A Voice From Inside the Cabinet

By Sean McGrath April 17th, 2014 10:00 AM

The non-descript clock on the conference room wall clicks slowly towards five. From what I’ve heard, the Chancellor is notoriously prompt, as her packed schedule forces her to be. The murmurs from around the room blend together in an indistinguishable tongue; to me, it’s background noise. The sounds I focus on come from within: my beating heart, the surge of adrenaline, the slightly labored breathing. The last time I felt this nervous, I was standing in front of a room filled with eager students for the first time. I struggle to discern my feelings and wonder why my nerves seem to be getting the best of me. I search for an answer and it comes in the form of nineteen nametags lining the perimeter of an ovular table. Mine is number twenty. The Chancellor walks in promptly as expected and it’s then I realize: I’m a part of something really meaningful.

In 2008, then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee created the Chancellor’s Teachers’ Cabinet as a way to “give teachers a stronger voice in shaping the future of DCPS.” Twenty teachers were selected to give the Chancellor feedback about what is and is not working in our schools. This was the first time that DC Public Schools had created an avenue for conversations between the person who, ultimately, makes the decisions that run our school district, and the people who are on the front lines of education.

This innovative idea shattered the barriers between “them” and “us” and strengthened the idea that we are all part of the same community. Among the reasons why teachers express job dissatisfaction is that they feel underappreciated and that they are kept in the dark while major policy decisions that affect their jobs are being made without their input. The pronoun “they” is crucial here. While there are myriad difficulties I face as a middle-school teacher in Washington, D.C., disengagement is not one of them. That’s because in DCPS, I have so many opportunities to have my voice heard and to express my opinions about the present and future of our profession.

DCPS recently rolled out a new program called the Leadership Initiatives for Teachers (LIFT). According to Chancellor Henderson, it “aims to guide outstanding teachers on the path to a long, fulfilling career in our district.” Indeed, on page 31 of this guidebook, the Chancellor lays out well over fifty leadership development opportunities for teachers. Among them being the very cabinet where I now sat, admiring the institutional knowledge Chancellor Henderson brings to DCPS.

A typical one-hour session with the Chancellor begins with Chancellor Henderson leading a quick ice-breaker, then telling us about upcoming initiatives or recent happenings within the District as it pertains to education. The last half-hour is dedicated solely to teachers voicing their opinions, concerns, or questions, and receiving honest feedback and earnest responses from someone who is in the position to make big ideas big realities. This cycle, called the feedback loop by Charles Duhigg, author of the transformational book, The Power of Habit, is important, because it breeds innovation and collaboration among teachers, but it also fosters a sense of dedication both to the profession and to the District. A teacher sitting across from me at the table listened intently to Chancellor Henderson as she responded to his query about the increased funding next year for middle schools. When it was his turn to speak, he cleared his throat, sat up straight, and summed up my experience in the cabinet thus far, “Kaya, the reason why I love these meetings is because I get straight, honest feedback and I know you are doing all you can for our students. I trust you.”