The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Teacher: I’ll ask a pilot how to fly a plane, not a CEO. Why won’t policymakers listen to educators?

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Back when the No Child Left Behind K-12 education law was being written some 15 years ago, the authors laid out an entire new accountability system for all public schools in the country without asking a single teacher for help. Since then, many teachers still feel that education policymakers pay them lip service at best and don’t really care — or trust — what they think about how to improve schools for all children. Here’s a post that speaks to this problem, by Ashley Lamb-Sinclair, the 2016 Kentucky Teacher of the Year.

Lamb-Sinclair is finishing up a sabbatical with the Kentucky Department of Education and returning to full time classroom teaching this fall. She teaches high school English and creative writing in Kentucky and authors the website. (Twitter handle: @AshleyLambS)

By Ashley Lamb-Sinclair

I’m a pretty relaxed flyer, and not in the annoying way that some people can be by bragging that they just love turbulence. Mostly, I say a quick prayer, close my eyes during takeoff and landing, and bury my face in a book while mentally checking out for the rest of the flight. It typically works.

But on a recent trip to Finland and the Hague for the Global Student Leaders Summit organized through a collaboration between the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), which runs the National Teacher of the Year Program, and EF Education First, I truly thought I was going to die. On the FinnAir flight to Helsinki from Chicago, we hit thunderstorms somewhere over Canada, and for two straight hours in the middle of the night, we endured the worst turbulence I have ever experienced. A woman across the aisle from me had a full blown panic attack, breathing into a paper bag and rocking back and forth. Someone behind me periodically screamed each time the plane bounced. A mother and small child unfortunate enough not to be seated next to each other held hands across the aisle while the child cried and gripped her blanket tight against her. Thunder cracked right outside the windows of the plane, lightning lit up the whole sky around us, and rain crashed hard against the metal exterior of the cabin. This time, it was nearly impossible to check out behind a book.

I prayed hard and wished I was safely back at home with my family. The only thing that kept me from totally breaking down was trust in the pilot. I thought, “He has trained for this and probably flown through worse. We will be okay because the pilot is an expert.”

Clearly, we made it through that storm because I am alive to tell the story. But since returning home from Finland and the Hague, I continue to replay those two hours in my mind. Not only because they were two of the most terrifying hours of my life (they were), but because of the trust I felt in the pilot to safely see us through the storm. The pilot was a stranger to me; I didn’t even see his face. Yet, I trusted the pilot’s expertise without question, even when it was life or death.

While in Finland, we spoke to Finnish teachers, professors, business leaders, and students and the mantra we heard over and over again was that the Finnish people trusted teachers wholeheartedly. In fact, 90 percent of Finnish people trust the education system more than any other public institution. In a similar survey conducted by Gallup, only 29 percent of Americans feel “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the American education system, a new low since the survey began in 1973. The most trusted U.S. institution? The military (75 percent).

The Finnish people have a reason to trust teachers. Teacher prep programs are highly competitive, and teachers attain professional benefits that American teachers could only dream of — complete autonomy in the classroom, time to plan and collaborate with colleagues during the school day, uncontested competitive salaries, and comprehensive benefits.

And while the Finnish government does provide social supports — monthly stipends for families with children, universal healthcare, free education through graduate school — very few Finnish students struggle with poverty and therefore few Finnish teachers struggle with teaching students from poverty. And because only the best candidates become teachers, the general public respects teachers as highly skilled experts who have been trained as professionals.

In America, however, many people believe the old adage, “If you can’t do, teach.” Even when well-meaning people say to the educators they meet, “Oh, I could never do what you do, and good for you for following your calling,” they are perpetuating the narrative that teaching is not a skillful profession full of experts in their fields, but rather a service teachers render to better society out of the goodness of their hearts. It is difficult to imagine someone telling a pilot, “Good for you for following your calling.”

Immediately after returning from Finland, I attended a national conference on education policy with other teachers where we would interact with governors, education commissioners, university leaders, and legislators from each state as well as members of the U.S. Department of Education. Upon arrival, I and many of my fellow teachers, initially felt empowered. We were trusted and respected and had been given a seat at the table.

But as the conference progressed, many of us felt like only bystanders of education policy. One of my most respected colleagues said after the first day, “I just feel so out of place. I don’t think these policymakers want to hear what I have to say about education policy.”

Her comment struck me because how could a strong, effective classroom practitioner feel as if the decisions made about education at the highest level were beyond her realm of expertise? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? If I want to know how to best fly a plane, I will not ask the air traffic controllers or CEO of the airline. I will ask the pilot. It is difficult to imagine an airline conference where the pilots seem insignificant to the process of flying planes.

Obviously not all policymakers feel this way. In fact, I have firsthand experience of what a strong teacher-policy maker relationship can be. Kentucky’s commissioner of education, Stephen Pruitt, invited me to take a sabbatical and come work as Teacher in Residence at the Kentucky Department of Education last spring. He was new to the job and wanted my input, as well as wanted me to learn about education policy in our state. Pruitt has a keen understanding that to fly a plane, you need a pilot. The experience was invaluable for me, and (hopefully) helpful for him and the rest of the department.

During my time as Teacher in Residence, I worked with colleagues in the Hope Street Group Kentucky State Teacher Fellowship and the Collaborative for Student Success to develop a statewide education policy site, I helped initiate a campaign for legislator-teacher exchanges called #PolicyTogether and kickstart a teacher voice column called Courier Journal Classroom Connections in the largest newspaper in our state. Because Pruitt understood that education policy doesn’t happen without educators, I was able to work with my colleagues to create solutions for teachers and policy makers in Kentucky.

According to the Council of Chief State School Officers, 31 percent of education commissioners are brand new within the last 18 months, and 55 percent are new to the job within the last year. Currently, the individuals leading state education systems in the U.S. are new to their roles, while 56 percent of American teachers have over 10 years of experience. So while many state commissioners are learning the ropes, classroom teachers across the country have years of practical experience.

What would happen for education in all 56 states and territories if every education commissioner and other education policymakers took Pruitt’s lead and sought the leadership of classroom teachers across the United States? But they must first recognize, as the Finns have done so effectively, that the heart of a strong educational system is the teacher in the classroom.

Change is upon us with ESSA. There is a thunderstorm outside our window, and policymakers cannot simply check out behind a book. It will take skill, expertise, and practical experience to successfully come through on the other side. Skill and expertise that only classroom practitioners can share. They are the pilots, so ask them to fly the plane.

(Correction: Fixing number/percentage of education commissioners)