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I have been very privileged this week to attend the national Elevating & Celebrating Effective Teaching & Teachers (ECET2 – pronounced “eeset two”) Conference. I have been inspired and rejuvenated by my various collaborative experiences with my fellow educators from around the country. But the 450 of us had a surprise treat at our morning general session on Thursday, when Melinda Gates sat down and chatted with us about teachers leading the way in education.
ECET2 evolved out of an idea from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that there should be an opportunity for teachers to gather and simply elevate and celebrate each other’s work. From that first ECET2 gathering only about three years ago, the teachers who attended went back to their home states and instigated local, regional, and statewide ECET2 gatherings. The energetic and organic expansion of the idea was unexpected but continues to be supported by the Foundation. The entire point is to gather together to celebrate effective teaching and teachers, and foster teacher leadership through collaboration.
Melinda Gates spent an hour with the attendees, participating in a chat with Vicki Phillips, the Director of Education, College Ready in the U.S. at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Gates began by describing her own education experience growing up in Texas and pursuing computer science as a woman in the 1980s. When asked why the Foundation focuses on education, she replied that she and Bill “firmly believe that all lives have value, and we get frustrated that the world doesn’t behave that way.” They call themselves “impatient optimists,” and wanted to focus the Foundation where that value is most meaningful. Worldwide, that meant heath issues. In the United States, that meant education:
“If you look at the potential of our nation, it comes down to the education of our children.” “But,” she continued, “the national conversation about education and teaching is so discouraging. I think that is unfair because pliticians think about what can be done to teachers and classrooms, when it is teachers who know what is best. Teachers need to be seen as leaders.”
Melinda Gates spends hundreds of hours in classrooms, and has done so for years. She talked about a variety of visits she and her husband have made to schools over the years, and then discussed how the Foundation arrived at its current focus on elevating teachers. “We are learners too – when we started, we thought the answer was small schools. But what we discovered was that while in many cases small schools did help – it truly was the quality of teacher that made the difference for student success. So we pivoted from school size to teacher support.”
Gates listed the three issues the Foundation hears most from teachers:
1. The incessant crunch for time teachers experience;
2. How teachers feel so isolated and siloed in their classrooms; and
3. Poverty - and how incredibly difficult it is to teach in schools and communities of poverty.
So the Foundation now asks: “how can professional development be relevant for teachers facing these issues?” Gates related how new experiments in teacher support are being piloted in Fresno, CA and Bridgeport, CT, where teachers get release time on Fridays to use for collaboration and planning while their classes are taught by the same “Friday teacher” each week. The “Friday teacher” works closely with the classroom teacher to create a supportive learning environment each week for the students that does not disrupt the class direction. Meanwhile, the classroom teacher has the opportunity to use that time to truly professionally develop his or her own practice. Rethinking professional development as collaborative time within the current schedule is the challenge being met with these experiments.
I deeply appreciate the way Melinda Gates spoke with us as professionals, and how the Foundation has recognized that teachers must lead the way in creating a new education future for American students. It is not often that educators attend a conference where the focus is on celebrating them and their work. It is even less often that teachers hear directly from people who affect policy in real and meaningful ways acknowledge that we are the ones who have the most important voices in the conversation about education.
Throughout the chat, Melinda Gates sprinkled her conversation with stories about her own family and her own experiences, but in the end returned to her theme and the theme of the conference. “It’s crazy that we don’t celebrate teachers in this nation. That has to change.”