By Fellow Michael Dunlea

Like most public school teachers, I’m not generally asked to weigh in on national education policy issues that directly impact me and my students. But on Monday, August 17th I accompanied a group of Teach Plus and America Achieves Teacher Fellows to the offices of key politicians on Capitol Hill in DC. The purpose of this trip was to raise my teacher voice to an audible level. I went there to ask the policy makers to consider three key elements of the reauthorization of the Elementary Secondary Education Act (ESEA). 

Currently ESEA is due for a rewrite. This provides an opportunity to correct some of the flaws in the well-intentioned No Child Left Behind that created new problems as it attempted to solve others. The House recently has passed one form of ESEA reauthorization titled the Student Success Act, while the Senate has passed another, the Every Child Achieves Act, and now a committee will begin to work on a final, compromise bill to ultimately replace NCLB. 

My group included three other teachers. Given my personal journey, I spoke on the importance of Teacher Leadership and why it needs to become a part of the final bill. I believe that ESEA must contain explicit language that would help states and districts use Title II money to build up teacher leadership.

Currently, districts have $2.5 billion to be used on improving teacher quality.  The current law allows for such measures as principal and teacher induction programs, programs to establish or improve alternative routes to certification, and in recruiting and retaining highly-qualified teachers. What it does not include is explicit language that addresses the creation of hybrid roles that keep teachers in front of students while they impact fellow educators and the schools they work in. 

In the new ESEA rewrite, Sen. Bennet (D-CO) and Sen. Collins (R-ME) sponsored an amendment that requires states to assess which schools need the most focus and a system in place that will determine how the state is providing leadership opportunities to effective teachers and principals. My own experiences as a teacher have led me to strongly believe in the importance of  making sure this amendment is included in the final bill. 

In 2011 I was recognized as a NJ County Teacher of the Year and was a finalist for the State Teacher of the Year. Ever since that time I have been on a journey that has led me to develop and use leadership skills that have directly impacted my classroom instruction and student outcomes in a very positive way. 

Through participation in two National Teacher Fellowships I have been exposed to great teachers from across the country who have shared their best practices and inspired me to reach for a higher bar of excellence. I am pursuing National Board Certification as a direct result of my selection to the America Achieves Fellowship of Teachers & Principals. Because of these rich opportunities to learn from leaders in education, I am better able to  address the needs of my students. 

Good leaders often lead from within, not necessarily from above.  I have shared the resources and lessons I have learned with my fellow teachers in my district at in-service trainings and faculty meetings. In addition I presented as a 2014 Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow at the National Board’s Teaching & Learning Conference in Washington, DC. I have received numerous requests from teachers, principals and administrators from across the country asking for my presentation resources to be shared locally at their districts and schools. Teacher Leadership is already having a positive impact based on the response to my presentations. Ensuring that teacher leadership becomes a part of the educational infrastructure is what led me to strongly support it being included in the ESEA final draft. 

The positive impact that Teacher Leadership can have on student learning is currently being measured by several studies. It is a relatively new concept that does not have a historically long set of existing data to provide evidence of its worth. I will simply submit to you that my personal experience and those of the other teacher leaders I have met are powerful testimonies of the value to students that it can bring. However, here is some current evidence that does exist: 

A recent report titled “Untapped, Transforming Teacher leadership to Help Students Succeed” made the following key findings: 

  • Teacher leaders can immediately boost student learning in their schools. Some 70 percent of participants achieved notable gains in student achievement across classrooms they supervised during their training year.

  • Teacher leaders can quickly develop and apply critical leadership skills. Participants made significant, measurable gains on high-impact skills, such as using student data and coaching to improve instruction.

  • Teacher leaders can fill gaps in the leadership pipeline. After one year of Emerging Leaders, 80 percent of participants who were accepted to a principal apprenticeship started that training having mastered key leadership skills.

The experience with Teacher Leadership framed the message I took to the offices of House of Representatives and the Senate on August 17th. I talked about how teacher leadership is a bona fide path to improving education and helping close the achievement gap in this country.

The conversations were always respectful and at times probing. Since I am from New Jersey I was especially impacted by our meeting with Senator Booker’s staff. Like the senator, his staff was energetic and engaging. I experienced a high level of comfort and felt truly welcomed and heard.  I hope they take me up on the offer to visit my classroom!

I was given a great opportunity to make my voice heard. All teachers have a voice that should be informing decisions on all levels of educational policy. I encourage my fellow teachers to invite politicians into their classrooms. Let them see what we do and meet the students that we are fighting for each day. Our representatives need to have our classrooms in their minds when they are back in Washington, making the decisions that will impact their futures and ours. 

Michael J. Dunlea, M.Ed., is a 2nd Grade in New Jersey and the 2011 Ocean Co. NJ Teacher of the Year/State Finalist. He is a Teacher Hope Street Group & America Achieves Teacher Fellow.

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