pages of transcripts we analyzed was time. No specific question was asked during the interviews about time, but 80% of the respondents mentioned time as a factor in their work lives.” Sarah Mackenzie highlighted the appreciation the teachers expressed for the efforts schools have made to restructure time and tasks to allow for greater connection that ameliorates the isolation of teaching.Stephenie Cook introduced a panel of teachers who participated in the study. All attendees received copies of the report: nevertheless, planners of the Common Ground felt it was important for the audience to hear voices of the teachers reiterating their observations and concerns as a way to frame the work of the day. Panelists responded to four questions: What do you see as the key supports and biggest barriers to effective teaching? How has what it means to be a teacher changed since you began your practice? What would help you be the best teacher you can be? What would help your school be a place that can improve learning for each student? Panelists were encouraged to emphasize in their responses what they especially wanted listeners to understand.
The panelists spoke as practicing teachers who were much involved in trying to deal with the increased demands of accountability for learning standards, the pressure to be even more effective with students’ various learning styles and academic abilities, the stress of doing more with less, and the competition from other media for students’ attention. They did not express the same needs, though. Some wanted release for themselves and their students from the strictures of learning results; others felt such expectations were important, but they recognized they needed more time to work together with colleagues to plan instruction, develop assessments, and analyze data to improve learning for their students. Some teachers appreciated the increase of responsibility they have for decision making and staff development; a few, though, wished they would not be asked to participate in anything other than teaching their own students.
They agreed on the need for more effective induction and mentoring for teachers as they begin their careers and for ongoing support from colleagues as they progress. Now that they have discovered the world outside their classrooms through teams, prescribed committee work, and in some instances, team teaching, teachers want more time to work with colleagues as professionals on improving instruction. They know they can learn the most from peers with whom they have solid collegial relationships. They want time for more reflection on their practice and help with differentiating instruction so they can be successful with all students. And more than anything they wondered about the tension between standardized assessments and individualization.
After the panel concluded, Barnett Berry gave the keynote address, “Creating Professional Learning Cultures and a Profession of Teaching.” Berry works at the Southeast Center for Teacher Quality and has done studies of National Professional Board Certification and its effects on teachers and schools in North Carolina and elsewhere (Berry, Johnson, & Montgomery, 2005). He startled the crowd by saying the wrong people were in the room. Educators need to speak to the right people—not each other and politicians—to get the kind of economic support schools need. His data show opinion polls indicate the public’s spending priorities are for quality teachers and smaller class sizes rather than school construction, standardized testing, or vouchers (Berry, 2005), He presented data from a variety of schools in the South that demonstrated increased student achievement after improving teacher working conditions: job embedded professional development, more time in the school day for individual and collaborative planning, principals embracing teacher leadership, support for teachers seeking National Professional Board Certification, and participation in a teacher leader network, (Berry, 2005). His mantra is “[T]eachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions.”
With the voices of researchers and teachers ringing in their ears, the 93 attendees of Common Ground VI set to work in their table groups using a Futures Protocol (Appendix B). These groups first described an idealized future (2008 when high school students must meet learning results in order to graduate) and compared it to the reality of 2005. Combined groups were to develop action plans that would start to close the gap between 2005 and 2008.
Ideas Generated at Common Ground VI
Our first area of interest involved describing the responses of Common Ground participants including teacher participants in the study and other teachers to the meeting’s focus of how to plan for reaching the 2008 expectations for improved student learning. To delve fully into the issues of the quality, capacity, and resources of teachers, tables of eight to ten attendees mixed by role tackled a total of six prompts:
Two tables were assigned the same question yet went through the process separately. At the end of the day, tables dealing with the same question shared their notes and tried to agree on some concrete action steps to recommend to various groups for study and implementation. Although the questions framed the various discussions, many veered into the same territory and, not surprisingly, all groups surfaced the fundamental issues of time and money as major stumbling blocks to change. Since the conversations started with brainstorming and recorders were trying hard to listen and write what they heard, the public record does not capture the richness of the conversations. Nevertheless, they provide data which indicate the tone of the discussions and surface interesting suggestions and questions.
A View from the Inside (2005) did not delve into teacher preparation to any great extent, but the table groups reported that beginning teachers need more preparation in technology, classroom management, and best practices. Furthermore, they need to spend more time in classrooms as interns with more effective supervision by college or university supervisors. The table members mentioned under-funding for teacher preparation, the gap between “‘trenches’ and decision-makers,” and conflicting or constantly changing expectations as reasons for the problems enumerated.
The tables focusing on teacher preparation generated ideas that would respond to the deficits suggesting that teacher preparation programs provide prospective teachers with experience in the legislative process and policy making. Along with this idea came the suggestion that pre-service programs include leadership preparation. Many ideas, though, centered on making the internship for teachers longer, extending into their first three years on the job or at the very least ensuring that as students they are exposed to schools early and often in their preparation programs.
Collaboration was a key theme through most of the conversations. They felt incoming teachers need exposure to positive school cultures so they have ability, disposition, and comfort level with collegial conversations about practice and know how to collaboratively design instruction to lead to more integrated curricula. They suggested that clinical experiences be planned jointly between higher education and K-12 partners to ensure consistency, contact with exemplary teachers, better connections of theory to practice, and ongoing support for new teachers once they are hired and begin their careers. Specific steps the table groups recommended to aid movement toward improved teacher preparation included
The Futures Protocol encourages participants to generate questions to surface issues and stimulate concrete strategies. Questions had to do with the inner workings of a teacher preparation program: How do you help beginning teachers understand assessment? How can they learn to show student progress in different ways? How do teachers use technology effectively? Other questions got at major tensions the entire education community will have to face as they attempt to change school cultures and organizations:
Effective Induction and Mentoring
The conversations around designing effective teacher induction and mentoring seemed more focused; nevertheless, individuals also brought up salary, time, resources, and unfunded mandates as major stumbling blocks to change. The participants at the tables discussing induction and mentoring echoed the 2004 report and the teacher panel in enumerating the problems new teachers face. The complaints of “I feel so alone”; “I don’t know how to differentiate learning in my classroom”; “Help me! Where is everyone?” resonated with most of the listeners’ experiences. They agreed that mentoring programs were nonexistent and/or inconsistent; new teachers are overwhelmed; many new teachers are unprepared for standards-based teaching and assessment; new teachers are left alone to “reinvent the wheel”; new teachers invariably have a full schedule and teaching load.
The table participants seemed to focus exclusively on mentoring as the key to induction. The suggestions the conversations generated about mentoring fell into two categories: mentoring should be institutionalized in the work of teachers and schools and mentoring should be developmental and individualized even if it is part of a statewide program or expectation.
They advocated for a statewide commitment to mentoring so that all schools have a formalized mentor program. Such a commitment ensures school-wide cultures where all teachers are responsible for induction. School calendars would be extended for new staff, and school days would be restructured to allow for collaboration. Furthermore, they went so far as to say new teachers should have a 60% teaching load with 40% of the time available for observation, teaming, and mentoring. They also emphasized new teachers should be assigned classes and students on a fair and equitable basis. They described personal learning plans for new teachers as they are inducted into a positive school culture where they feel safe and can learn from mistakes. Mentors should encourage personal wellness, coach rather than dictate, and help new teachers have clarity about the important things to accomplish.
A vehicle for fulfilling these ideas is regionally developed induction programs that involve partnerships with universities for training, creating mentoring teams, and supporting personalized learning plans for new teachers that might last for five years or more. Some questions the groups surfaced, though, sounded similar to those generated in the teacher preparation groups. For example, how do we make mentoring a mission of all in education? Other questions had more to do with logistics: How long should new teachers be mentored? How structured should it be? And finally, a question related to a key point of the report that teachers’ jobs need to be restructured, what are the pros and cons of blurring the line between evaluation and mentoring?
Changing Teachers’ Job Descriptions
The table groups charged with the topic of the changing teachers’ job descriptions acknowledged some of the themes of the report. Many teachers still work in isolation. Educational professionals experience high levels of stress. Student-based learning is in its infancy. Teachers are overloaded with committee work which is process-oriented and does not lead to action. The participants’ idealized descriptions of the teacher’s job mentioned facilitator, differentiator, and integrator of learning. All teachers are leaders who understand their role and responsibility for learning of all students in the schools. They work as members of a team who a collect and analyze data and use it to make decisions about student learning. Teachers critique each other’s work and analyze it through the ten teaching standards. They use innovative research-based practice to meet the needs of individual students.
One major change echoing both the report and Berry’s talk involves changing the structure of the teacher’s day to accommodate their participation in a professional learning community where professional development is embedded in practice. The discussants suggested that teachers might spend 20 hours a week teaching, 10 hours in professional development with a team, and 10 hours in instructional planning time collaborating with others. They flirted with ideas like year round school, flexible day and weekly schedules, and pathways for teachers to earn advanced degrees or seek National Board Certification.
Although their imaginations pictured a future where all schools in Maine and ultimately the country failed to make AYP and all school districts were sued for educational malpractice so that NCLB died a natural death, the groups were realistic in contemplating possible transitional steps to changing teachers’ jobs. They suggested adding five additional teacher workdays each year until 2008. They proposed regionalization and consolidation that would result in a statewide calendar and teachers’ contract. They urged the state university system to improve its capacity to offer courses and programs to teachers in more isolated areas. They also advocated hiring non-professionals to handle administrative work to support teams of teachers as they take on more responsibilities. Many of their questions, like the others, had to do with school climate or larger organizational and cultural issues:
The group also discussed the newly inaugurated plan for funding essential programs and services which will have a negative impact on the state’s ability to implement any of these measures to support the changes in teachers’ jobs.
Effective Collaborative Work
The topic of collaborative work among teachers brought up many of the same issues and ideas as the first three. These conversations produced an idealized description of collaborative work. Teachers visit each other’s classrooms for purposes of improving practice. The work of the school is organized and inspired by clear purpose, i.e. improved learning for all students. Teachers continually talk informally about student learning. Teachers have diverse roles that change from time to time. Both formal and informal networks of teacher leaders inspire and influence the work of colleagues. Teachers have common planning time and common planning space. Veteran staff members share a commitment to mentor younger teachers. Collaboration is part of the fabric of schools because all teachers view themselves as leaders who see the big picture and have the skills to make a difference.
In addition to the structures that would enhance collaborative work—extended school day, extended year, flexible schedules—and the attitudes to make it part of the culture—it is considered important by parents, other school staff, and community--they made these suggestions:
The questions generated by these groups were far-ranging and, like the other groups, got at fundamental issues confronting educators at all levels in contemplating change:
Supporting Teachers; Improving Student Learning
Two tables considered “Supports needed for experienced teachers to enable them to improve student learning,” and two other tables, “Describe the changes needed in the implementation of Maine’s Learning Results and the Local Assessment System (LAS) given the fact that the Maine Department of Education is undertaking a revision of Maine Learning Results (MLR).” They are discrete questions; nevertheless, the responses indicated a convergence in attendees’ minds that changing MLR and the way both they and the LAS are implemented will support teaches as they improve student learning. The group brainstorming the latter topic generated some principles to guide implementation. They include
Specific recommendations from all four tables dealt with such things as extending the school year, consolidating districts, adding regional summer school programs, using the guiding principles of MLR to make the LAS simpler, doable, and credible, and distinguishing between criteria for adequacy and targets for excellence. Certain ideas resonated with ones suggested by other table groups, like mentoring, capacity building, and incorporating the work of curriculum alignment, assessment development, and other types of professional development into the school day. As was true of the other groups, the questions showed the extent to which people knew they were dealing with intricate issues with layers of complexity. Some examples of questions recorded:
Action steps related to these issues, at least, give support to the notion of attending to teacher needs and teacher voices. One idea is to proceed with MLR review and ensure large stakeholder input especially those outside the usual “players,” including teachers. Another is to add twelve professional days to the school year and eliminate late start and early release to allow teachers to do the work of curriculum and assessment and also increase instructional time. And, partly in response to Barnett Berry’s comments, some participants urged educators to inaugurate a public information campaign centered on redefining and explaining public conceptions of teachers and teaching as a profession. One participant elaborated, “We need three to five consistent messages. Lots of messengers and lots of audiences.”
Recommended Action Steps
The purpose of the Common Ground VI meeting was to expand the conversation about how to improve conditions for teachers in Maine in response to the 2004 report, A View from the Inside. Policymakers, board members of educational organizations, and teachers spent a day generating pictures of a desired future for teachers, students, and schools. The pictures included extended internships for beginning teachers; thoughtful, individualized mentoring of new teachers by veterans all of whom see that as an important role; collaboration among teachers who design, implement, and assess learning for groups of students integrated into the school day; meaningful professional development in and outside of the school; and involvement of teachers in policymaking, especially in revision of the Maine Learning Results.
The Futures Protocol ends with participants developing concrete action steps for the immediate future that will put the educational community on the road to realizing larger goals. Discussants produced such steps and enumerated responsible parties for actually bringing them to fruition. Nevertheless, many of the actions involve major changes in how things are done now and will require policymakers to work together to do such things as lengthen the school year, increase time for teachers to work together during the school day, and establish more partnerships between teacher preparation programs and school systems. A recurring theme involved cultural shifts: Not only does society need to embrace the idea of the need for such changes and be willing to pay for the changes, but the culture of schools will have to change along with structures to accommodate new concepts of the role of teachers in schools.
As the day progressed people moved from wistful thinking to immersion in reality. The tone of the conversations, though generally positive, was tinged with gloom. The will of those present was strong, and they were cautiously optimistic about the groups they represented. There are pockets of change that encourage educators to see a bright future. But the hint of pessimism filtering through the conversations was based on the participants’ sense “that we are all part of the same choir, but the altos can’t hear the basses and no one can see the choir director” (Feedback from Common Ground participant).
How Teachers Viewed the Common Ground Meeting
The table group notes show some intention to listen to practitioners. The fact that many of the comments mentioned by the teachers resonated enough to be included in the record of conversations could be considered an indication of the teachers being heard. Our second area of inquiry deals with how the teachers who had been interviewed for the View from the Inside report responded to participating in the Common Ground meeting.
What Teaches Said
Twenty-one of the 46 practicing teachers who had been interviewed were invited to the meeting. They were chosen based on their likelihood of attendance, geographic proximity to the meeting site, or their expressed interest in being a part of further activities related to the report. Even with those criteria, only eight teachers could be freed from their classroom and school obligations to attend. Seven of the eight teachers participated in The View from the Inside panel. The eighth chose to remain in the audience at the last minute feeling that she was not as well prepared as others for the discussion. The study’s teachers were assigned to the small discussion groups so that at least one of them worked on each of the six prompts. Each was the only 2004 study participant in a discussion group. To gather their responses to the Common Ground meeting, we asked each teacher to complete the general meeting feedback form (Appendix C) and a ten-item questionnaire designed only for them (Appendix D). The questionnaire is based on Brookfield and Preskill’s Critical Incident Questionnaire (1999). Of the eight teachers, six returned the questionnaire, while all returned the meeting feedback form.
The responses to what they hoped attendees would hear varied by individual. One teacher was concerned about teacher workload and the lack of time for effective teaching (43). [This number and subsequent parenthetical numbers refer to number assigned to interviews of the study participants of A View from the Inside.] A second teacher identified the restructuring of the school day and year to make more time for teacher development (37). Another mentioned the lack of direction provided to teachers by policymakers and the impact of NCLB on teachers (29). Two other teachers were concerned about the need to improve teacher preparation programs and provide more “systematic and comprehensive” induction programs. Two others mentioned that they hoped meeting attendees would realize that teaching is complex and challenging, but that Maine teachers are extremely dedicated (16, 25).
The responses to questions two, three, and four indicated that the teachers felt that the messages they were seeking to deliver had been heard. One teacher noted that she felt the messages were heard and reiterated in three different forums,; the panel discussion, the keynote address, and the small group discussions. All were pleased that so many attendees complimented them on their insights. But all of the teachers were concerned that they were “preaching to the choir.” One teacher added, [T]hey listened, they heard, they agreed - but for the most part they are not the ones who can effect change” (37). Yet she gave the group credit for being “an extremely influential voice” and said that she felt change depends on the willingness of the group as a whole to address the public and policymakers.
Question five asked if the teachers felt distanced from the discussions at the Common Ground meeting in any way. Two of the teachers said there was no point at which they felt distanced. However, two others noted that discussions of educational policy were far removed from their concerns. Said one, “I sometimes get lost in the educational lingo and acronyms and occasionally felt ‘out of the loop’” (32). One teacher noted that she felt distanced because she was younger than most of the people in the room and did not know them (25). Speaking from a unique perspective, a teacher who is also working part time for the Maine Department of Education (MDOE) said that some of the anger and frustration directed at MDOE policy made her feel a bit defensive. But she also said that she understood the perspective of other educators “trying to implement the goals of MDOE. Sometimes what looks good on paper just doesn’t translate into the structures that exist for teachers and students” (16).
They all said they felt affirmed by the day’s activities. Most referred to the chance to share common messages and themes with colleagues. Others appreciated attendees’ respect for and reaction to their insights. Two mentioned that the conversations they had with Barnett Berry affirmed their work. Asked if there was anything surprising in the reactions of the meeting’s participants, two teachers said that nothing surprised them. One teacher mentioned that it was great to know that she is not alone in feeling overwhelmed by her responsibilities as a teacher (32). Another mentioned the willingness of everyone to work for “positive change” (25). Yet another teacher felt that the audience perhaps failed to relate the importance of teacher quality to teacher retention. She noted that all of the teachers interviewed for the View from the Inside report had been identified as outstanding in their first two years of practice and have become “educational leaders” in their communities (37). However she was not sure that the attendees grasped the importance of teacher quality in relationship to either student achievement or teacher retention. Lastly, the teacher who also works with MDOE was surprised by the “blatant hostility” directed by a few participants at department personnel. She was also concerned that rumors about how programs are poorly implemented in other states are undermining similar programs here in Maine. She said that educators should be “more flexible in their thinking and be skilled in a variety of approaches to meet the varied needs of all learners” (16).
When they were asked if they experienced a change of mind based on what others had said, two said that nothing that they heard had caused them to change their opinions. Two others focused on comments by Barnett Berry. One teacher agreed with him that there is not a teaching profession in the United States because policymakers do not understand and respect the complexity of teaching (16). Another mentioned she appreciated Berry’s work that tied student achievement to teacher quality (25). For other teachers, the message was more personal. One teacher noted that she now understands the time spent on professional development can be time for renewal (32). Another said that she was interested to learn that there was a progressive wing of the teacher union movement and saw a role for herself there (25). One teacher wondered if public schools “view pre-service teaching as a part of their responsibility” (37). She said that she had never considered that before and would use it as another way to improve teaching.
Most said they were encouraged by their fellow educators who were in attendance, but they felt the backing of policymakers and the public was critical. They were not sure that these groups of people could be swayed. Political will and the resources were raised as impediments to change. As for ways teachers’ voices could continue to be heard, one teacher encouraged legislators to spend a day in a job shadow with an educator. She also recommended that administrators hold annual focus groups with their teachers to find out what they are thinking (16). Two others recommended employing public relations practices and trying to draw media attention to these issues. (25, 29). One volunteered to speak with policymakers. Two teachers recommended that teachers’ voices be included directly in the educational policy debate (32, 43). One emphasized that if you ask teachers about the issues with the Maine Educational Assessment or the Local Assessment System, they will gladly tell you (43). Finally, one teacher asked that MELC link the work that it has done with student achievement data. She also proposed a broader distribution of Barnett Berry’s work in teacher quality and student achievement.
Interpreting the Teachers Responses
Three themes emerged from the analysis of the teachers’ feedback about the Common Ground meeting. Elements of those themes can be found in the interviews that they provided over one year ago.
Teacher Voice: The opportunity to be heard. Several of the questions dealt with how the teachers perceived the Common Ground audience and whether they felt that their voices had been heard. Participants’ reactions were very important to them. All of them felt that indeed they had been heard and their perspectives valued. As one teacher noted, “[F]or the collective community of professionals dedicated to promotion of excellence in education to be able to hear (or interested in hearing) the ideas of teachers in such a format is quite an accomplishment”(16). Others saw Common Ground participants taking notes on what they had said. They felt that their opinions were highly valued in the small group discussions as well. One teacher was very pleased to discover that throughout the discussion she was asked, “how things really were in the classroom” (43). Another said that she felt very affirmed when a small group discussant complimented her for her “candidness” during the panel discussion (32). Yet another said simply that the opportunity to discuss with the group the challenges of teaching was very important to her (16).
However, all of the panel members said that to some extent they felt they were “preaching to the choir,” an issue raised by Barnett Berry in his keynote address. The phrase meant to them that the audience consisted primarily of administrators, university professors, and state department of education officials who were likely to agree with the teachers’ assessments. They were concerned that legislators, the media, and the general public need to hear what they have to say and become engaged in the discussion as well. Interestingly, some of the feedback sheets of the Common Ground participants indicated that the panel of teachers may have discussed issues of which they were already aware, but that hearing it from the teachers themselves gave the issues a more urgent and powerful voice.
Another sign that the participants’ voices were heard is contained in a column in the March, 2005 issue of The Maine Apprise, the monthly newsletter of the Maine Principals’ Association (MPA). The president of the MPA wrote about the challenges that teachers today face and the administrative supports that principals can provide based on what she had heard discussed at the Common Ground meeting. While her column reflects that she was certainly one of the people the panelists saw taking notes, her concluding sentences are most affirming of their insights. She wrote, “[A]s school administrators, we are called upon to make the greatest possible impact on teaching and learning by supporting our teachers. That support is crucial” (Crocker, 2005).
Underlying all of these reactions was a great appreciation by the panelists for being given a forum to discuss their challenges and perhaps a sense of surprise that so many people were interested in what they had to say. These feelings seem to reinforce a second theme that emerged in both the interviews and the feedback form the Common Ground meeting. That theme is teacher isolation.
Teacher Isolation: The skewing of a worldview. Throughout the report prepared from the interviews, teacher isolation was mentioned again and again. Almost all of the teachers mentioned how alone they felt as new teachers and how much, even today, they yearn for more contact with their colleagues. Glimpses of the continuing isolation can be seen in the panelists’ feedback on the Common Ground meeting.
Isolation emerged in a different way in the teacher questionnaire. Without saying how much they felt isolated, they described reactions that indicated isolation. One teacher, when asked if anything surprised her about people’s reactions at the meeting said poignantly, “I was pleasantly surprised that I am not alone in feeling that my job is becoming, and has been, overwhelming--that it is not my weakness” (32). This comment reinforces how little time teachers have to interact with their peers and share their concerns and frustrations about their jobs. She also said that the discussions made her realize that time away from her students participating in these kinds of activities will help to make her time in the classroom more effective. In this reflection, she highlights the feelings of guilt that many good teachers have when they spend time away form the classroom engaged in their own enrichment. She was beginning to appreciate how enrichment could heighten her effectiveness in the classroom. However, it is somewhat startling that it takes eight years for an excellent teacher to come to that realization.
Another panelist, an elementary teacher, noted that she really needed to learn more about the high school graduation requirements imposed by Maine’s Learning Results (MLR) (29). This teacher is the same one who in her interview fretted about what the MLR meant for her classroom. Yet somehow she had not thought about how her work connected to that of her high school colleagues and their efforts to certify that all of their students had met the MLR requirements for graduation. An excellent elementary teacher did not see her work as a part of a larger effort to prepare students for high school graduation and life beyond. Once she began to hear about the graduation requirements, she was interested and connected. But working alone in her classroom, she had not the opportunity to think about how her work is similar and connected, not to mention vital, to that of high school peers.
Change: Can it be accomplished and who is responsible? When asked what the most important message they hoped the Common Ground participants would hear, the teachers reflected what they had said in their interviews 15 months earlier. Those who had spoken eloquently about the need for improved induction and retention hoped that was the message most clearly heard (32, 37). Others who had focused on the increased teacher workload resulting from the mandates of MLR, the No Child Left Behind Act, and the Local Assessment System (29, 43) again expressed that as the most important message to be gleaned from the Common Ground meeting. Two other panelists talked about helping the participants understand how dedicated teachers are and how complex teaching is and had said the very same things in their interviews (16, 25).They were also asked whether they were hopeful or discouraged about the possibility of changes being made to improve the teaching profession. The teachers really could not decide. Some said they were guardedly optimistic; others were unsure. They saw the changes that they had discussed as costly and were skeptical that the legislature or the taxpayers would ever provide the money needed. On the other hand, they were encouraged that so many people had come together to discuss their concerns and felt that there was some energy to be capitalized upon. They had many different suggestions for how to allow their voices to continue to be heard in these discussions and push for change. Two of the participants wanted to have a formal voice in education policy (43, 32). Another suggested a sustained public relations campaign in support of the teaching profession (25). Building on the public relations theme, another teacher suggested that schools invite legislators and others to shadow teachers for a day to find what their working lives are really like. She also suggested that administrators regularly convene focus groups of teacher to explore these issues (16). Reflecting one of Barnett Berry’s themes, one panelist said that we must begin to connect good teaching to student achievement (37). All were looking for ways to continue to spread and amplify the Common Ground discussions.
Yet, in another way, some of the teachers themselves did not see that it was possible for them to use their influence to effect change. When a teacher expressed her opinion that the group gathered at the meeting could not effect change, she demonstrated her lack of confidence in the ability of educators to influence policymakers. She speculated that her colleagues might not even be willing to make the effort. But she also felt that they should be influential (37). There is some confusion about the role for all educators in the policy debate in her comments.
A similar theme seems to lie behind the repeated comments of “preaching to the choir.” The teachers themselves seem to be denying the power of their collective voices, this sense of powerlessness is a bit surprising because they acknowledged a shared sense of dedication to students that gives rise to their frustrations with certain policies that ask them to do things that they believe are not in their students’ best interests. That sharing of emotion does not yet translate into collective action. Even Barnett Berry’s comments encouraging them to act based on the high regard in which public holds them did not seem to fully resonate with them. Perhaps the overwhelming demands of their teaching responsibilities do not allow them to consider advocacy on their own behalf.
The suggestion that two of the teachers made about teachers needing to be policymakers reflects not only a political debate currently dividing the Maine education community, but also another reinforcement of the teacher isolation theme: Because I work alone, only I know what is best for my students and classroom. The power that could derive from the united voices of educators seems outside of the experience of many of these educators. Only one teacher encouraged us to invite her anywhere, anytime to speak about the complexity of teaching. Even she envisioned herself as a single voice. Apparently, the vision and meaning of a Common Ground meeting have not been fully shared with and appreciated by the teachers whose professional lives we are working to improve.
Feedback from Common Ground Participants
Our final question dealt with the reflective feedback we received from participants at the end of the Common Ground meeting (Appendix C). A space on the form allowed participants to indicate their interest in continuing to work on the plans generated. Forty-two participants (45%) returned forms, and 32 indicated they would like to continue work in these areas. Some identified more than one issue. (See Table 1.) This response alone shows that the teachers’ comments and the issues Common Ground sought to address galvanized some respondents.
Most of the issues discussed had been raised in A View from the Inside. Many interviewees advocated the need for more and better mentoring and induction. Participants at the Common Ground meeting agreed. This consensus is not surprising. Maine has recently created a new initiative called the Regional Teacher Development Centers (RTDC). RTDC is a collaboration between the State Department of Education and the University of Maine System. Designed to eventually have centers in eight different areas of the state, RTDC is charged with providing professional development support to Maine educators from induction through National Board Certification. Nineteen of the Common Ground participants work with the RTDC. It has begun its work in three geographic areas and is tackling the issue of induction first. Not only were the interviewees’ messages about mentoring and induction influential at the Common Ground, but the leader of the RTDC is a long time member of the Board of Directors of the Maine Education Leadership Consortium and has been well acquainted with their concerns about induction from the time of the very first Select Seminar for outstanding teachers in 1993. One of the teachers who participated in that seminar and at the Common Ground meeting is serving on the board of her local RTDC.
Also well supported was the idea of improving teacher preparation programs. The University of Maine, the University of Southern Maine, and the University of Maine at Farmington all sent their Deans and members of their College of Education faculties to the Common Ground meeting. While change in the teacher preparation programs will have to come from the university faculties themselves (and perhaps the reason fewer people signed up to work on this issue), the work of the small groups indicated that there is awareness and openness for continuing consideration of the changes needed in teacher preparation.
The more difficult discussions took place around teacher workload, professional development, and restructuring the school day and teaching positions. The current political climate in the state and nation and the workload imposed on teachers and administrators alike by the mandates of MLR and LAS have created a difficult environment for teachers and administrators to work together collaboratively. The shift to standards-based education and assessment has not been easy. In addition, the imposition of AYP requirements under No Child Left Behind has led to confusion and bewilderment for Maine educators as they examine what they are actually doing with their professional development time and contrast that with what they believe they should be doing to serve the best interests of their students. These ideas were all reflected in the report as well as at the Common Ground meeting.
What was surprising was the desire of some participants at the meeting to blame other participants for their feelings of being overworked and hopeless. Two participants noted on their feedback sheets that this is not a good environment for educators to work together collaboratively. Two others indicated they could not move away from their structural roles and assumed others were similarly polarized. As one of our interviewees indicated, she herself was made to feel defensive about her work with MDOE (16). The protocol had been designed to keep the participants focused on what the future should look like. Unfortunately, some of the small group discussants could not move away from the very difficult present and the anger and exasperation they currently feel.
However, the feedback sheets also indicated that the interviewees were heard when they talked about wanting more collaborative time with peers, shared decision making, and roles in their own professional development and mentoring. Teachers indicated that they have very little time for these activities now because of the curriculum and assessment development work that they are required to do under MLR and LAS. These issues were clearly raised in A View from the Inside as well. At the time of this writing, the Governor and the Commissioner of Education are planning to make an announcement about modifying MLR and scaling back the LAS requirements.
The interest in public relations and advocacy was stirred by Barnett Berry’s keynote speech. He provided data that showed that teachers are some of the most well respected members of their communities. He believes that because of this respect, communities will listen to the voices of teachers when they advocate for educational reforms that are in the best interests of children. Some of the teachers interviewed in A View from the Inside indicated that they, too, would like teachers to have a more public voice in talking about the good work that educators are doing. They indicated strongly that they were displeased by the “failing schools” message of NCLB. Their responses echoed the panel members’ concerns about “preaching to the choir” and being sure that educators reach people who make policy and can make a difference.
The Common Ground meeting is a unique forum for Maine educators. The Maine Education Leadership Consortium through the commitment of its 22 Board members to working together to promote a common agenda for student learning and school improvement has the singular ability to convene a group of leading policymakers and practitioners to discuss important issues in Maine education. For 12 years, it has followed the teaching careers of 46 outstanding educators and worked to make sure that their voices are heard. It has done so during a turbulent time in American education, a time of substantial change, rife with opportunities for major missteps. The value of the organization and its commitment to education cannot be underestimated. The MELC Board meets regularly and capitalizes on already established relationships of its members when it seeks to provide a forum for discussion of important and sometimes difficult education issues of the day.
Feedback sheets from ten participants indicated they heard and understood the messages of A View from the Inside. Half of the teachers interviewed for the report indicated that they had heard the participants’ voices as well. Most of the comments referred to the efforts of MELC in convening such a variety of participants and felt that fact alone was significant in starting and sustaining dialogue.
Continuing the conversations between policymakers and practitioners in this kind of forum is essential. They must talk with one another if they are to gain the understanding they need to address the difficult issues they face. As one participant wrote, “[w]e are all in this together.” By continuing the conversations and listening to each other carefully, educators bring forth issues and concerns with a united voice. MELC and Common Ground meetings provide them with a unique platform from which to be heard.
Berry, B. (2005, February) Creating professional learning cultures and a profession of teaching. Keynote address at Common Ground VI A View from the Inside; Learning to Thrive in the Age of Standards. Waterville, ME.
Berry, B., Johnson, D., & Montgomery, D. (2005, February). The power of teacher leadership. Educational Leadership 62 (5), 56-60.
Brookfield, S., & Preskill, S. (1999). Discussion as a way of teaching: Tools and techniques for democratic classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Crocker, J. (2005, March). To the membership. The Maine Apprise. XIII (7), 1-2
Mackenzie, S., Morrell, B., & Cook, S. (2004) A View from the Inside: Continuing the Conversation about teaching in Maine. Augusta, ME: Maine Educational Leadership Consortium.
A View From The Inside: Continuing The Conversation About Teaching In Maine
Essential Futures Protocol
1Adapted from Futures Protocol developed by Scott Murphy, National School Reform Faculty.
Chart these conversations. It is helpful to put dates at the top of the chart to identify the time period to which the group is referring.
1. Brainstorm the “projected present” Spring 2008
2. Write down questions about the ideas projected but do not answer them (group activity).
3. Look “back” from your projected reality and describe how things looked in February 2005.
4. Write down any additional questions that have surfaced.
5. Meet with other groups working on the same issue and compare ideas, noting commonalities and points that indicate disagreement.
6. On the form provided indicate three concrete steps that must be taken to move to the projected reality of 2008.
Reflective Feedback Common Ground February 2, 2005
Please answer the following questions about today’s work and return them at the end of the day. Thank you.
Please take few minutes to respond to these questions. It would help us to have your name for follow up, but we understand if you prefer to answer anonymously. Please return the completed form to Stephenie Cook. Thank you.
1. What was the most important message you hoped attendees would hear today?
2. To what extent were you satisfied that the message was put across? Please explain.
3. To what extent do you think people “heard” this message? Please explain.
4. To what extent were you listened to in the small group discussions today? Please explain.
5. Were there any points where you felt distanced from the conversation? Please explain.
6. When did you feel most affirmed? Please explain.
7. Was there anything surprising about people’s reactions today? Please explain.
8. Were there things other people said that made you change your mind about changes in teaching conditions that you’d like to see? Please explain.
9. How did you feel at the end of the meeting about the kinds of changes suggested? Are you discouraged or hopeful that changes can be made to improve teaching conditions in Maine schools?
10. Can you suggest ways for teachers’ voices to continue to be heard by educational policymakers?