Giving voice to teachers is a primary goal of the Rural Schools Collaborative, an aim that is shared by Hope Street Group's National Teacher Fellows Program. We were honored to join Hope Street Group and their Teacher Fellows at their 2016 From the Classroom to the Capitol Convening in Chicago on September 9 &10. We particularly enjoyed the opportunity to visit with several Fellows who teach in small schools and live in rural communities.
The Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellows Program is a highly competitive opportunity for classroom teachers and school instructional coaches from across the country to engage in the formulation of educational policy. Fellows receive training and support in the areas of peer facilitation, social marketing, and public advocacy. In essence, the Fellows serve as Hope Street Group ambassadors for teacher-driven change in American education.
In addition to the National Teacher Fellows program, Hope Street Group sponsors State Teacher Fellows Programs in Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and Hawaii. Ultimately, both the national and state initiatives are designed to give teacher-leaders a stronger voice in educational policy recommendations and on how to implement mandated changes.
Brad Clark, state coordinator for the Kentucky State Teacher Fellows Program, facilitated the conversation between Hope Street Group, the Rural Schools Collaborative, and selected "rural" Fellows. Brad's guiding questions included:
- How have building relationships with teachers across the state and across multiple states impacted your ability to share problems facing rural schools?
- How has your ability to problem solve been impacted by an increasingly larger network of solutions-oriented peers?
- Please speak to the impact of the professional learning you have received as a result of being a Fellow on your ability to lead your peers; specifically focus on your school, your district or your region.
- Given your experiences and applicable training, how could a specific program focused on a rural community/region enhance the classroom experience for both teachers and students? We ask you to think big and bold on this question.
- What are the opportunities to address the often complex and multi-layered social problems of that community through the fellowship program?
Brad's questions are instructive on their own, but the Fellows' responses shed even greater insight on how rural teacher-leaders view themselves and their respective roles in their communities. For instance, the teachers believed that the Program's focus on relationship building had enabled them to share commonalities, explore professional development solutions with a local impact, and to network from what are often perceived as isolated rural places. Reflecting on the importance of networking a rural Hawaii teacher noted, "Nobody else on my island does what I do."
Hope Street Group's Professional Learning Network (PLN) approach was also lauded for its relevance. Fellows commented specifically on how PLN addressed isolation, validated their chosen profession, and enhanced their credibility both locally and regionally. One teacher stated, "This has allowed me to see the variance or differences in different or even neighboring rural areas."
The Fellows were also eager to share insights on how the program had strengthened their positions as both professional and community leaders, giving them confidence as networkers, facilitators, and teacher-leaders. Said one Fellow, "I have been engaged with community and regional leaders because of my role as a Fellow."
Ultimately, the conversation illustrated how Hope Street Group's "Teacher Fellow" model can play a valuable role in building a network of teacher-leaders for rural communities. The program not only has the potential to elevate the status of rural teachers, but it creates a visible group of professionals whose work and enthusiasm will enhance the recruitment, preparation and retention of future rural teacher-leaders.
With An Eye to the Future
The Teacher Fellow effort dovetails perfectly with the Rural Schools Collaborative's intentional work to develop a Rural Teacher Corps movement. The Rural Teacher Corps Project: Stakeholder Dialogue, held in June at Dakota Wesleyan University, specifically recommended that we should "Develop a Network of Positive Role Models to Encourage People to Become Rural Teachers." This recommendation was Priority A in response to the question, "How Do We Work Together to Bolster the Recruitment of Future Rural Teacher-Leaders." Not only would an identifiable group of rural teaching ambassadors serve as exemplars, but they would help to "reframe the rural narrative, emphasizing the positive aspects of the rural experience."
As one Stakeholder Dialogue attendee exclaimed: "Teachers need to become their most important spokespeople!"
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