Connect. Learn. Share. Grow. A Reflection on What I Learned at the 2015 Seattle ECET2

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By Jeremy Wagner, 2013 Texas State Teacher of the Year

This past July I was afforded the opportunity to do something that many educators are not given the privilege of doing; I was chosen to attend a celebration whose sole purpose is to elevate and celebrate teachers.  While being chosen to attend was an honor that was limited to a little less than 500 teachers this summer at the national Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers (ECET2) conference, the inspiration is something that every educator across the country deserves to be a part of and take back to their classrooms.  In an effort to “share the wealth”, here are my take-aways from this amazing experience.

The ECET2 conference, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, began in 2012 as a humble effort to celebrate what teachers do amongst a storm of negative feedback and media, largely the result of skewed data on national tests that don’t tell us a whole lot about what teachers actually do in the classroom.  Teachers were nominated and invited from around the country to come together and talk about ideas, share inspiration, and even problem solve some of the issues each of us face on a daily basis.  The Gates foundation started a movement that would spread far wider and faster than even they dreamed it would.

Since its inception, four additional national conferences and over 100 state level ECET2 conferences have taken place.  Each conference serves as a refocusing point for thousands of teachers around the country to reconnect with why we do what we do and provides a working set of tools and suggestions to take back to campuses to try and develop leadership, improve student engagement, and provide a new network of professionals to pull on as resources.

Social media serves as a foundational tool at ECET2.  Expectations run high for teachers to share what they are learning and to find ways to connect with colleagues.  Twitter, blogs, Facebook, and many other sources of digital sharing exploded for three days on the inspirational things keynote speakers shared and the transformational ideas breakout session presenters encouraged.  By sharing with each other teachers are confronted with an amazing principle that each of us struggle with at some point in our career; we are not islands and we are not alone.  Teaching, while often a struggle we undertake by ourselves, is not something that we have to do without help.  That help may come from our own campus leadership and PLCs, but it can also come from much further and wider than even I expected.  As a result of this conference I was able to connect with well over a dozen experts in various fields, most of whom are still in the classroom, and tap into a wealth of knowledge that I could not hope to master by myself.

Overall, this experience was something that I sincerely wish all teachers around the country could have.  Your profession deserves the recognition, you deserve the praise, and your students deserve the power that it gives you to go and change their lives.  The break outs I attended cover only a small number of the topics and inspiration offered by the conference.  Everything I pulled from this conference likely deserves its own dedicated blog.  However, for the sake of brevity, I will give as short a summary as I can on each of the major topics I grew in over my three day journey in Seattle.

Colleague Circles

The value of collaboration is touted far and wide in educational research, particularly in the last several years.  ECET2 gave a significant amount of time to allow teachers to get together in teams of 8-10 to discuss local, personal issues they are facing as teachers.  Since anonymity and confidentiality were cornerstone ideals of the circles, I do not feel it is right to share the specific topics discussed in my own experiences.  However, topics could potentially range from local administration concerns, student engagement issues, trouble with parent/teacher relationships, and difficulty leading small groups of teachers beyond complacency.  Each circle followed a guided conversation in which the group brainstormed ideas and shared possible solutions to problems.  The ideas and solutions shared were grounded, easy to understand, and provided each teacher with a plan of action to take back to their campus this coming year.  It was the kind of problem solving we wish our students to practice in our rooms each year and it was truly amazing to come out of it with a plan to tackle something I feared was not capable of being tackled.  This is a kind of practice that PLCs and grade level or content level teams could use to cause critical change in their schools.

Leadership

Transformational leadership is difficult to encompass in a 90 minute session.  However, Tiffany Scott (@M66154868) and Jaraux Washington (@JarauxW) gave an engaging message in which I was able to confirm and mold what I feel teacher leadership should be about.  I want to see leadership shift from a title given to a person to a tool used by people.  Teacher leadership does not necessarily mean teacher control.  Rather than being stuck on titles and who has them, use your influence to lead teachers to transform what your school is about, how you teach and engage students, and how you reach out to involve stakeholders in your community.  Teachers need to be involved with each other and use their voice.  Stand up and be the difference you want to see in your school.

Dan Cullen (@danielcullen74) and Barry Saide (@barrykid1) presented another session on leadership that demonstrated the importance of being vulnerable and engaging with others to facilitate change.  Leadership does not need to be contained in the realm of leading a campus or district.  Being a teacher leader encompasses so many more possibilities and options.  Every teacher has the opportunity to lead.  Whether or not you wish to be vulnerable enough to take up the mantle of leadership is up to us individually.  Some of the key ideas I took away from this session include:

  • Vulnerability in the classroom is about being all you, all in, all the time.
  • Vulnerability is uncomfortable but necessary.
  • Change agents have to embrace being vulnerable in order to be effective.
  • Let go of who you think you should be in order to be who you are.
  • “No” sometimes is just a slow yes. Sometimes “no” is “not yet.”
  • If it doesn’t work, get up, dust yourself off, and do it again. It’s what we want our kids to do, and it’s what we should expect ourselves to do.
  • Like being different.
  • Be an instigator and understand, you’re probably going to tick a few people off. That’s okay.
  • Leadership and collaboration on social media is not about the number of followers you have. It’s about the depth and positive nature of interactions.

Creating Reflective Scholars

Amanda Yoshida (@ayoshida22) gave some practical examples and solutions for helping to create reflective scholars out of the students coming into your room this August.  The importance of having students reflect on their learning has been shown to have one of the biggest impacts on student achievement that a teacher can facilitate in their room.  No student enters the classroom with a plan to fail.  Every student comes into each classroom each year with a desire to do well in class.  Ideas to help engage students in self-analysis include (I recommend looking each of these up on Pintrest):

  • Having students gauge their confidence and understanding of a topic on an assessment chart
  • Having the students fill in reflection and create a learning goal for the coming class
  • Fist to Five
  • Stop Light
  • Assess Yourself Line

These are just few examples of ways to get students to take ownership of where they are in the content and develop a plan on how to get where they want to be.  Every student can grow.  Instead of trying to force growth upon them like some kind of magical wall of knowledge, help them figure out where they are weak and have them create a plan to help themselves.

Closing Thoughts

Capping off the entire experience were the keynote addresses given by some highly motivational speakers.  Each speaker reminded me of why I got into the teaching profession; to help kids and to change the world.  Melinda Gates helped remind us all that teachers really are the agents of change we need for our students to grow.  Poverty is likely the biggest issue we must learn to overcome to create a generation of learners that will change the world.  William Anderson and Stefania Shaffer shared personal stories that, to be honest, moved hundreds of teachers to tears reminding us about the importance of what we do and the kind of difference we can make as teachers for our kids.  We don’t have to be about the numbers in order to be about the kids.  Vicki Phillips reminded us that teachers have the power to create the kind of change we so desperately need.  Policy makers should go to teachers because we are in the trenches and we know what is going on.  On the other side of that coin, however, we have to be willing to speak.

I left this experience ready to tackle another year.  I feel energized and empowered.  I am ready to take the lead and help show other teachers exactly what I felt in Seattle.  Let’s go be the difference.  Let’s go change the world.

Jeremy Wagner

2013 Texas State Teacher of the Year

8th Grade Science Teacher

@ScienceWagner

I owe a special thanks to Katherine Basset and the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (@NNSTOY) for my initial nomination to attend ECET2 and their continued support for teacher voice.  I also owe a special thanks to Monica Washington (@TexasTOY2014), the 2014 Texas State Teacher of the Year for helping make my nomination turn into a reality.

If you’d like to nominate a teacher you feel deserves to be a part of the ECET2 experience, go to the following link and fill out a nomination form.

 

 





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