Point of View

Concrete next steps from Emerging Issues Forum on teacher excellence

February 19, 2014 

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    To learn more about the Emerging Issues Forum, the outcomes and how to participate, visit nando.com/emergingissues.

As I reflect upon this year’s Emerging Issues Forum, “Teachers and the Great Economic Debate,” the word “grit” keeps coming to mind.

As 1,300 people gathered to discuss the best ways for North Carolina to attract and retain world-class teachers in every classroom, we all had opportunity at points to grit our teeth as speakers offered very different perspectives. But participants rose to the occasion by demonstrating the grit it takes to overcome differences and find consensus on challenging issues.

Teacher quality affects student success, and student success boosts the economy through higher earnings. Now more than ever, North Carolina needs a greater focus on how the first step leads to the second, and the second to the third. These are our challenges of the early 21st century.

For 29 years, N.C. State University’s Institute for Emerging Issues has created a place for contested issues to be addressed by business, community, policy and academic leaders. This year’s forum might well have been the most heated because of the high emotions surrounding the topic of teachers. But it stands as a remarkable example of how we can work together across differences.

North Carolinians are eager to come together to discuss public issues if diverse ideas are presented and differences of opinion respected. This is true even if the topic is complex and potentially divisive.

Beyond a willingness to participate, North Carolinians find the opportunity to engage with one another on public issues deeply satisfying and significant. Perhaps Jennifer Rausch, a second-grade Wake County teacher, put it best: “I was leading conversations at my table and passing state representatives in the General Assembly and my N.C. State University professors in the hall, and I felt I was part of the conversation. This was the first time in six years of teaching that I’ve ever felt like that, and it was great.”

Some people might be tempted to dismiss these kinds of convenings as just talk, but over 90 percent of participants reported confidence that their time together resulted in agreed-to areas of strategic priority. I suspect a less diverse audience would not have arrived at this list in response to the question, “How can North Carolina offer a world-class teacher in every classroom – public, private or charter – in the state?”

• Rebrand teaching through a statewide campaign that attracts young people to the profession and helps the greater community understand the value of our teachers.

• Increase teacher competitiveness by enhancing entry-level requirements and tying compensation to multiple measures.

• Build career ladders that allow top teachers to stay in the classroom and reward teachers with differential pay for taking on leadership responsibilities such as coaching peers.

• Emulate the medical profession’s structure for establishing status by focusing on better training, standards and leadership opportunities.

• Develop 11-month contract options for teachers to allow for more effective talent development.

Of course, as a “think and do” tank, IEI is now on the clock. Forum participants returned to their communities with high hopes amid some healthy skepticism for the work ahead. Now IEI will harness the reach of technology to support the next steps – the “doing.” For the next eight weeks, we will provide a virtual space to refine ideas about the priorities, share promising efforts and launch local projects. The grit keeps going.

Anita R. Brown-Graham is director of the Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State University in Raleigh.

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