Leveraging Educator Expertise: How You Can Use Your Voice for Change


Part 1: Introduction

Has your school or district ever implemented a new, well-intended policy—only to have it fizzle out with little notable benefits, or worse, cause more harm than good? Have you ever identified an initiative or shift in practice that would lead to positive outcomes for your students, but were unsure how to gain the momentum and support needed to push it forward? Have you ever felt frustrated that your expert advice as an educator went unheard? 

Have you ever felt frustrated that your expert advice as an educator went unheard?

Have you ever felt frustrated that your expert advice as an educator went unheard?

Unfortunately, you are not alone. Too often, we see things happen in education without any meaningful input from the stakeholders who are often best positioned to provide insight, who are in schools and classrooms every day—educators. Because most of us—including policymakers who draft education legislation—have experienced schooling at points in our lives, we feel that we have the ability to make decisions that will positively affect students’ educational experiences and lead them to career and life success. And while most of these decisions are made with the best of intentions, when the advice and experience of expert educators—and students, parents, and community members, for that matter—goes unheeded, they can face significant implementation challenges such as insufficient or inappropriate materials and equipment, space, capacity. There’s also the risk of unintended consequences, which can range from limited accessibility or exclusion of specific groups; stakeholder disengagement—from poor student attendance, enrollment, and completion to limited teacher implementation; and new implementation costs and budget implications. 

Flora Lerenman, a DC educator and America Achieves Fellow, works with her students.

Flora Lerenman, a DC educator and America Achieves Fellow, works with her students.

Educators like you have years in training and practice in teaching and learning and offer a unique, in-depth understanding of the strengths and needs of your students and the specific context of your classroom, school, and community. You are poised to offer critical feedback—in evaluating specific policies, programs, and practices, assessing implementation feasibility (e.g., needed capacity, potential obstacles), and planning for success (e.g., changes in schedules, staffing, professional development, resources). You play an important role not only in buying-in to reforms, but also identifying, advocating for, and promoting the context conditions for implementation fidelity and overall success.


Why Educators Need a Seat at the Table

“Teachers shouldn’t just be supporting our students in the classroom; we need to raise our voices to create a better world outside the classroom. Our close relationships with students and intimate knowledge of their struggles and communities give us a special responsibility to fight for justice for our students and alongside them.” — America Achieves Fellow Cristina Duncan Evans (Maryland)

According to a National Network of State Teachers of the Year report (1), “Intended policy outcomes are more likely to be achieved and unintended consequences avoided when expert teachers are part of policy development and implementation planning.” Additionally, “Policy will more effectively address the diverse set of PK-12 student needs when expert teachers are part of the policy process.” Indeed, as described by the Reform Support Network (2), “If students are to meet the expectations of college-and-career-ready standards and we are to close achievement gaps, it will be because committed educators—teachers, principals, district administrators, and state leaders—empower themselves to work together to this end.”

When educators are not at the decision-making table, it’s not just the policies, programs, and practices that suffer—so do the people. A 2014 Gallup Poll found that nearly 70% of K-12 teachers feel disengaged; many indicated that they felt their opinions did not matter (3). In contrast, teachers who are engaged are less likely to leave a district and more likely to have a positive impact on student outcomes (4). We cannot afford to lose more good teachers. Already, schools across the country face retention challenges and experience teacher shortages, with teacher attrition costing districts an estimated nearly $2 billion each year (5).

Educators deserve and often need to demand a seat at the table. And it’s important that diverse perspectives and experiences are represented around that table, including around, among others, the following dimensions:

  • Demographics and characteristics (e.g., gender, race, ethnicity)

  • Preparation and experience levels (e.g., degrees and certifications, years of teaching)

  • Specific roles (e.g., principal, teacher coach, counselor, teacher—core content, world languages, CTE, special education, ESL)

  • School contexts (e.g., type and size of the school, student populations served)

  • Communities (e.g., urban, rural, suburban)

Each voice can make a valuable contribution to the broader conversation, knowledge base, and efforts to improve educational excellence and equity in our country.

Educators collaborate at a national America Achieves Fellowship convening. America Achieves believes that each voice can make a valuable contribution to the broader conversation, knowledge base, and efforts to improve educational excellence and equity in our country.

Educators collaborate at a national America Achieves Fellowship convening. America Achieves believes that each voice can make a valuable contribution to the broader conversation, knowledge base, and efforts to improve educational excellence and equity in our country.


Educator Empowerment

America Achieves empowers educators to help improve student access to and completion of high-quality education pathways that lead to success in career and life. We firmly believe that educators have a unique perspective and important expertise that can and should be leveraged in solving significant problems of practice. This includes the development of tools, resources, best practices, and policies in ensuring all students have meaningful access to the American dream. 

Perhaps you seek ways to productively share experiences and lead positive change. But as motivated and engaged as you might be, you may still struggle to leverage your limited time and resources to make significant impacts on policies, practices, and programs. Our experience as an education non-profit organization, as well as the experiences of educators across the country, reveals that while there is no single path to successful educator advocacy and teacher leadership, there are several key tools and strategies educators can use. 

This multimedia resource provides an overview of America Achieves’ experiences in educator engagement—most notably, through our various Educator Voice Fellowships. It shares what we learned from and developed with educators—new insights, tools, strategies, and real-life examples to help you become more deeply engaged in creating positive changes in your classroom, school, and community. This resource and the lessons learned are particularly focused on the following promising strategies:

  • Building your personal brand

  • Publishing your message through opinion writing and social media

  • Partnering with business, industry, and community 

  • Crafting and influencing policy 

  • Developing new tools and model resources

Educator Marcello Sgambelluri, an America Achieves Fellow, speaks on a US Department of Education panel.

Educator Marcello Sgambelluri, an America Achieves Fellow, speaks on a US Department of Education panel.


Part 2: America Achieves and Educator Voice – A Quick History

At the founding of America Achieves in 2011, our first premise was to invest in educators—and leverage the expertise of classroom teachers and other educators to shape public policy, public dialogue, and innovation in education.  

We know that the biggest challenges in education can best be solved by tapping the experience and ideas of dedicated, successful educators. And yet too often, those educators are doing important but isolated work in classrooms and schools—without opportunities to learn together about and shape public policy and larger-scale change in education.  

That’s why the very first America Achieves program was a teacher fellowship to address this challenge. Shortly after our founding, we recruited our first cohort of 45 diverse educators from 18 states and engaged them in-depth discussions of public policy, research findings, and a variety of perspectives on educational change. We focused intensively on helping each educator determine their own views—and “find their voice”—to translate their classroom and school experience into insights that could shape public policy or inform public discourse about education.  

One of the Fellows’ first activities was participation in a summit in New York City organized by NBC to engage citizens in solutions-focused conversations about the state of American education. NBC was inviting elected officials, corporate CEOs, community and foundation leaders, and others to participate. When our team recommended bringing dozens of teachers to the summit, NBC quickly agreed and our first Fellows participated, including as summit panelists. NBC also provided us space in its headquarters where we organized a two-day, Fellows’ working session to engage in briefings and dialogues with many of the experts from the larger summit—and begin to develop a national community of leading educators. 

From this foundation, we launched a set of Fellowships to serve as a national leadership program helping teachers, leaders, and other educators translate their classroom- and school-level expertise to inform much larger change. Over time, we have seen the power and proof of concept of this goal. In 2015, an America Achieves Fellow sparked a nationwide movement of educators sharing classroom stories and voices from students using the #Iwishmyteacherknew hashtag that still continues today. Two Fellows created a bold new state law meant to drive practices in all 178 Colorado school districts. Two dozen Louisiana Fellow collaboratively developed a career exploration course that is expected to reach more than 10,000 secondary students this year alone. Our Fellowship network has grown to include over 600 educators from 35 states, but it all started with this group of Fellows at NBC and the belief that educators—individually and in groups—have powerful voices that should be heard and can drive meaningful, educational change. 


Educator Fellowship's Legacy of Change

In 2014, America Achieves launched a state-based Educator Voice Fellowship program to empower top educators to tap their classroom and school expertise to be informants on and architects of key policy issues, including teacher effectiveness, higher standards implementation, accountability, and educational equity. During the summer trainings, teachers and principals learned how to turn what they were seeing in their classrooms and schools into stories they could share with a wider audience by writing a newspaper article, speaking at a conference, or advocating on social media. And during the school year, Fellows put their skills to work. In New York, Fellows helped maintain high academic standards by creating videos and publishing nearly 40 op-eds and blog posts to raise awareness, engage parents and families, and advocate for resources to support implementation. Fellows testified in support of high standards at five different listening sessions hosted by the governor and opened their schools and classrooms to state and local policymakers so leaders could see the impact of high standards on teaching and learning. Fellows contributed to a policy brief about the importance of high standards and outlined key recommendations to the Board of Regents and the State Education Department. They argued that their recommendations, if implemented well, could improve opportunity for students and achieve greater equity in New York’s schools. Simultaneously, a Fellow in Louisiana testified before the state legislature in support of high standards. Her testimony received a great deal of attention on social media and ultimately the state legislature voted down the anti-high standards bills. 

New York Policy Fellows met with a state legislator in Albany to advocate for their schools and students.

New York Policy Fellows met with a state legislator in Albany to advocate for their schools and students.

In 2016, America Achieves created a Policy Fellowship, a 2.0 version of the program for returning Fellows. The Policy Fellowship provided educators with the opportunity not only to learn about the legislative process, but also to engage in it on issues of their choosing. Within the Policy Fellowship, educators researched, authored and proposed legislation, and advocated for educator-authored bills. As part of the Policy Fellowship in New York, Fellows leveraged what they learned about planning effective meetings with stakeholders to prepare for meetings with the Board of Regents and the State Education Commissioner to discuss how the state could best leverage its flexibility under the Every Student Succeeds Act to ensure equity for all students. And in Colorado, Policy Fellows Elaine Menardi and Jess Buller leveraged our Policy Playbook—a step-by-step guide to developing a policy position statement, background information, and policy proposal—to craft a statewide policy that created a new high school diploma to better prepare students for postsecondary pathways into STEM careers. Their STEM Diploma Endorsement bill (HB17-1201) was signed into Colorado state law in 2017. (Learn more about their process below and in Menardi’s first-person account Using My Voice to Shape the Face of Colorado Education Policy.)


The Fellowship's Work in Recent Years

Louisiana Fellows work to define 21st century competencies as part of the  Quest for Success  development work.

Louisiana Fellows work to define 21st century competencies as part of the Quest for Success development work.

In 2017, America Achieves relaunched the Educator Voice Fellowship to focus on 21st century learning and empower educators to become greater champions for career readiness. Throughout the program, Fellows developed tools and resources that support best practices and can serve as models across the country. In Louisiana, Fellows developed Quest for Success, a career development course that helps middle and high school students of all backgrounds, abilities, and interests; explore a variety of industry sectors, new and in-demand careers, and related pathways; develop the cross-sector knowledge, skills, character, and dispositions needed to be successful in these and other careers; and learn about themselves to successfully navigate high school and postsecondary education and plan to achieve career and life success. The innovative course, described later, was piloted in 2018-19 with over 50 teachers and approximately 2,500 students and is being implemented at scale in 2019-20. 

In 2018, Colorado Fellows learned about the state’s fast-growing industry sectors, in-demand, high-opportunity careers, and the competencies needed for success in these. They leveraged their new learning and employer relationships, as well as their expertise in project-based learning to develop a suite of career-ready, industry-aligned performance tasks and related resources to better prepare students to succeed in the workforce. These tasks are meant as models for use in various high school courses to meet state graduation capstone requirements and potentially, postsecondary contexts, to drive innovative teaching and learning of 21st century employability skills. Fellows previewed and received feedback on their work at a public showcase that included an audience of more than 120 educators and community members and panels of students and district, higher education, and business and industry leaders. An additional Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship cohort revised and piloted the tasks in 2019. 

“The America Achieves Fellowship is the best professional development experience I have had in my twenty-two years as an educator. Having the opportunity to collaborate with fellow educators from all over the nation has given me a broader perspective of educational issues that we all share.”
— America Achieves Fellow Kathy Powers (Arkansas)

While our programs have evolved over the years to meet the changing needs of students, educators, schools, communities, and the broader economy, a few core beliefs and commitments persist:

  • Leverage the expertise and honor the authentic voices of educators from all levels of the system—practicing classroom teachers, counselors, school principals, and district administrators —who help students from all backgrounds succeed

  • Build diverse, educator cohorts that represent, leverage, and celebrate a range of perspectives, including from urban, suburban and rural areas; traditional public and charter public schools; and a wide array of individual demographics and backgrounds, contexts, roles and experiences, and subject area expertise (e.g., world languages, ESL, CTE, math, special education)

  • Promote collaborative work and peer review to identify, develop, and share resources and tools that improve policies, programs, and practices at scale

  • Develop depth of knowledge and related resources to support advocacy in areas of urgent importance to school improvement (such as high academic standards or best practices in career readiness)

  • Relentlessly focus on engaging educators to become champions for change in communities, states, and across the country and dramatically improve outcomes for all students


Part 3: Approaches to Leveraging Your Expertise for Change

Educators like yourself have an invaluable role to play in the work to drive equity, excellence, and economic opportunity for all students, and have a variety of approaches to it. We have developed resources around strategies educators in our Fellowships have found most useful in leveraging their expertise and improving education policies, programs, and practices and outcomes for all students.


Building Your Personal Brand

A personal brand—establishing and promoting what you stand for (6)—is an essential tool for setting yourself up as a go-to expert in your field. It sets you up to better share your message and your work and aligns with the importance of communication and community in the 21st century. The guiding principles for a personal brand are simple: communicate your passion and your expertise and create messaging that consistently combines these to drive your message forward.

By establishing or strengthening your personal brand, you will likely become more visible and recognized as a leading educator, be invited to more conversations (such as meetings and public forums), and thus be better positioned to influence decision-making leading to a greater impact on students. The following is an example of how one America Achieves Fellow did just this, along with tools to help you do the same.

Clockwise from top: Sharif El-Mekki’s personal blog, Twitter account, feature in The Inquirer, and feature in The Washington Post

Clockwise from top: Sharif El-Mekki’s personal blog, Twitter account, feature in The Inquirer, and feature in The Washington Post

America Achieves Fellow Sharif El-Mekki (Pennsylvania) is a Philadelphia principal who believes we need more Black educators. And he’s backed up by research—a 2018 study from John Hopkins University found that Black students were 13% more likely to go to college if they had one Black teacher in elementary school; those who had two Black teachers were 32% more likely to go to college (7). He has built his personal brand around this conviction, from his personal blog to his features in local and national media, and it is clear what he believes, stands for, and has accomplished. During his Fellowship experience, El-Mekki met other educators interested in this work, including America Achieves Fellow William Hayes (New Jersey), a principal in Camden. Together they created a new nonprofit called the Fellowship of Black Male Educators that aims to recruit and support Black teachers. As described on the organization’s website, “The Fellowship has partnered with over 20 organizations to develop targeted programs to dramatically bolster the representation and retention of Black men throughout the career life cycle of an educator.” By creating and maintaining a strong personal brand, El-Mekki’s commitment and expertise have become increasingly visible; he has become a nationally-recognized, credible voice and authority, affecting the national discourse, policy, programs, and practices to improve teacher diversity.

  • How to Develop Your Personal Brand: This customizable deck is intended to be used as both a personal resource as well as a helpful tool to guide professional development for your colleagues. It walks the audience through an interactive session of developing and sharing personal brands.

  • Personal Brand Worksheet: This printable worksheet supports the above deck. It guides the user through each step of creating and promoting one’s personal brand.


Publishing Your Message Through Opinion Writing and Social Media

Externally-facing platforms like Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and online publications can be powerful and free ways to get your message to the masses, as well as drive your personal brand forward. You can control the message, put forward a persuasive argument, and have something tangible to share with stakeholders. As outlined in the tools shared below, these strategies can bring your classroom to outside audiences and expand your network. 

The guiding principles for opinion writing include:

  • Determining the “big three” (what’s the news, why does it matter, and who cares)

  • Selecting a venue that best fits the style and purpose of your piece

  • Identifying your key message and connecting it to a trending topic or event

  • Writing with your target audience in mind

  • Pitching your piece

It’s always helpful to be solutions-oriented, establish your credibility, and know both sides of a conversation. As with building a personal brand, sharing a story, anecdote, or analogy can be powerful in engaging your audience. The following provides examples of how educators employed best practices for opinion writing and social media advocacy, the resulting benefits, and how you can do the same.  

Clockwise from top: Kyle Schwartz’s Twitter page, author website, Chalkbeat op-ed, and CNN feature.

Clockwise from top: Kyle Schwartz’s Twitter page, author website, Chalkbeat op-ed, and CNN feature.

In 2015, America Achieves Fellow Kyle Schwartz (Colorado) and 3rd-grade teacher, created the Twitter hashtag #Iwishmyteacherknew. By sharing photos of post-it notes from her students with simple, but heartfelt explanations of what they wished their teacher knew about them, Schwartz went viral. Her posts quickly garnered national attention, sparking over 100 media mentions worldwide from USAToday to Daily Mail UK, a TEDTalk opportunity, and a book deal. She published an op-ed in Chalkbeat, where she explored how young people believe adults see them versus how adults actually view young people. In this op-ed, Schwartz established her expertise as an educator and her passion for storytelling as a way to foster connection, empathy, and inspiration. She used the opinion piece to encourage adults—including teachers—to reflect on the signals they send to students, from eye rolls to sighs to the vocabulary used, and to strive to better get to know young people. 

Schwartz published I Wish My Teacher Knew: How One Question Can Change Everything for Our Kids in 2016, a year after starting the #Iwishmyteacherknew movement. By creating a unique hashtag, writing about her experiences and beliefs, and staying true to her personal brand, Schwartz was able to spread her message well beyond her original network and community. 

Similarly, America Achieves Fellow John McCrann (New York) has leveraged his Fellowship experience to elevate his voice as a regular guest blogger in Education Week, where he discusses mathematics teaching practices and education policy. Fellow Amber Chandler’s (New York) blogging and speaking on flexible classroom practices led to a successful website, larger speaking opportunities, and published books. 

America Achieves Fellow John McCrann used his experience teaching high school math to write a regular blog for Education Week.

America Achieves Fellow John McCrann used his experience teaching high school math to write a regular blog for Education Week.

  • How to Write and Pitch and Op-Ed Deck, Overview, and Video: The customizable slide deck, one page overview, and short video can be used to support your work in writing and publishing opinion pieces. They can also be used to guide professional development workshops.

  • How to Leverage Twitter Overview and Deck: The customizable slide deck and one page overview can be used to support creating and growing your Twitter account. They can also be used to guide professional development workshops.


Partnering with Business, Industry, and Community

Local business, industry, and community leaders can be powerful partners in advancing important school improvement initiatives—as critical friends, consultants and thought partners helping build your background knowledge, identify blind spots, and refine your ideas; as investors and co-designers in new program, process, and curriculum development; and as allies, advocates and coalition builders to help influence key decision-makers. For example, in Louisiana, educators participating in our Educator Voice Fellowship leveraged industry partners not only as site visit hosts and panelists who challenged their thinking about the future of work, but also as writing partners and reviewers in developing the goals and materials for Quest for Success—a new career exploration course. These partners provided expertise and feedback on if and how particular performance tasks aligned to real-world problems, and through these partnerships, the educators were able to build a coalition who supported the new curriculum and could push for further change in the future. 

Fellows in Colorado participate in a construction site visit to learn more about the industry and the skills required.

Fellows in Colorado participate in a construction site visit to learn more about the industry and the skills required.

Additionally, the Fellows participated in briefings and data dives with local economists and national experts on workforce development. As a result, many of the Fellows were forced to not only reflect on and reconsider what they think of as high-opportunity jobs, paths to them, and the necessary competencies, but to also acknowledge how their own biases and blindspots might affect how effectively they ready students for 21st century careers. Likewise, the industry-educator relationships helped employers to better understand the contexts of contemporary schooling, appreciate the challenges, and be more thoughtful in their problem-solving approaches.  

America Achieves Fellow David Schexnaydre’s (Louisiana) experience is also an indication of how educators can leverage partnerships to create significant changes on a local level. In his school, he developed the Industrial Soft Craft Training Program to prepare students for specific skilled trades (in scaffolding, insulation, coatings) that were in high demand in his community. By developing local industry partnerships with companies such as the Gulf Coast Safety Council and Shell Norco, Schexnaydre was able to offer his students the chance to learn more about the professions through industry site visits, earn a Basic OSHA Plus credential, and develop their self-confidence through interactions with these industry professionals. Schexnaydre is now utilizing this partnership as a model to develop additional opportunities in his community. 

Another example is America Achieves Fellow Marie Kaufman (Colorado), who worked with her school district’s Community Strong initiative to recruit a different industry representative to visit during lunch every Monday. Guests have included a diverse range of individuals from National Geographic, BI Incorporated (manufacturing), Lockhead Martin, OtterBox, a local innovation center, city government, and a local hospital. Through these interactions, Kaufman has been able to increase role model and mentor access for her students to discuss career pathways and opportunities, essential skills, and interview and résumé tips. These professionals have also had the opportunity to share their own stories of success and failures with students. Most importantly, Kaufamn has built a diverse set of industry and community partners, who now are potentially more willing to support other initiatives or act as a coalition because they were positively involved in this one touch with the school. 

Both educators and industry representatives are starting to realize that in the changing 21st century economy, society, and the workplace, it’s important that students master critical new knowledge, skills, and understandings (e.g., collaboration, problem-solving, conflict resolution) to be prepared for success as adults. Often though, this requires educators to learn more about local industries and the corresponding knowledge and skills necessary for high-opportunity careers. The above examples illustrate both the chance for educators to leverage partners to build coalitions and create significant change and also the opportunity to utilize partnerships to become more knowledgeable about the shifting economy and needed knowledge and skills. This knowledge building both contributes to their current initiatives and also pays dividends as they develop new initiatives in the future.

Through the Fellowships, and based on educator experiences, several valuable resources to effectively engage industry and community partners have been developed. These include a white paper (with key design principles) on the topic, a short video on promising practices for forming and maintaining school-business and community partnerships, a guide to planning industry site visits for teachers or students, and a sample deck on hosting effective stakeholder meetings. 


Crafting and Influencing Policy

A significant way you can elevate your voice and position yourself to affect change is to craft and influence policy. For example, you can offer your expertise or serve in a trusted advisor capacity to local and state policymakers; advocate on social media, through blogs and op-eds, and at public hearings; help draft, review, and provide feedback on policy; develop coalitions and organize community events; and provide public testimony. This may seem daunting—but educators across the country have worked with stakeholders and policymakers to change a variety of local, state, and national education policies. 

The America Achieves Policy Fellowship built upon the Educator Voice Fellowship, coupling Fellows’ existing advocacy skills with the research and development of policy. In New York, Fellows’ successful advocacy on the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), as mentioned above, led to them being invited to join Education Trust's New York ESSA Coalition to help ensure the meaningful inclusion of equity in the state's ESSA plan. Additionally, two New York Fellows wrote a policy proposal to help teaching assistants earn time towards teacher certification that resulted in a state senate bill. In Colorado, two Policy Fellows, Elaine Menardi and Jess Buller, leveraged the Educator Voice Fellowship’s five-stage, 20+ step Policy Playbook, to create a new STEM high school diploma endorsement (as detailed below).

So how can you get started? Our Policy Playbook, linked below, provides educators with a step-by-step guide—from policy position statement to policy proposal and passage. It pushes educators to research a selected policy issue, identify stakeholders and their interests, raise awareness and advocate for adoption. 

  • Access the Policy Playbook:This is a comprehensive five-stage, 20+ step guide to developing a policy position statement, background information, and policy proposal.


In 2017, Elaine Menardi and Jess Buller, educators with backgrounds in STEM careers and education, saw the need for change to STEM education in Colorado. As a part of the Fellowship, Menardi and Buller gained the skills and knowledge to effectively advocate for education issues, develop education policy, and navigate the complicated legislative process. As a result of the program, these educators elevated their voices to successfully author, propose, and advocate for the passage the STEM Diploma Endorsement. Because of their work, legislators and education leaders believe the STEM Diploma Endorsement will make the Colorado high school diploma more competitive and relevant to college and career demands. Learn more about their work and the process they leveraged to make it all possible from Menardi’s first-person account.

Elaine Menardi shares insights into her experience developing the STEM Diploma Endorsement.

CO Program Manager Lance Hostetter speaks on Menardi’s and Buller’s work.


Developing New Tools and Model Resources

Besides shaping policy, there are other ways that you can affect change, as most schools and districts have opportunities for you to play a role in helping set the direction for teaching and learning. In addition to being responsible for effective classroom instruction, teachers are often asked to participate in district advisory groups, textbook review and selection committees, departmental and grade-level teams, professional learning communities, and collaborative planning. Additionally, expert educators are frequently sought out to help develop local curricular resources and design and facilitate professional learning. 

While each of these opportunities is structured differently in each school and district, when you and other educators commit to making the most of the experience and fully elevating your voices, you can positively influence systemwide decisions about what content is taught and how, what materials and assessments are used, what programs are selected and implemented, and how context conditions might be reconsidered to support implementation fidelity and scale. 

Early on in the Fellowship, educators were advocating for higher academic standards but found some of the resistance to adoption or preservation of high standards and barriers to implementing were due to the challenges everyday teachers were having in understanding and applying the shifts to their practice. In response, Fellows collaboratively created a teacher-to-teacher video library that featured resources to help educators understand and prepare for new ways of teaching to support the higher expectations. It didn’t take long for the library to grow to over 40,000 registered users and become a crucial part of the training provided by a number of education organizations, including TNTP and UnboundEd, as well as numerous schools and districts across the country. The video library shows how individual teachers, working together to share their expertise, are able to affect the practices of thousands of others. For example, if a teacher in Nevada is preparing to teach his fourth-grade class how to compare fractions, he can watch and learn from a video of a teacher in North Carolina teaching the same concepts (8).

Too often, we’ve found educators and policymakers describe a commitment to “college and career readiness,” but less often have they been able to define what knowledge, skills, and dispositions employers describe as most in-demand; what specific cross-sector competencies they are focused on; and who has responsibility for supporting the development across the K-12 experience.

Too often, we’ve found educators and policymakers describe a commitment to “college and career readiness,” but less often have they been able to define what knowledge, skills, and dispositions employers describe as most in-demand; what specific cross-sector competencies they are focused on; and who has responsibility for supporting the development across the K-12 experience.

More recently, Fellows’ have been developing resources to expand the number of educators who understand and are able to meaningfully support students’ career readiness. Too often, we’ve found educators and policymakers describe a commitment to “college and career readiness,” but less often have they been able to define what knowledge, skills, and dispositions employers describe as most in-demand; what specific cross-sector competencies they are focused on; and who has responsibility for supporting the development across the K-12 experience. Rather, while we have generally defined and point to core content teachers as the leads for academic learning and Career and Technical Education teachers as the leads for career-specific, technical skills development, it’s generally less clear who has the lead and what strategies they have to foster career ready competencies like project and resource management, communication, collaboration, and conflict management. 

As referred to earlier, a group of 22 diverse Louisiana educators decided this should be a shared responsibility with a clearer path for educators of all types. Together, they developed a new career exploration course, Quest for Success, that articulated core career ready competencies for the state’s educators and included a range of instructional activities and performance tasks that could be facilitated by any middle or high school teacher. In doing so, they leveraged their collective understanding of existing, relevant state standards; expertise in project-based learning; and knowledge of available career exploration, advising, and planning programs. Throughout the process, the Fellows were also open to addressing their own knowledge gaps, engaging with experts in workforce development and curriculum development (e.g., backward mapping, crafting learning goals and essential questions, using curriculum to build teacher knowledge and skills). The innovative Quest for Success curriculum is now scaled statewide throughout Louisiana, and in the summer of 2019, was released as a free, national resource. Through the mighty effort of this small band of educators, they were able to develop a resource and model that will now be used by teachers to change how they understand and talk about new careers; engage students in solving real-world problems; provide formative feedback; and empower tens of thousands of students nationwide in developing the knowledge, skills, dispositions and character to be ready for success in their professional, personal, and civic lives. 

Quest for Success  is an innovative career exploration course designed to ensure students know about and are prepared for careers of the future.

Quest for Success is an innovative career exploration course designed to ensure students know about and are prepared for careers of the future.

The Louisiana Fellows not only drove the design of Quest for Success, but in so doing, highlighted the potential of project-based learning to advance career readiness. In particular, they sought to leverage the use of engaging, authentic, industry-aligned performance tasks to help students practice using tools, tasks, or processes that are used by adults in real settings and by professionals in the workplace while applying and reflecting on key competencies (e.g., collaboration, communication, conflict management, resource and project management). Building on prior research and models in project-based learning, the Louisiana Fellows helped set criteria (Essential Design Principles), and create models for high-quality, career-ready project-based learning that became the subject of a white paper, Leveraging Project-Based Learning to Improve Career Readiness, and a variety of related resources that have been accessed by thousands of educators and thought leaders across the country. Further, the knowledge, best practices, and tools and resources the Louisiana Fellows helped to generate informed our goals and vision for the 2018 and 2019 Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship programs. 

In response to Colorado’s new high school graduation requirements and concern about ensuring capstone projects would meaningfully develop and assess in-demand, career readiness skills to high levels of rigor, Fellows in Colorado accepted our challenge to learn about and develop a suite of innovative Career-Ready Performance Tasks that would help “set the standard” for educators across the state. The tasks were designed, with industry input, to leverage high-quality project-based learning to promote learning of core content and cross-sector knowledge and skills necessary for successful careers and lives. The collaborative development process included Fellows with a range of prior experiences and expertise—including former IT and architecture and design professionals; elementary, middle, and high school and community college educators; special education, CTE (e.g., computer science, health care), math, science, and AP English teachers; and classroom, school, and district leaders—from a diverse set of communities, schools, and student bodies. This diversity prompted a deeper understanding of our goals for student learning (across disciplines and contexts) and more meaningful cross-curricular connections in the design of tasks and student and teacher resources.

Fellows’ different levels of years of teaching experience and comfort with project-based learning led to powerful debates about the level of detail and structure to be built into the tasks. These debates led Fellows to simultaneously balance the need for sufficient teacher scaffolding toward the learning goals (particularly for students and teachers who are newcomers to project-based learning) and for teacher and student choice and voice. The Fellows likewise prompted and pushed each other—calling out implicit biases and blindspots and leading each other in learning more about universal design, culturally responsive teaching, etc.—and developing new perspectives on educational equity. Unlike many outside curriculum consultants and materials publishers, the Colorado Fellows, as practicing professionals, understood and worked hard to design for the real-life challenges, strengths, and contexts (e.g., class size, diverse learners, limited technology, small classrooms) of everyday teachers while keeping students at the center.

Fellows in Colorado collaborate on the design of industry-aligned performance tasks.

Fellows in Colorado collaborate on the design of industry-aligned performance tasks.

As our educator Fellows continued to remind us, designing high-quality PBL tasks, especially identifying and building in engaging resources to scaffold learning to and through challenging problems, takes considerable time, expertise, and practice. As a result, the Fellows designed the tasks not only for implementation in their own classrooms, but also as resources for others to use as starting points in their own classrooms. Included are a variety of resources to clarify learning goals and aligned standards (from across disciplines), build teacher and student background knowledge, support differentiation, prompt student discussion and inquiry, and offer tips for classroom organization. As a result, the tasks will not only support students’ career readiness, but also deepen their teachers’ understanding of in-demand careers and competencies and effective career-ready, project-based learning. Together, the two Colorado cohorts of approximately 50 educators developed tasks that are being implemented and will inform the design of new performance tasks and career-ready capstone projects in several districts across the state. Indeed, educator-developed resources can prove powerful at driving, at scale, new ways of thinking and doing in schools and classrooms.

Through these educator-led projects and the examples of our Fellows, America Achieves developed tools and resources to help other educators learn and share more about career readiness. Despite the rhetoric around college and career readiness for all students, just eight percent of high school graduates complete a full college and career preparatory curriculum (9). Fellows in both Louisiana and Colorado called out the need for greater awareness and sense of urgency in engaging both their peers and broader stakeholder groups—and they didn’t want each educator to have to reinvent the wheel on this front. In response, America Achieves worked with Fellows to create a communications toolkit to help you make the case for improved career readiness and championing initiatives—like Quest for Success curriculum and industry-aligned, career-ready performance tasks—in your schools and districts. 

  • Access the Career Readiness Toolkit: The Career Readiness Communications Toolkit can be leveraged to help foster shared purpose, understandings, and actions to improve career readiness in educators’ communities. You can modify and adapt the resources in the Toolkit to align with your own voice, initiatives, and experiences.

In keeping with the idea that teachers shouldn’t have to spend more time searching for high-quality resources or starting from scratch in creating their own than they do on planning for, applying, reflecting on and improving their work with students and their communities, we also have a suite of resources to help teachers and leaders apply or adapt our sample tasks and/or learn how to create your own career-ready performance tasks. These resources include a process guide, how-to videos, tips for establishing industry site visits (to construction sites, advanced manufacturing facilities, and more), and example tasks designed by the 2018 Colorado Fellows.


Part 4: Conclusion — Putting it All Together

“Building leaders and classroom teachers offer unique insight and value to such conversations because they have firsthand experience with students and understand the real-life needs and issues they face. My colleague and I know the students who come to school every day needing a solid breakfast. We see the kids who seek out their classrooms and teachers as safe havens from domestic turmoil. We can identify the gaps where students need more knowledge or skills to help them find a decent job after graduation. Although many well-meaning people surround the perimeter of education issues, the boots-on-the-ground educator adds an authentic perspective to the discussion. These voices must be elevated in the decision-making process.” — Elaine Menardi

Throughout America Achieves’ history, we have been committed to engaging and learning from educators like you—whose immersion in the day-to-day realities of school provides unparalleled insights into your students’ experiences, including insecurities, struggles and triumphs; your colleagues’ dilemmas and solutions; and your community’s ambitions for its students and schools. As Reform Support Network puts it (10), “Educator engagement is necessary for successful implementation of reform, but its purpose is greater: ultimately, educator engagement is the basis for advancing the profession in education and improving student performance.”

As the many examples here make evident, this investment has yielded immeasurable returns in the Fellows’ impact on local and national discourse and a range of practices, programs, and policies. In the process, they have also taught us much about how to foster such change, including the strategies highlighted here:

  • Building your personal brand

  • Publishing your message through opinion writing and social media

  • Partnering with business, industry, and community 

  • Crafting and influencing policy 

  • Developing new tools and model resources

And while we have described each of these strategies in individual snapshots, the experience of our profiled champions for change demonstrate that real impact often requires that you enlist multiple strategies, over time, in partnership with others, and with an ever-evolving, reflective lens on your own and others’ knowledge base, biases, blindspots, and diverse perspectives.


Multiple, Coordinated Strategies and Partners

Menardi and Buller celebrate the signing of the STEM Diploma Endorsement.

Menardi and Buller celebrate the signing of the STEM Diploma Endorsement.

In fact, whether you’re building a Twitter or Facebook following, trying to engage new partners, building coalitions, or advocating for policy, having a recognized, credible voice that comes from deliberate brand building is often essential—and that takes time and consistency. Likewise, as Menardi’s and Buller’s policy example highlights, your most ambitious efforts will often include different phases of work with different strategies (e.g., building your brand, publishing your message, partnering), and sometimes even different or expanding coalitions. Again, success isn’t achieved overnight, especially when you’re trying to build awareness and sustainable buy-in among key stakeholders (e.g., teacher groups, parents, school board members, legislators) or working through established processes and timelines (e.g., annual district budget, contact negotiations, or state law-making process) with all of their various forums, committee meetings, and votes. Bear in mind that the more complicated the policy-making process, the more potential for setbacks (e.g., not getting your bill out of committee) and delays which will demand not only your persistence, but also reflection.

Similarly, the setbacks and delays mentioned earlier might best be considered as obstacles, challenges, or opportunities—each requiring a different kind of response, including revisiting your own biases, building more background knowledge, engaging new partners, and using these to refine your own ideas for new or improved practices, programs, and policies.    


Reflection and Inclusion

As you reflect on the design and progress of your effort, we encourage you to think carefully about which voices and perspectives are and are not only included, but also privileged (or disadvantaged.) You are also encouraged to consider how your own viewpoint might be limited by your own prior experience (e.g., only in charter schools, in rural communities, with high-levels of parental involvement or teacher retention, teaching AP and honors), knowledge of the research and evidence base, and thought partners. Indeed, we are all subject to a range of subconscious biases that affect how we think, feel, make decisions, and behave.  

In our work to improve teaching and learning, one can be especially susceptible to similarity bias (we enjoy working with and seek out people like ourselves, which can easily lead to groupthink) and confirmation bias (once we have an opinion or make a decision we tend to overlook contradictory information). For example, just as the STEM endorsement policy began with a well-researched solutions brief, development of the Louisiana Quest for Success curriculum and Colorado performance tasks started with a thorough scan of what similar resources, definitions, and theories and guiding frameworks already existed; identification of best practices; and discussions with a range of experts, including economists and industry leaders, who might not otherwise be part of our own existing, critical friends groups. 

America Achieves Fellow William Hayes speaks at a convening for the Fellowship of Black Male Educators, a nonprofit he co-founded with other educators. Their work aims to recruit and support Black teachers.

America Achieves Fellow William Hayes speaks at a convening for the Fellowship of Black Male Educators, a nonprofit he co-founded with other educators. Their work aims to recruit and support Black teachers.

During the work with Quest for Success, as we identified financial literacy resources, we discovered that many of the curriculum resources were only geared toward middle-class families. The resources neglected to account for the context of the poor and working poor families such as including the benefits of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) within a budget. If the team had not utilized the processes mentioned above, we may have not been able to recognize and respond to this and similar blindspots. 

The good news is, as these examples suggest, unconscious biases need not be permanent. You can begin to address these by taking time to identify and understand your own biases, be more inclusive of diverse perspectives, and commit to use of data and evidence—from multiple sources.

While we’ve called out several individual teacher and leader exemplars, we hope you also noticed the many ways teams of educators came together—in pairs and small- and medium-sized groups, from across diverse roles, backgrounds, and geographies. Having varied perspectives in a team helps to identify those blindspots. Strategies like journaling, debriefing with trusted peers—including those from different experiences, backgrounds, and ways of thinking (and who may even disagree with you), finding a mentor who can guide and push you, and reaching out to local businesses and community organizations to understand their perspectives are also important ways to gain further insights.

It’s important to remember that change doesn’t happen overnight—rather it’s step by step and voice by voice as momentum begins to gather. Many of the examples in this paper took multiple months or years to develop. 

“Get your tail in gear and share your work. The world NEEDS to know about it.” — America Achieves Fellow Loryn Windwehen (Texas)

We believe that leveraging the expertise of educators is one of the most significant factors to drive positive change for schools and students. Educators like you are present in the day-to-day realities of the school experience. It is through your authentic experiences and unique expertise that we can move towards policies and programs that lead to career and life success for all students. 

As you reflect on your impact in the education sector and dig into the resources provided in this document, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us with questions. You can email us at educatornetworks@americaachieves.org or Tweet us at @AAEdNetworks.


References:

  1. NNSTOY, ND, page 1

  2. Reform Support Network, ND, page 1

  3. Hechinger Report, 2014

  4. Gallup, ND

  5. K-12 Insight, 2017

  6. Brand Yourself, The Definitive Guide to Personal Branding

  7. John Hopkins University, Black Students Who Have One Black Teacher More Likely to Go to College, 2018

  8. This concept is introduced in Nevada in 3rd grade (3.NF.A.3 of Nevada Academic Content Standards) and extended in the 4th grade (4.NF.A.2)

  9. Education Trust, 2016

  10. Reform Support Network, ND, page 1