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Raising teacher, student voice

Most stakeholders if asked about the importance of educator and student voice in the larger decision-making landscape would say both play an important role in driving meaningful change.

But talk to some teachers, and you may hear that they feel like their voices -- and the voices of their students -- are missing from big-picture conversations.

SmartBrief Education’s annual Educators’ Choice Content Award winners, Mary Tarashuk and Barbara Blackburn, recently joined us for an Education Talk Radio interview to discuss educator and student voice. Take a look below at some of their answers, edited for length and clarity, or listen to the full interview.

Q. What role/s can educators play in driving meaningful change in education?

Barbara Blackburn: I passionately believe that teachers already are making a real change. They are making changes with individual students; it just doesn’t always feel that way. We can build on that by continuing to look at what is best for students and making those changes in the classroom. And on top of that, making sure that we are sharing those conversations and those ideas, whether it’s through a discussion in your school, going to another school and presenting information or writing an article. What is most powerful is when teachers learn from other teachers, and too often we don’t encourage that in teachers.

Mary Tarashuk: One of the many blessings are the moments where I see where the ripples have gone. We don’t always see the change, but those moments when the kids from years past, or the families from years past, come back and share that ripple effect [with you], it’s just such a gift. Teachers sharing with other teachers is how changes occur. When I talk to other educators and share what I am doing, I can’t explain how much that helps drive the changes in my own practice. I want to share everything, but the time factor always gets me. The internet and technology have made it easier to see what’s out there and to share it beyond the walls of my own school, where most of the time is spent with students and not colleagues.

Q. Who is the “we” in your statement that “we don’t encourage teachers to share enough”?

Barbara Blackburn: I would go back to the system. I see the system working against it [teachers sharing with teachers]. We don’t allow teachers time to meet with each other and share; we have a faculty meeting where information is shared that could be put out in a memo; it’s not teachers sharing. The concept of being able to go visit another teacher’s classroom and then talk about it, there’s never time for that and there’s certainly not time to go visit another school. What I find is that teachers sort of create their own way of doing that, whether it’s through Twitter, Facebook or a blog, but if you're not in a school where the principal really values this, and to some degree if you’re not in a district that does that, there’s not time, and that I why I say I think the system doesn’t encourage it.

I want a culture that not only says it’s safe to share; you’re not going to be embarrassed for it, but it is celebrated. And as much as I would like to see some kind of financial compensation, I think just the fact that a principal recognizes somebody and says: “This person just wrote an article on rigor, and it was accepted by MiddleWeb, and that’s really great, and so I posted it on the faculty bulletin board so you can all see it.” I was working with one school where they were doing Paws for Praise and they gave them to students, and in addition the principal created a different color Paws for Praise and put them at faculty boxes with pens to encourage teachers to celebrate what other teachers were doing. Those are the types of things that when we talk about systematically encouraging sharing.

Q. How have you helped raise your voice as an educator -- or the voices of other educators -- in the field?

Mary Tarashuk: I’ve always been a sharer. When I come up with something new or artistic, I give it to everybody in case they want to try it. It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet: Try it; if you like it, make it your own. The thing that started to take me from being Mary in a fourth-grade classroom in Westfield, N.J., to a voice out there speaking to a larger teacher audience was the Walking Classroom project because  I was writing about what we were doing, and it grew from there. I feel like I’ve been exposed to so much that I was unaware was even out there, and as a teacher and a life-long learner that’s a beautiful thing to have.

Barbara Blackburn: I feel like many, many teachers don’t feel like they have a voice, particularly when it comes to big decisions being made like policy decisions about evaluation and testing. They feel like they are not being heard. And if your area is anything like mine, all of the articles coming out in the newspapers are negative. You’re not getting the stories about: This teacher made a difference with this kid. We’re not hearing those stories. I think that part of teacher voice is not being heard, particularly in the media and with parents. I think that voice about what we experience and positives of what we experience is really important. I think our voice has to be more than just sharing our teaching experience; it has to be sharing about what’s positive to those stakeholders who are out there -- outside of our building -- so they can understand what our needs are and why they are important.

Q. Some of the the strongest educator voices are those that also recognize and celebrate the importance of student voice. How can students also be meaningful change agents in education?

Barbara Blackburn: The beginnings of advocacy started when I was teaching struggling students. One of the first challenges I had [when teaching students who were performing below grade level] was that they didn’t like the textbook, and I assumed that it was because it was too hard, but that wasn’t the case. They didn’t like the textbook because it was green. The “regular” students and those in advanced classes all carried blue textbooks so if you carried a green one, everybody knew you were in what they called the dumb class. I went to the principal and said we had to fix it. I turned a negative into a positive. I listened to their voice and then shared it because they didn’t feel like they had a voice.

I think there are more opportunities [for students to share their voices] today because we focus on that. When I was teaching we didn’t really talk about student voice, but we do more of that today. I see it schools, whether it’s a focus on students voice, personalized learning, differentiation. But there are still places where it doesn’t happen, and I think there are still groups of students that have less voice and I think those are the ones we would think of as being disenfranchised, whether they are students with special needs, second language learners, children from poverty or students who are struggling and at risk.

There are some voice that are not heard as well as others. How do we change that? I think sometimes we don’t understand those voices as well. Sometimes if these disenfranchised groups speak up they are tagged as disrespectful. I do think it starts with the teachers because they have to encourage an open climate in their classroom and I also think it’s important. One solution might be in the teacher had a mailbox and students could put letters in there.

Mary Tarashuk: The consumers have a voice no matter what age. For example, we have block scheduling, and this year, we do math in the afternoon. One day I made a comment like “math in the afternoon, sometimes I have to wake myself up, and they all went: “Yeah, can we do it in the morning instead”? I checked with the principal, we changed it and it was there voice -- that was the change. If we teach them how to advocate  for themselves and their peers and for what’s right, then that skill of being able to do that will transfer into their adulthood and they can collaborate and do all the good things we seeing happening today in education.

Listen to the full interview.

SmartBrief will honor Barbara Blackburn and Mary Tarashuk during a reception at ASCD’s annual conference held in Anaheim, Calif., March 25-27.

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