Why the Teacher Collaborative? A word from the Founder

A word from the founder of the Teacher Collaborative:

My name is Maria Fenwick. I started my career doing the Boston Teacher Residency (BTR), after which I taught fourth grade for 6 years in Boston Public Schools.

In my second year of teaching at a struggling school, I called up the person who was heading up BTR and said I needed a lifeline. He asked what I meant by that and I said I needed to feel like I was part of a larger group of teachers who were like me, from whom I could learn and who could provide me support. By “like me” I had a pretty simple definition - other people who were passionate about the job and who were working really hard to get better and solve problems.

He supported me in starting a small teacher network, which I called “Boston Teacher Action Network.” I recruited two friends to help me lead it and, with BTR’s support, we met monthly for dinner and discussion. This was immensely helpful - I felt rejuvenated, inspired, and like I was connected to a profession of awesome people.

Over the two years that we met, a few things became clear to me: 1. It was not enough. Often our conversations were just getting good when the time was up. 2. The teacher-led nature of it was great, but the time it took to organize was beginning to take a toll on my classroom practice.

Later that year, I found out that Teach Plus was piloting its Teaching Policy Fellowship, and I jumped aboard. I was grateful for the support I got - it felt like the right balance of meeting teachers who I otherwise wouldn't know, doing policy-related projects that had a real application, and being supported in doing so. I was part of a team of teachers who created a model for strong, experienced teachers to have leadership roles in “underperforming schools.” This model, under the name of Turnaround Teacher Teams, has contributed to the success of several local schools that committed to leveraging teacher leaders as a part of their turnaround. This gave me new confidence in teachers' ability to bring new solutions to the table.

Fast forward two more years, and I took the role of founding Executive Director for Teach Plus Greater Boston. In my time at Teach Plus, I worked with hundreds of local teachers, always impressed, but never surprised, by the amazing things they were doing in their classrooms and the potential they had for influencing policy decisions that impacted their students and their profession.

After 3 years in that role, I decided to pursue a job that gave me more flexibility so that I could spend some time with my young children - independent consultant. As a consultant, I mostly helped people and organizations - policymakers, district leaders, nonprofit or foundation leaders - connect with teachers because I believe strongly that when teachers have a place at the decision-making table, better decisions are made. I called my consulting practice “Talk to Teachers” because I believe that dialogues - talking and listening - are so essential in doing right by students and teachers.

That role gave me the opportunity to interact with even more teachers...from the work I’ve done with Chelsea, Malden, Everett, Revere, and Winthrop in supporting their “Five District Partnership” to helping the State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education launch their Teacher Advisory Cabinet, to working with the Boston Foundation to launch and grow the first-of-its-kind celebratory evening of teacher TED Talks, called the Boston EdTalks.

What I have continued to see throughout these examples and more is that there are A LOT of really fantastic teachers out there. I meet people all the time who are doing amazing things in their classrooms and schools...and then I think: How is it possible that these teachers don’t know each other and don’t get to benefit from each other’s awesome ideas? Why do so many teachers say that they feel alone, when they don't have to be?

Another thing I see is that teachers are solving BIG problems, the kind that researchers and non-profits and policymakers are trying to solve, but teachers are doing it in real time, with the kids who are sitting in front of them, how and when they need it. In this way, teachers are truly the experts.

In many cases, though, teachers who are solving problems are doing it alone, with or without the support of their administrator (in “stealth mode” as a teacher I met at Edcamp Boston recently said) or colleagues and often facing lots of barriers. This can make thinking outside the box harder than it should be. Teachers are natural innovators. We need to clear the way to let more teachers connect with their entrepreneurial side, take risks, do the things they know would work, if they just had the right supports to try them.

So, this is how The Teacher Collaborative idea began - mostly from talking to and listening to hundreds of teachers. Importantly, this idea is still new. I want to bring this idea about better connecting and supporting teachers to teachers. I want to give you the space to say what you need, how you would design it, and why you think it would make a difference for you, for your students, and for the profession at large.

If you are eager to jump in, join the email list so you can learn about upcoming opportunities.

If you want to wait and watch from the sidelines, that is also OK. Come back and check out our progress any time!

Maria Fenwick