By Richard Wilson

Since the time of Aesop, there has been some version of the old proverb about necessity being the mother of invention. If that is true, this school year will certainly be fertile ground for innovation and reinvention of the ways that our schools operate. Hopefully, we can take hold of the opportunity for teachers to take the lead and create schools that better serve our students and communities.

One of the main reasons educators were able to pivot to the virtual world in March 2020 was because colleagues worked together to share their knowledge and skills with others, creating networks of teacher leaders all over the state. Throughout the pandemic, pop-up professional development, both formal and informal, grew all around the state.

For the first time, many school districts scheduled time into the work day for teachers to work together to solve the problems that were confronting them. NJEA has advocated for years for this model of sustained, job-embedded professional learning, and there is no reason why we should turn back from this model as we move back into our school buildings. There is every reason for teachers to lead with innovation to make our schools better centers of learning than they have ever been before.

Some opportunities for leveraging the influence of teachers are actually spelled out in new laws. The American Rescue Plan, which provides increased emergency funding through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER), requires school districts to solicit meaningful stakeholder engagement. Listed stakeholders include teachers, other educators, school staff and their unions. Teachers interested in influencing the use of these funds should work with their local association to have a seat at the table as these decisions are being made.

As we physically move back into our schools, educators are in a position to create classrooms that are spaces of health and healing, especially considering the traumatic experiences we have all shared in the last 18 months. It will be teachers and other school personnel who will notice those students struggling with the challenges of transitioning back to in-person learning. Those educators will be on the front lines creating the reassuring classroom culture necessary for those students to succeed.

Teachers and front-line educators can also take the lead on ensuring equity for our students as they return to schools. The Community Cultural Wealth (CCW) framework and inclusive curriculum offer opportunities for educators to reframe our schools in a way that centers on students in a more authentic way. CCW is a model that recognizes the strengths of traditionally marginalized communities to survive and thrive in spite of societal roadblocks. If this is a new concept for you, the NJEA Professional Development Division has scheduled a number of professional learning sessions throughout the state this year to help members become familiar with this useful tool. You can find out more at learning.njea.org.

Students returning to traditional schooling this fall will exhibit an even greater variation in academic skills than in a typical year. The opportunity here is for educators to rethink the process of assessment and instruction. Teachers can lead the way in developing authentic assessments with their colleagues to more accurately measure students’ learning needs and plan appropriately for instruction. Once again, it is those who are closest to students who will best be able to address the needs of those students.

During the pandemic, educators found themselves virtually placed in the middle of their students’ households. There were expectations for family supports that had not existed before, and in many cases, this meant building closer relationships with families. Finding ways to continue those partnerships is yet another opportunity open to us in moving forward.

This moment offers a great deal of opportunity to reimagine and reinvent schools. That reinvention should envisage schools in which teachers and other school staff can work individually and collectively to influence the school community on instruction that improves student learning.

If you find yourself supporting and leading colleagues in any of these efforts moving forward, you just might be a good candidate for the NJEA Teacher Leader Academy, a New Jersey Department of Education approved program leading candidates to the New Jersey Teacher Leader Endorsement. Now in the middle of its second year, applications are open for a third cohort that will open in March 2022. More information can be found at njea.org/tla.

Richard Wilson is an associate director in the NJEA Professional Development and Instructional Issues Division. He is currently on special assignment to assist in the development of the NJEA Teacher Leader Academy. He can be reached at rwilson@njea.org.

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