In this open letter to teachers, I am restating my claim that teachers are the experts.  I urge teachers to talk with other teachers about their practice, and raise their voice about what they need to help their students learn.  I’m immensely thankful to have learned with andfrom so many teachers throughout my career, and I look forward to the next phase to continue to advance the goals that have marked my life. – Vicki Phillips, Director of Education, K-12 Education 

Raise Your Voice!

Miss Marjorie was the hardcore head teacher of McQuady Elementary, the grade school near where I grew up in Falls of Rough, Kentucky. She was the kind of teacher who would bop you on the head if you weren’t paying attention – back when we admired that kind of thing. She had a reputation for kids leaving knowing their stuff. When I came out of her 8thgrade English class, I could diagram any sentence you could write. She taught me hard work, courtesy, punctuality, how to treat my peers, how to respect my elders, and how to hold myself accountable. I owe her a lot.

But when I got to college, I didn’t have the skills I needed to succeed. I had learned the small mechanics, but not the big concepts. I learned how to follow directions, but I couldn’t find my way when I got lost.

This wasn’t Miss Marjorie’s fault. She had the intelligence and devotion to her students that every good teacher does. She worked with few resources to teach kids who had nothing, and she didn’t give an inch to anybody because they were poor. But she wasn’t supported with high standards or exciting lessons or helpful feedback. She had no time to talk to her peers about her practice. She was isolated, trying her best to be a solitary genius.

Miss Marjorie was a great person who would have been a phenomenal teacher, if she’d only had the support she needed.  That’s why when I was a superintendent and state secretary of education, I did everything I could to get teachers what they asked for. I saw many schools turn things around – not by changing teachers, but by changing the way they supported teachers.

That’s the passion and conviction I brought with me when I came to the Gates Foundation in 2007.  Bill and Melinda gave me and my team a year to talk to educators, review the research and propose the next iteration of our strategy. Our review confirmed what we all knew intuitively and what I knew from experience:  The most powerful in-school factor in student success is an effective teacher.

That became the core of our strategy, and it still is. In October, Bill said in a talk to the Education Learning Forum: “Here is our vision: Every student should be held to a high standard. Every student should have an effective teacher. Every teacher should have the tools and supports to be phenomenal.”

If you build your school on the belief that effective teaching is the most important thing, then teachers should have the most influential voice – because no one knows teaching like teachers.

This means teachers need to be empowered to speak up and say what they need — to curriculum designers, technology innovators, principals, superintendents, and school board members – and when teachers speak up, others need to listen. Teachers are the experts. They have the most informed view of what works in the classroom.

That’s why it’s crucial that teachers should also speak up to each other. When we’re discussing the most important question in education, ‘how do we help our kids do better?’ – teachers need to be talking to teachers.

Unfortunately, many schools still don’t give teachers time to swap ideas and solve problems, but this is changing. A few years ago, my team and I saw how quickly teachers can form a community. We brought together teachers from around the country to design new tools for teaching reading and writing. (This effort later turned into the Literacy Design Collaborative). These teachers had never met before — but after only a day together, they were like classmates at a reunion. They bonded instantly over stories about the kid who came alive or the tool that turned the class around.

We were awed by their energy and looked for ways to light that fire for every teacher. We started supporting teacher networks and saw firsthand the power of what happens when teachers get together.  Our inaugural meeting of ECET2 (Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers) brought together 300 teachers who were dying to talk to each other. They talked about their best days and their worst days, their successes and failures, and we all saw the same thing:  when you bring a large number of teachers into a small space – you see an explosion of creativity, community and joy. When the teachers left that conference, they were not going back into isolation. ECEThas now had more than 20,000 teachers attend a convening.

Once teachers get the feeling of being on a team, they find ways to create communities across the hall or across the country. This improves their teaching because the best answers to tough questions come from other teachers. One teacher asked her network, “How can I teach my kids to write when they hate to write?”  Her group suggested, ‘tell your kids to pick their favorite topic, find some bloggers to follow as mentors, and then write a blog.’ It worked.  The kids learned to write when they liked what they were writing about.

When you ask teachers for help and they offer ideas, they’re going to ask you: “Did you try it? How did it go?” They won’t let you get scared and back down. That’s the power of a professional community, and it’s changing the field of professional development. School districts have been spending billions of dollars sending their teachers to ‘experts’ who teach the same thing to teachers no matter what they need or want to know. But teachers don’t want that old style professional development anymore. They want more time with the experts they trust most — other teachers.

Teachers have told me over and over that the best way to support teachers is to give them more time to learn from each other, and make sure there are ways for master teachers to move up in their career without moving out of the classroom. Teaching is a complex art, and a great teacher is a precious national asset. When someone wants to devote her life to mastering this art and sharing it with colleagues, we ought to create a career path that lets it happen.

When teachers are given what they need and schools are designed with the insights of the people who teach inside them, then our kids can get everything they need to do anything they want.  This is not a dream. It’s happening.  Even in the poorest places in the country, teachers are speaking up, supporting each other, and getting the tools and feedback that help their kids do well.

Last month I went with Bill and Melinda to see some schools in Appalachia just a few hours’ drive from where I grew up. We visited Betsy Layne High School in Floyd County, which used to be one of the lowest performing counties in Kentucky and is now one of the highest. The teachers we met were teaching to high standards, they were using LDC/MDC, and they were involved in peer coaching. They were a community – sitting in on each other’s classes, discussing their kids, trying new things.

When we asked them about teaching poor kids, they said:  “Our kids deserve high standards like any kids. Whatever it takes is what we have to do.”  They were so open about what worked for them and who they learned from. They didn’t care who had an idea first. They didn’t mind if an older teacher was learning from a younger teacher.  All they cared about was: “Does it work for kids?” The sense of community among the teachers was so strong we got pulled into it. When we left, we were leaning out of the car windows waving goodbye.

That was my final school visit as Director of K-12 Education. It was a fitting end to my time at the foundation.  We saw a tight community of teachers supported with high standards, great tools and meaningful feedback – determined to help every kid succeed and every teacher get better.  That’s what it takes.  That’s how Betsy Lane became an above average high school in a region with no history of that. It wasn’t a stroke of luck or just their terrific principal. It came from a combination of holding kids to high standards; of teachers committed to being their best by embracing a system of fair evaluation and meaningful feedback; and from the smart use of resources that teachers should be able to get anywhere.

So raise your voice. Ask for what you need. You are the experts. Everyone has an opinion; you have the facts. Everyone’s talking; you know what’s working. Speak up. When the history of schools is written, let them write that these years were marked by a rally in student achievement sparked by a rise in the teachers’ voice.

I’m going to keep working with you to create that history. I’m leaving the foundation, but I’m not leaving the field.  I have no plan to set down the duties of a lifetime as our aims are coming into view.  I will keep working to advance the goals that have marked my life.

Thank you for the honor of working with you. I look forward to the next phase.

You’ll be hearing from me.

Onward!

Vicki Phillips