Your career has allowed you to approach education from a variety of aspects, from classroom teaching to higher education and now state government. How have these experiences shaped your understanding of how to provide the best education for the students of Tennessee?
I was a teacher of teachers for more than a decade, and I just celebrated my one-year anniversary as the commissioner of education, but I still believe being a classroom teacher was the hardest job I’ve had. I’ve had the privilege of exploring K-12 education from multiple angles, and the common thread that I believe we need to strengthen is alignment to postsecondary expectations for students.
The demands of the real world are changing, and we’re preparing our students for a world that is not yet defined. We must approach K-12 education from both ends of the spectrum, focusing on both how we effectively prepare our K-12 students for postsecondary education and jobs, as well as how our teacher preparation programs are preparing pre-service teachers to enter the classroom as learner-ready teachers.
While every state has its unique set of opportunities and challenges within its education system, teacher voice is always critical. How would you describe the current landscape of teacher leadership in Tennessee?
We know that teachers have the single biggest impact on our students, and it is our responsibility to help districts and schools grow and cultivate their talents. Tennessee has an incredibly talented teacher workforce, and in recent years, we have seen more educators take on leadership roles. One experience we’ve seen empower hundreds, if not thousands of teachers, is peer-to-peer training. When teachers facilitated summer trainings, not only did attendance soar, but the department had the opportunity to train and coach hundreds of high performing educators and build a network of teacher leaders across the state.
We’re also benefitting from more partner organizations joining our work in Tennessee. Opportunities such as the Hope Street Group’s fellows program not only benefit individual teachers, they also foster this culture of teacher leadership.
How do you see TDOE’s partnership with Hope Street Group benefiting the teachers and students of Tennessee?
Our ability to change the lives of Tennessee students multiplies exponentially when all stakeholders are at the table. Just as our students need individual attention to strengthen skills and grow, our teachers need the same. Hope Street Group provides teachers with an outlet to receive tailored training and development. Additionally, it gives teachers the opportunity to connect with other teachers and building meaningful professional networks outside their own schools and districts. It was encouraging to see how the fellows systematically gathered feedback from an even broader network of teachers through their data collection. It’s a powerful way for teachers to engage in reflective discussions and collectively lift their voices.
I appreciated the opportunity to engage directly with some of the fellows and hear about what issues resonated with them. As a department, we’re committed to creating ways for teacher input to inform our work, and the Hope Street Group partnership is a valued partner in our efforts to connect with teachers.
Hope Street Group strongly believes that a cross-sector approach is key to addressing social issues whether in education, health or jobs. As you partner with the Tennessee Education Association and SCORE with this work, in what ways do you see Tennessee employing this approach and in which areas would you like to see further alignment?
We’re fortunate in Tennessee to have an educational landscape with many stakeholders focused on supporting teachers to effectively prepare students for their future. We regularly work to build relationships with partner organizations that provide unique perspectives and opportunities. Additionally, the cross-sector approach will be a critical component of our Drive to 55 initiative, which is our commitment to have 55% of adults and high school graduates in Tennessee earn a postsecondary credential by the year 2020. Reaching this goal is critical to ensure we have a skilled workforce to strengthen our economy, as well as provide individuals opportunities to effectively support themselves and their families.
The cross-sector approach is particularly important as we closely examine workforce needs and tailor early postsecondary opportunities to meet those needs. For example, some of our team members recently visited Chester County High School which has received funding for a web design program. Through our pathways initiative, we were able to identify that this particular area of the state has a need for graduates with computer coding skills. By providing the students in this region the opportunity to develop these skills before graduation, we’re not only providing students with a highly marketable skillset, we’re also building a workforce that will strengthen the economy in that area. That’s just one example, but it illustrates how important it is for us to work across sectors to strengthen our state.