In the relentless swirl of public education policy, the voice belonging to the classroom teacher is one that must be heard. As those who enact policies that impact students in classrooms throughout Michigan, teachers know what works and what doesn’t. Teachers must be at the table.

The  Michigan State Teacher of the Year (MI-STOY) Network, comprised of state Teachers of the Year and finalists for the award, seeks to influence education policy decisions at the federal, state and local levels. Michigan has recognized these educators — who serve as advocates for the profession by visiting schools throughout the state and serving on the State Board of Education — every year since 1952.

They strive to offer opinions not only informed by metrics, but by years of practical classroom experience. They also seek to motivate all educators to pursue opportunities to share the reality of their daily life in the classroom so they may inform decision-making at all levels.

Historically, classroom teachers pursuing leadership roles have sought to become school administrators or local union representatives. While these two avenues still exist, there must be other opportunities to cultivate teacher leadership. As teachers’ voices are heard, productive, targeted change happens for students and school communities. Teachers should not have to leave the classroom to feel empowered to express their thoughts and offer insight in authentic ways. Teachers must be at the table.

As Michigan Teacher of the Year 2016, I was struck with an idea upon leaving a meeting with my state senator, Marty Knollenberg, R-Troy. He mentioned how legislators are not typically education experts and they need the involvement of educators at every level to help them make informed policy decisions. He also invited me and any educator to meet with him at any time. He let me know that he wished he heard from more people concerned about education, from classroom teachers to State Board of Education members. I realized at that moment that I had to be relentless in my advocacy.

The creation of education policy in Michigan requires input from all stakeholders, but especially classroom teachers. After all, we are the ones who execute the policy every day.

The recent debut of Launch Michigan is an example of the collaboration that must occur. Business, nonprofits, and traditional education organizations like the Michigan Department of Education and teacher unions have come together to advocate for meaningful change. This is a realization of the daunting political challenges facing education reform in Michigan. Regardless of the issues posed by deep-pocketed donors and their open or unstated agenda, teachers must be at the table.

While the overwhelming majority of Teachers of the Year in Michigan happily choose to belong to their local teachers’ union, they do not speak on its behalf. MTOYs are, essentially, nonpartisan political actors. We acknowledge the undeniable political reality of public education, but offer insight, first and foremost, from the classroom. This advocacy is still new ground for educators desiring to carve out an identity as “teacher leaders.”

The MI-STOY Network seeks to leverage teacher voices to inform the policy landscape in ways that haven’t happened before. June Teisan, MTOY 2008 from Harper Woods, explains, “Being the Teacher of Year in Michigan is about service. The opportunity to serve as the MTOY comes with the understanding that you will elevate the teaching profession through your leadership and willingness to speak up and speak out at all levels of decision-making.”

Teisan adds, “Teacher voices must be heard for the sake of the students we serve and the success of public education.”

Rick Joseph, Michigan Teacher of the Year 2016, teaches fifth and sixth grades in Birmingham Public Schools.

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