NSEA Grows Innovation, Leadership

LEARN Aids Teachers in Pushing Change in Education

When Ogallala teachers reviewed the district’s most recent Nebraska State Accountability (NeSA) test reading scores, they knew change was needed.

“We looked at our scores and knew that they were lower than we would like them to be,” said Ogallala librarian and reading specialist Nancy Armstrong.

But how to raise those scores?

“Our kids are already in school six to seven hours a day. How do we get them to increase their outside reading? What can we do to be teachers of the pleasure of reading?” she asked.

Who better to lead the change than teachers? With the help of a new NSEA initiative, Armstrong’s five-member team believes they have initial answers to those questions. Along with eight other teams from across the state, they met in Kearney in December for NSEA’s first Powered by Teach to Lead Teacher Leadership Conference.

Using a model developed largely by NSEA Executive Director Maddie Fennell while she worked for the U.S. Department of Education three years ago, attendees arrived in search of solutions to education-related problems.

In a facilitated process, teams honed the problem they hoped to solve. They then developed outcomes, measures and impact; listed inputs and activities; and wrote a brief rationale – the approach each team will take to “sell” their solution to other stakeholders as they move their plan to implementation. The plans will ultimately improve education opportunities for kids and also thrust teachers into leadership roles as they develop curriculum, practice and policy.

Sound reasoning supports the leadership component. NSEA President Jenni Benson told conferees that early in her 30-year teaching career she was “always excited to go listen to experts.”
“But my career taught me that teachers are the experts,” she said.

Fennell said Powered by Teach to Lead puts teachers at the table in leading educational innovation and policy.

“If teachers are not at the education policy table, even with the best of intentions, that policy can be flawed,” she said.

 ‘This Work is Inspiring’

A team of past Nebraska Teachers of the Year worked on plans they hope will improve teacher evaluation. Embedded in that team was Norris Public Schools Superintendent John Skretta. At day’s end, he was ready to take home and use some of the ideas generated.

“The authenticity and professionalism of the conversations in this room today are reflective of the commitment these teacher leaders and school board members and other stakeholders bring to the table,” he said. “This work is inspiring.”

Near the back of the room, a team from the Tekamah-Herman Public Schools wrestled with a community-wide issue. The five team members set a goal “to engage our communities, enhance school pride and develop resiliency.”

By the end of the day, plan components included academic pep rallies, a student of the month series, classroom of the week series, creation of a student advisory board and implementation of a “Monday Mindset” throughout the district.

Linda Richards is a 22-year member of the Ralston Board of Education and immediate past president of the Nebraska Association of School Boards. She advised one team and applauded all teams.

“The work you put in today is going to make an immense difference in the lives of our students well into the future,” she said.

 Teachers Should be Talking

Facilitating was Tami Fitzgerald, a Sandusky, OH, physics and science teacher. She is director of Outreach and Engagement for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

“The people who should be talking about what is going on in the classrooms are the teachers,” she said.

Now, teachers have done just that through Powered by Teach to Lead in 48 states. The program has 180 supporting organizations, including NEA, AFT, administrator groups and more. A grant from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska funded the NSEA event.

 ‘Empower Students’

When the day was done, the Ogallala team had defined the problem in four words: Less emphasis on reading. The team set a goal to “increase reading experiences to engage, motivate, connect and build a system of supporter for students (PreK-5) and their families.”

Among their ideas: create a Million Word Club; host read-aloud sessions in the school library during the intermission between boy-girl doubleheader basketball games; arrange a Read-a-Thon with community readers; and hold a Family Literacy Night to show parents the best new tools and ideas in reading.

“These are all things we can do within the school and also do to assist parents,” said Armstrong.

The Ogallala team’s final impact statement was encouraging and inspiring: “If a culture of reading exists at OPSD and throughout our school, homes and community, then we will empower students to become lifelong readers and leaders.”

“Isn’t that what we all want?” said Armstrong.