My first year of teaching was especially tough. Like many new teachers, I felt helpless and frustrated.
One afternoon, my mentor came to observe my work. I met up with her after, expecting her to ask me what the heck I thought I was doing. Instead, she simply asked, “How are you feeling? Are you OK?”
Immediately, I started to cry. I was not OK. I began to list off problems: I hadn’t felt properly prepared, I was confused and frustrated, I felt like we focused too much on testing …
I stopped. “I’m sorry,” I told her. “I’m sure this is all stuff you probably already know.”
A few of the three dozen participants in a Board of Education community meeting in Manoa held to get input into the Joint DOE/BOE Strategic Plan.
Department of Education
She smiled. “Even if that were true,” she said, “it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get to tell it to someone and feel like they heard you.”
I think about that conversation a lot in my own life now as an educator — both as a classroom teacher and as I work with “teacher leaders” to understand what that title means.
Often times, we think of leaders as the people at the front, giving commands, making tough decisions. And, of course, anyone in a leadership position may need to do that. Recently, though, I’ve been realizing that truly good leaders often stop, take a step back and just listen.
Even for those who they think they have all the answers or they’ve heard it all before, the act of listening is not just essential to gain valuable knowledge for those they lead, it also allows those being heard to feel valued and validated. Leaders can benefit from the ideas of colleagues, and leaders can help create a culture that allows everyone to understand how valuable they are in the collective process.
‘I Felt That My Voice Mattered’
Recently, Hawaii has been modeling an example of this process. Earlier this year, the state Department of Education launched listening tours to turn to the community for input to define and support success for all students during the review of the Joint DOE/Board of Education Strategic Plan.
Managed by trained facilitators (many of them classroom teachers themselves), the tours generated input that was sent directly to a third-party analysis group to organize recurring themes. In addition, the governor created an Every Student Succeeds Act Task Force to create a blueprint for education in the state, hosted a Statewide Education Summit in July and held town halls on every island. The BOE also hosted community meetings to hear from all stakeholders invested in public education.
A group of my teacher colleagues from various schools across the state attended some of these meetings. When I asked how they went, they were surprisingly, uniformly positive.
After one such meeting, one teacher noted she “felt the conversation from other perspectives was insightful. … Sharing our thoughts with the larger group after our table discussion was empowering.” One reason she felt that way was that “key players” were there to hear those thoughts and conversations, from Superintendent Kathryn Matayhoshi to at least are five principals.
She went on to report, “We loved sharing our voices from a school-level perspective! The intimate setting allowed for conversations with people in the room who we know are extremely busy and usually don’t have dedicated time for these kinds of discussions. I was also impacted by the number of administrators who I know spent a full day working and were still very present at the meeting until 6:30 p.m.
“I wish the general public was aware of how much time teachers, staff, administrators and other school personnel (commit to) attend events beyond their contracted time to participate in these discussions.”
Another shared how empowering it was simply to be heard. “I felt very much a part of the process and that my voice mattered. There were targeted and thoughtful questions provided as we broke out into our smaller groups, and there was plenty of time to have really deep discussions. I left the BOE community meeting feeling so empowered after having great discussions with an assistant superintendent, BOE member and the superintendent.
“At all levels, the ‘officials’ engaged in real conversations. I felt a great sense of bonding at both meetings both in my peer group and in the BOE mixed group. I think this is a huge step forward for the state of Hawaii because the process is not only to inform but to include all the major stakeholders in shaping the future of the DOE.”
Creating a space where teachers feel heard and valued is an essential step toward fostering a culture where teachers want to stay in the profession.
Finally, one noted after attending a ESSA town hall meeting that despite her trepidation, she found it to be empowering:
“I was apprehensive … because on so many occasions I have felt teachers put in time and work … only for our opinions to fall by the wayside.” But an ESSA task force member later approached her and said, ” ‘Thank you for taking the time to share your suggestions.’ She went on to explain, ‘While deconstructing all the information provided at the town hall meetings is an extremely overwhelming task,’ she ‘strongly believes that the voice of teachers is imperative to the success of ESSA.’”
Wow! Her words validated my profession and renewed my hope in the direction our state will take with the implementation of ESSA.
These reflections should be an important reminder to us all: Even when we think we have all the answers, it is imperative that we stop and listen to the people we value.
I strongly believe that creating these meeting spaces not only makes valuable educator input available to those at the district and state level, it has the potential to change the culture of education here on our islands, as well.
In a time when teacher attrition rates are incredibly high (especially in Hawaii), district, state, and national-level education professionals should be asking how to ensure teachers feel they are valued in the profession. While salary is, of course, important, numerous studies (such as this one from All4Ed or this piece in The Atlantic) show that many teachers feel undervalued and that they aren’t supported.
Creating a space where teachers feel heard and valued is an essential step toward fostering a culture where teachers want to stay in the profession. Just as my mentor teacher understood all those years ago, there was value not just in her understanding my struggle, but for me to feel that I had been heard at all.
When we create a culture where everyone — students, families, teachers and administrators — all feel that they can actually belong and be heard, we can move forward to creating classrooms that feel less like distant, lonely spaces to ones that make everyone feel like they want to stay, listen and be heard.
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Christina Torres is a seventh and ninth grade English teacher at the University Laboratory School in Honolulu. She is also part of the NEA's Teacher Leadership Initiative and Teach For America's Education for Justice Pilot.