Empowered Educators Shape Learning and Create Opportunities for All Students

It may be up to educators to create a student-centered, educator-led school environment where a high level of collaboration exists between educators, parents, administrators, and school board members, according to two sets of panelists who spoke Thursday at Empowered Educators Day, part of the National Education Association’s 153rd Annual Meeting and 94th Representative Assembly (RA) in Orlando, Florida.

Nearly 700 attendees heard some of the most innovative ideas educators are implementing across the country to promote student success, while being reminded that empowerment, leadership, and the ability to shape classroom learning is something they possess but may need to engage more fully.

“I’m hoping you are not here expecting someone will hand you empowerment,” said Lily Eskelsen García, NEA president, in her opening remarks. “Leaders already understand empowerment is in their hands.”

Before the first panel discussion, NEA Vice President Rebecca S. Pringle made a presentation about the “Theory of Success,” which stresses how empowered educators shape learning for all students, collaborate on school plans and district policies, and inspire innovative ideas in the community.

Another important component to the theory is the vital work done by NEA members at the local level on behalf of students, Pringle added.

“How can your locals help best in empowering students,” Pringle asked the audience. “We know that electing the right politicians is essential, but it’s not sufficient. We know that it is educators who know best what students need.”

Pringle mentioned the leadership role local Associations play in their communities and how the national union can help enhance their effectiveness through training, lobbying, and media outreach.

“Together, as education professionals, we (NEA) can help amplify your voices,” Pringle said.

Roland S. Martin, host and managing editor of “NewsOne Now” on cable TV One, moderated the Empowered Educators Panel, which included Eskelsen García, Debby Chandler, vice president of the Spokane Education Association in Washington, Dallas Dance, superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools in Maryland, and Eric Feaver, president of the MEA-MFT in Montana.

Martin began the session with the question: “What does empowered educator mean?”

“It means that I believe in myself and I believe in them (students), so they can believe in themselves,” said Chandler, an education support professional (ESP).

“It means leveraging our voices,” Feaver added, “and the power to organize and bargain.”

“People who don’t know what they are talking about have been telling us what to teach our children,” said Eskelsen García. “I want my union to give me the authority to do what I need to do.”

It’s one thing to be dictated to by clueless legislators and policymakers who are not educators, but what about parents who think they know what is best for their child, Martin asked.

“They don’t know what they don’t know,” said Chandler, a social community specialist who works with parents in her district. “Parents do care. They want to be involved, (but sometimes) just don’t know how.”

Dance praised the parents he’s met.

“I’ve never met a parent who didn’t want a better life story for their children,” he said.

Dance said the degree to which educator empowerment is implemented often depends on professional training.

“If you don’t have a school culture that cultivates leadership, nothing is going to be able to happen,” he said.

The second panel, TEACHTalks, was formatted after TED Talks. It involved four presenters, including a dual presentation by co-presidents of the Tempe Education Association (TEA) in Arizona.

Elizabeth Leivas and Kelly Trujillo began their presentation by describing themselves as “unlikely leaders.” Both teachers, they can also be described, in the beginning of their careers, as “reluctant empowered educators.”

Trujillo: “If you would have asked us last year if we would be standing here talking to you as co-presidents we would have laughed at you.”

Leivas: “In fact, two years ago, another local president told me I would make a great president.  I laughed and said, ‘thank you but that’s not me.’”

Trujillo: “At the same time, we had an amazing president.  If there was ever any issue in our local she took care of it.”

And that was the problem. While Trujillio served as secretary and Leivas as treasurer, “most of the work was honestly done by our president,” said Leivas.

Once the president resigned for personal reasons, Leivas and Trujillo decided to work together as co-presidents. Although, they were determined to re-create TEA by empowering their members through training and mentoring.

“We needed to get members more involved,” said Leivas. “We needed to empower them to find their voice. “(Eventually), they took ownership of our local.”

At the end of each TEACHTalks, each presenter was asked to convey a challenge to audience members.

Trujillo: “We want you to look inside yourself, and try something that you never thought you could do, and maybe you to can be an ‘unlikely leader.’”
Leivas: “It is your chance to step out of your comfort zone, challenge yourself, and find your voice.”

When teacher Denecise Salters took the stage, she explained how an unruly student early in her career led her to study with the Teacher Leadership Initiative and become an empowered educator.

“My principal told me that he decided to put a new student in my room because he needed a strong disciplinarian,” she said. “How many of you had heard that before?”

Salters was told that the student was a “runner and a hitter.” When the student challenged Salters one day, she had to “tap that desk.”

The student said: “When I get mad, I start hitting things.”

Salters responded: “When I get mad, I lose my mind!”

“Mrs. Salters, you kinda crazy, aren’t you,” the student told her.

Salters explained to the student that she wasn’t crazy, but instead cared about him and wanted the best for him. The student prompted Salters to reflect: “How do we stay motivated when we are facing challenging, emotionally difficult situations like this?”

Salters responded by creating a team of teachers who could meet with administrators and voice their concerns.

“We need to hear from teachers,” said Salters.

The team created a survey to identify workplace incentives that would motivate their colleagues. A second survey listed the following incentives for their review: wearing jeans, rewards for perfect attendance, ordering out lunch, administration recognition, and others.

“My principal is innovative, so he already had plans to implement some incentives,” she said. “Teachers began to speak positively about coming to work and our principal allowed us to wear jeans more than just on Fridays. We got gift cards for perfect attendance and he recognized an Employee of the Month!”

In her challenge to audience members,  Salters wanted them to always be mindful that “your students need you and your school district needs you.”

Daniel Erickson is a senior at Jefferson High School in Tampa, Florida. He told the audience that every student he knows wants their teachers “to be great.”

“The most important day of the school year for a student is when they find out who their teacher is going to be,” he said. “There are a lot of expectations, good or bad, rolled up into the names they see at the top of the class list. I assume for teachers it may be similar. There are student names you might hope to see on a class list and perhaps a few you hope you do not.”

Whatever the case, students and teachers spend a lot of time together, Erickson said.

“The recent education climate calls on us more than ever to make the teacher student partnership a strong one, not just in the classroom, but in the community in support of our public schools,” he said. “After all, it is educators and students that spend more time in classrooms than anyone else and yet when people talk about what is happening in public schools, we are the ones that have to struggle most to be heard.”

As a member of the Class of 2015, Erickson said they are the first class to spend their entire K-12 school career under No Child Left Behind, which was enacted in 2002.

“I have seen firsthand how the pressure to (take more tests) has slowly chipped away at the human element in education,” he said. “And we have to say ‘enough is enough.’”

His challenge to the audience of educators was:

“Please, over the next few days,  discuss with your colleagues who traveled with you, or those you meet from across the country, what our public schools need in the coming years to be successful. But remember, when you return home, you are not alone, your class lists are full of names of public school advocates you can inspire.”

In her closing remarks, Pringle implored attendees to share with their RA delegates what they heard during Empowered Educators Day.

“Think about what it is you are going to talk about,” she said. “NEA needs you to go cause some good trouble! Now, go be awesome!”

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