“We’re creating a cadre of folks who are going to change the world, and they are going to change the world from the ground up.” – Chris Minnich, Executive Director of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO)
I spoke with Chris Minnich Executive Director of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) to get his takeaway on the long term effects of the National Teacher of the Year Program on education in this country. Minnich believes strongly in the empowerment of teachers and the importance of having their voice at the table in policy decisions. Programs like the National Teacher of the Year Program provide a confidence boost that carries over into further development and collaboration.
Minnich feels education would improve as a whole if teachers could split their time between teaching and working with policy makers. Most teachers do not wish to give up teaching, but all want to affect change in policy. Districts and states would benefit greatly from informed teachers sharing a spot at the table in policy decisions.
Teachers are on the front lines of education, shaping classroom environments and incorporating a colorful array of personalized learning and approaches. It seems only fitting that policy makers would want that input and knowledge directly tied to the decision process.
Rod Berger: Well, Chris, this is a very exciting time of year when we’re talking about recognition for teachers. We were talking off-air about all the different programs that are going on and the acknowledgment. Correct me if I’m wrong, but there’s a fantastic discussion going on nationally about teachers and the celebration of teachers in a way that maybe is new because of social media and platforms that get the stories out. It seems like it’s growing.
Chris Minnich: That’s right. We’ve always known teachers, individually, have been respected. Everybody knows at least one teacher that has affected his or her lives. But I think the bigger thing is to respect that profession that they go into this for multiple years. It’s a professional career. We’re starting to see that talked about more.
Teachers aren’t just people that go into the classroom every day. They’re shaping young lives. As an organization that represents state superintendents, we know our members care deeply about making sure these teachers get the recognition they deserve. It’s a lonely position as well because they go into a classroom with 30 kids. There’s sometimes not as much feedback about how they’re doing or whether or not those kids have moved on and have been successful. I think one of those things we need to do is give teachers better feedback because they want to know what’s going on with kids. It’s what I hope recognition programs can do – in addition to just making sure we elevate the teacher profession.
RB: Tell me about your time at the CCSSO and in getting to know the National Teacher of the Year Program. What personally over the years has been most striking? What have you experienced with these teachers bringing them together, the way they collaborate on a yearly basis and that community that you’re building? I would imagine it’s a different experience when you’re inside at CCSSO.
CM: Yes. I had two immediate reactions. First, these teachers are craving a conversation outside their classroom. We meet them January/February, and by the end of the year, we’ve got 56 best friends. These people want to be involved in policy discussions. They want things to change for the better in education. They recognize that we’re not getting to every kid.
In terms of impactful experiences, I’ve been in a lot of teacher’s classrooms. I was in the South Dakota State Teacher of the Year’s classroom probably about two months ago, watching her interact with her students. These teachers are the best of the best. She had one kid who was off-task, another kid who was bored, and she found a way to get her class of 30 third graders to come together and have a single conversation where they all were advancing.
I looked at that, and I thought, man, if you didn’t know what was going on in this classroom on a regular basis, it was powerful. It was powerful to see that this wasn’t just about discipline; these are instructional strategies and these folks are experts. It’s exciting to see.
RB: Chris, take us inside. What would surprise us as outsiders or community members that know teachers that are married to teachers or work with teachers? Our kids go to school. What would surprise us about that community that you put together as a group? What are the types of questions or conversations they have? They are probably all-stars right in their community; they are the ones that are being recognized, and they probably are doing some amazing work from which we all can learn. I would gather that their discussions show the human side, the vulnerability and the challenges of teaching in ways that we may not get a chance to experience on a day-to-day basis when we’re interacting with our schools in our communities.
CM: Yes, we get involved in all these policy discussions. That’s our role. But when you talk to the teachers, they’re talking about their kids. They’re talking about the 30 kids that are in front of them or more as middle and high school teachers. They are incredibly focused on their kids’ success.
They almost all don’t believe they deserve it, to be recognized as the National or State Teacher of the Year. They almost feel as if 20 or 30 teachers are doing an equally good job. There’s a lot of humility that comes with the distinction. It is our job to say to them, “Look, you may be one of many excellent teachers in your district or school, but you’re the one that’s here this year, and it’s time to step up and have a conversation about how we make education better.”
It’s fun to see the evolution across the year of these folks because they come in as blank slates, unsure of themselves and by the end of the year, almost all of them are in their state, advocating for better student policies, and student-focused policy.
RB: Let’s talk about the conversation around policy. A lot of folks in education, shy away from it, maybe because they are not spending enough time in it. They haven’t taken the time to understand the inner workings of the political machine and some of the challenges. How do you see that evolution? What are the ways teachers build their skills in a belief that they can speak on a level comparable to folks like you and leaders that are doing this on a day-to-day basis?
CM: The big thing is to put them in environments where people will be thinkers and have conversations. They should not assume they know things. We get into a lot of policy discussions with legislators where something may be assumed. We have to take them back, and have a conversation with them about what we are trying to do and are these things student-focused? We ask – “If you were trying to run the entire system, what would you do?” As a teacher, they come out of the classroom very focused on the best way to teach 30 kids that are in front of them. It’s very interesting. They’ll come in at the beginning of the year with one idea on something, and I’ve had several conversations where they go, “Well, it’s a little more complicated than that.”
I think stronger policy is coming because of it. I see it in state after state, where the state teacher of the year in Alabama is stepping up around better instructional strategy. The State Teacher of the Year in Washington State is talking about how to use a charter school, which is really controversial in Washington State. How much you use that to the benefit of all the children in the state?
These are conversations that are happening only because we’re giving a forum to honor teachers. I’m excited about the honoring part because I think teachers aren’t honored enough. Boy, do we need to have another conversation about getting them involved in setting good policy for the state and the country.
RB: Significant learning is going on.
CM: Right. I mean, I think that’s exciting for them. We’re creating a cadre of folks who are going to change the world, and they are going to change the world from the ground up.
RB: What advice do you have, Chris, for those teachers on the outside looking in or those who might know somebody who is a part of the program, and want to, in essence, bone up on their ability to speak more intelligently about policy from an informed position? I think there are a lot of teachers out there that you might talk to at conferences who will say, “I don’t want just to be given a seat at the table because a box has to be checked that a teacher sat at the conference table. I want to be there and provide meaningful feedback and know I’m taking meaningful information back to my school community. What advice do you have for those teachers?
CM: Well, two things: I think we’ve got to be more creative with hybrid positions in our education systems. We should allow a teacher to teach half time and work with policy makers half time. These are things that need to happen when you’re talking to districts and states. You need to make sure that there are options for teachers. It doesn’t have to be a binary choice between being a policy maker and being a teacher. Most of the teachers don’t want to leave the classroom; they wish to stay in the classroom. But almost all of them want to affect policy in some way. I think we have to create roles for teachers to do both.
The other thing: There are people in a teacher’s state who will feed information that isn’t necessarily what you believe; it’s what they believe. As a teacher, you should figure out what you feel on some of these issues before you step into the fire. Don’t let anybody tell you what you think, and that’s including our organization, the unions, or anybody. Figure out what you think about issues and dig into them before you have any conversation that’s high stakes around policy. Honestly, I’ve seen situations where a teacher is unprepared at the table, and that’s no fun for the teacher, and it’s not that helpful for the policymakers either.
RB: Yes, that’s very, very true. It makes me think about the types of discussions we’re having around teachers. I think one of the challenges is the wealth of information that is out there. Are we preparing the next generation of teachers to be more discerning in their ability to look at information and figure out if it’s propaganda or if it’s swirling around a political season or event? Do they have informed eyes on what they see when they park their car and walk on their campus at their school?
CM: I think it’s a big deal. Part of our challenge is to make sure we’re having in-depth conversations on topics that are more than headlines on education policy. Most of these issues are complicated; you can’t just spend five minutes talking about them.
A hot topic right now is school choice. The change in political administration is very interested in school choice. From my perspective, school choice is such a long conversation about how to make sure kids have options for themselves?
One side shouldn’t just tell teachers, such as, “school choice is horrible,” and by the other side – “school choice is going to save all our children.” We’ve got to get into a back and forth about this and become smart about setting policy or else we’re just going to yell at each other for four or eight years.
You’re going to see this at the state level, too. There are going to be state level programs having conversations, even if it’s not school choice; it’s common course standards or higher academic standards. Teachers need to dig in and have those conversations in a detailed way to help people understand them before we get to a place of making decisions.
RB: Let’s close with this. Let’s talk a little bit about your personal journey. If you were talking to yourself – what kind of conversation would you have about your life before joining CCSSO? I would imagine it would be very different than when you first walked through the door.
CM: Yes. I did think that coming to CCSSO would be an activity and setting to figuring out best policy – setting it up for the nation or help the nation get policy sets. It’s been much more in the gray and moving the country in a good direction with higher standards, betters tests, better feedback for teachers, innovative practices. Those are the types of things that I get the most excited about in my job. I came here eight years ago, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
It motivates me the most to be in classrooms and see teachers getting things done with kids. We have great teachers in the country. The bottom line – yes, The National Teacher of the Year Program and other programs that honor teachers are important, but we shouldn’t just stop there. We should honor teachers by treating them like professionals; helping them get better, making sure every kid has a teacher that lines up with their best learning style. Those are the things we must have open conversations about. The honoring is one step in the right direction, but that’s not the only thing we need to be doing.
Thanks for the time; I appreciate it.
RB: Absolutely, Chris. I love what you’re saying about changing the narrative. To be able to honor and share best practices and then provide them to the community. People can learn from each other, in areas that they may not have developed the professional skill. That’s progress. It’s moving the needle forward, and it’s what parents and professionals in education can feel good about when they see you putting your foot forward in this manner. We really appreciate it. Thanks so much Chris.
CM: Thanks, Rod.
RB: Once again, I’m Dr. Rod Berger.
About Chris Minnich
Chris Minnich was appointed Executive Director of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) in December, 2012. As Executive Director, Chris has ushered in a new strategic plan in which CCSSO is committed making sure all students participating in our public education system – regardless of background – graduate prepared for college, careers, and life.
Since 2012, CCSSO has worked with states to raise the bar on standards, assessments and accountability, transform educator preparation programs, design new approaches to teaching and learning, and implement and sustain promising reforms across the country.
Chris first joined CCSSO in 2008 as part of the standards program. In 2009, he assumed the role of Strategic Initiative Director of Standards, Assessment and Accountability, where he facilitated the state-led Common Core State Standards Initiative resulting in 45 states and the District of Columbia voluntarily adopting the Common Core State Standards in English language arts and Mathematics. In 2010, Chris became the Senior Membership Director at CCSSO, serving as the lead contact for all 57 of CCSSO’s members.
Chris has an extensive background in assessment and accountability work. From 2005-2008, he held multiple positions at Harcourt, all focused on the advancement and improvement of assessments. Specifically, he led the development and deployment of a teacher-centered online portal focused on assessment education.
Before joining Harcourt, Chris served as the Director of Test Design and Implementation at the Oregon Department of Education from 2003-2005. While there, he led the statewide implementation of Oregon’s online assessment.
Chris holds a Bachelor of Science in Political Science from the University of Washington, Seattle, as well as a Masters of Public Policy from the University of Maryland, College Park. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia with his wife and two sons.
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