Hello From the Other Side

Hello From the Other Side

By Maddie Fennell

For the past three years I’ve been a teacher serving in a bit different setting. I’ve worked for the U.S. Department of Education (ED) as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow (TAF) and a Teacher Leader in Residence. Next week I begin a new journey as a Teacher Fellow with the National Education Association. Before moving on—and while I can still remember what it feels like to work for ED—I want to share a few things I’ve learned.

Don’t put education policy on a pedestal. Policy is written by people who have a specific point of view. Though they may have read research that you haven’t, they do nPolicy is writtenot know more about the challenges in education than you do.

Policy writing is not always backed up by mountains of expertise, and it should not be written in a secret language that cannot be shared with teachers. It’s all about working collaboratively to make sure that multiple perspectives are considered. As an educator, do not be afraid to examine proposed policies or offer your perspective. Your voice needs to be part of policy development to prevent a misunderstanding or—even worse--an implementation gap (a void between what is written and the reality of the classroom).

Don’t confuse your frustration with bureaucracy with the people who work in it. Before working in Washington, D.C., I believed that the people at ED must really hate kids, teachers and public schools. I based this exclusively on my experience with the negative impact of so many policies in my classroom.

I was wrong. There are great, smart people who work at ED for the sole purpose of improving public schools. Often looking through a civil rights lens, they want a better system for their own kids and for my students too. I don’t always agree with what they are doing, but it was rare that I met someone whose motivations were questionable.

When you think you’ve said something enough, say it five more times. I learned this from fellow TAF Lisa Clarke. The bigger a system gets, the harder it is for an insight or truth to permeate the layers of bureaucracy and make a difference. As TAFs it was our job to share from our teaching experience and from what we heard in the field. Sometimes our message was totally the opposite of what the folks at ED wanted to hear (i.e., Using student test scores as a significant part of teacherThe bigger a system is evaluations is harming the profession!). So we had to share over and over, with new people, in different forms, bringing unique examples. We knew we were onto something when another person began to support and share our perspective!

Too many decisions are made on a political timeline instead of a realistic one. The folks in Washington, D.C. and your state government are working against the clock, trying to get everything done before their tenure in power runs out. All too often, the pressure that determines the timing of an important new initiative ultimately becomes the force that kills it.

It’s been said that culture eats policy for breakfast; you can mandate policy on a political timeline but rarely does this make a meaningful, positive, lasting change in the culture of schools. If the federal government and states had only given teachers the time and materials to really understand the Common Core deeply before focusing on assessment and teacher evaluation, the CCSS wouldn’t be on life support in so many schools and states.

There aren’t enough career educator voices in government. There are a LOT of great people at ED, but there aren’t enough career teachers. There are hundreds of thousands of educators in classrooms who are eager to see education transformed. (We’ve had over 1,000 of them attend Teach to Lead conferences.)  We need those people to make an impact in legislative offices and policy shops.

More career educators need to apply for fellowships, internships, and experiences that put them in dialogue with policymakers. Teacher leaders need to spend time lobbying and meeting with state legislators and policymakers, insisting that educators have a genuine place at the table. I met one teacher who volunteered as a summer intern (something you usually only see students do); she learned a lot about policy and she was a valued voice at the table.

When I started at ED as a TAF I thought my one one-year involvement might allow me to add policy knowledge to my teacher leader toolkit.  As I leave three years later, I’m grateful for the colleagues I have had the opportunity to work with and the incredible learning journey I experienced as one of the #TeachersatED.


Maddie Fennell is the 2007 Nebraska State Teacher of the Year and a Member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. This year Fennell will be on loan from Omaha Public Schools to work as a Teacher Fellow with the National Education Association. You can follow Fennell on Twitter @maddief.

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