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Virginia Journal of Education

They’ve Got Our Backs

Association members are serving on several statewide policymaking committees.

By Tom Allen

When you’re good at something, it’s only natural to want to share your hard-won expertise with others who may benefit from it. That outlook is an essential part of being a classroom teacher, and most get to share their skills with groups of students every day. Not nearly as many teachers get regular opportunities to make their knowledge and experience felt on a larger scale.

Some, however, are getting that chance.

A handful of educators from around Virginia have stepped beyond their school buildings and are having far-reaching impacts as members of a variety of statewide advisory committees formed by the Virginia Department of Education and Governor Terry McAuliffe.

One such educator is Selena Dickey of the Fauquier Education Association, who has just begun serving on ABTEL (the Advisory Board for Teacher Education and Licensure). “This is definitely a new side of education for me, and it’s been important in expanding my role as an educator,” she says.

ABTEL’s role is to offer advice and recommendations about licensing and regulating teachers in areas including qualifications; tests; revocation, suspension, reinstatement and renewals of licensure; standards for preparation programs; and other related matters.

“When I considered my own education and licensure process, I realized I went a very traditional route. I took the classes I was supposed to take during my undergraduate years, showed up for the PRAXIS, and then got a nice, shiny license in the mail. I took for granted that it was an easy process,” Dickey says, “and it’s not—at least it’s not for everyone. I’m pleased to be playing even a small role in helping current and future teachers. I’ve been teaching for a while, but this is the first time I’ve been involved in the decision-making end of it.”

Some statewide committee members have very specific goals. “I hope to represent rural school divisions and their gifted populations at the state level,” says Melissa Powers of the Brunswick Education Association, who’s in her third year on the Virginia Advisory Committee for the Education of the Gifted. “It’s important for me to serve my students and represent their interests at a higher level.”

Karen Cross of the Bristol Virginia Education Association is on the Standards of Learning Innovation Committee, a group created by Gov. McAuliffe in 2014, and she is shooting for clear progress in the state’s approach to testing. “I advocate for reducing the number of standardized tests to the minimum required by federal law,” says Cross, “and I encourage our accountability system to move in the direction of student growth and performance-based assessments, possibly using a portfolio-type system. The current system does little to help teachers improve student learning, and no college, business or branch of the military uses SOL scores for admissions or hiring.”

Another ABTEL appointee, Nancy Welch, a member of the Mathews County Education Association and the county’s superintendent, believes every committee member brings a unique perspective. “I’m a great proponent of career and technical education opportunities,” she says, “but find the traditional licensing regulations hinder developing a varied local CTE program, especially in small school divisions like Mathews County.”

Educators on statewide committees say they easily gain at least as much from their service as they give, too. “I’ve been able to meet some amazing people and learn great things that will help me in the future,” says Alison MacArthur, a Loudoun Education Association member who’s served for five years on the State Special Education Advisory Committee (SSEAC). She’s also part of the committee’s Aspiring Special Education Leadership Academy, with an eye on building her leadership skills for an eventual administrative position.

“It’s very important to be there as we discuss special education programs and changes,” MacArthur says of her SSEAC work. “It’s been amazing to work with so many parents and to better understand issues they face with special education, and I’ve also been able to have input about new state regulations in important areas like restraint and seclusion.”

Dickey is gaining valuable insights as a committee rookie, too. “I’ve learned so much about the Every Student Succeeds Act, for example,” she says. “That information alone is so valuable, and it was something I was able to take back to my colleagues.”

To a person, VEA members on statewide committees say that one of the most compelling reasons for doing the work they’re doing is the chance to give front-line educators a say in policymaking, an arena often dominated by people not working in classrooms, and some who may never have done so.

“The SOL Innovation Committee is a diverse group,” says Bristol’s Cross. “There are superintendents, a pediatrician, a social worker, a Chamber of Commerce employee, school board members, a parent, college professors, several Delegates and Senators, and more. But only a few of us are actually current classroom teachers. I feel a strong responsibility.”

So does Jennifer Andrews of the Henrico Education Association. “I hope to represent the voice of teachers on ABTEL,” she says. “I pay attention to detail and am not afraid to speak up, which is important in dealing with teacher education and licensure.”

Because what happens in meeting rooms in Richmond affects classrooms across the state, “teachers and other stakeholders should have a voice in decisions made by the State Board of Education and legislature,” says Lesleye Williams of the Prince William Education Association, who offers that voice as an ABTEL member, a group on which VEA President Jim Livingston also serves.

Having teachers from a variety of classroom settings represented is essential, too, says Tracey Mercier of the Bristol Virginia Education Association, also an ABTEL member. “Teaching in a high-poverty school affords me experience that many don’t have,” she says. “When discussing policy, it’s easy for some to presume that students are having their needs met on a daily basis. The reality is, though, that many are not. As we look at issues in challenging schools, it’s vital to the success of whatever we do to have someone on the committee who works in one.”

Charletta Williams of the Education Association of Norfolk sums up her ABTEL role this way: “As a fourth grade teacher, my first priority is to listen to the needs of my fellow educators and to have open conversations. Through the work of this committee, I hope I can help make a difference for educators throughout the state.”

VEA members serving on statewide education policy committees also see doing such work as a natural extension of their Association affiliation.

“Being a VEA member is crucial to my success on ABTEL,” says Henrico’s Andrews. “I feel I’m a better prepared teacher because of my membership and know more about current issues and legislation, like ESSA, than educators who are not members of VEA.”

MacArthur, of Loudoun, points to the communication advantages she’s able to use as part of the Association. “I’m able to reach out to members across the state and learn about their special education issues and concerns,” she says. “I can then share those concerns in SSEAC’s constituency report.”

Information is power, says Bristol’s Mercier, and the Association provides both: “VEA keeps me on the forefront of public education issues, and that empowers me to competently advocate for my colleagues and for students.”

“VEA has been a support system for me and for many other educators throughout our careers,” says Welch, of Mathews County, an ABTEL member. “At its core, VEA is about commitment to the betterment of public education. Obviously, this includes teacher education and licensure and, as we create opportunities in those areas, we’re essentially creating opportunities for our children. We do what we do for children—it really is that simple.”

For many educators on statewide committees, such service has provided a welcome avenue for deeper involvement in the profession they chose. “This is my 26th year of teaching,” says Bristol’s Cross. “I’ve dedicated my life to public education, because I believe public education is how our democracy survives and thrives. Teaching is my passion; it’s who I am. I’ll always advocate and fight for Virginia’s children and educators.”

Allen is the editor of the Virginia Journal of Education.


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