Disappointed to empowered: The journey of a teacher leader in Houston

students testing

By Remigio Willman

I was so disappointed. As a teacher back in 2012, I felt the obsession with testing had overshadowed the principles of equity and opportunity that I believed would be embedded in the No Child Left Behind Act. Unfortunately, NCLB resulted in just another test-based school reform. I realized that it was my mistake to believe that a system would care for the students.

So I was compelled to do something myself about the future of my students and against public school reforms that were defunding the public institution. At this time, the political discourse was centered around budget cuts, testing and school voucher legislation. Public schools in Texas were under attack.

I was compelled to do something myself about the future of my students and against public school reforms that were defunding the public institution.

Luckily, I was able to answer the call of the American Federation of Teachers through my local union, the Houston Federation of Teachers, to participate in the AFT Teacher Leaders Program. Based on Ellen Meyers’ research on Teacher Networks, the AFT designed TLP to help prepare educators to engage with decision-makers and discuss the issues that affect our profession both locally and nationally. I have participated in TLP since its inception in Houston, first as a participant and later as a facilitator.

The first year in the program is a year of findings. Most importantly, you find that you have the power to affect policy.

You must understand that “policy” in the school setting is everything around you, from class size to building maintenance and professional development. Knowledge of the everyday school experience empowers you to take part in the formation of that policy: Sharing that knowledge helps policymakers better understand unmet needs; makes you less vulnerable to the unidirectional impositions of campus, district and state policy; and may motivate you to become even more of an advocate for your students’ well-being and academic success.

Starting the journey

In the AFT Teacher Leaders’ Program, I found a way to advocate for my students. The project I did there — my “action research” — was on school vouchers, and I focused on their unintended consequences. I found that while choice programs assumed families were well-informed, many families were unaware of the necessary transportation costs — and the associated logistical efforts — associated with sending children away from their neighborhood schools in order to attend a school that accepts a voucher. The additional cost of transportation, often among low-income families whose children attend Title I schools, along with the public funding being siphoned to a private school through the voucher program, ends up depleting the communities that voucher supporters claim to be trying to help.

This is the sort of information the AFT Teacher Leader Program makes available: It empowers you and other participants to ask each other, “How are you getting involved in educational advocacy with the union?”

In the teacher leaders’ program, I found a way to advocate for my students.

More than 90 percent of HFT’s board members have also participated in the program. The union gave me an avenue to advocate for my students and gave me the opportunity to serve as a facilitator of the local program for nine years. Now I serve as the senior vice president of elementary schools and the professional development site coordinator.

Leading from the classroom

As an AFT TLP facilitator, I encouraged participants to use the tools and opportunities from the program to influence policy. For example, one of our teacher leaders researched the effects of the district’s student assessment policy — otherwise known as excessive testing — on the loss of instructional time. Despite the overwhelming evidence of the punitive effect and harm of testing on our students, the district insisted on testing them every two weeks. Her research provided key evidence on the instructional time loss and the negative impact on students’ academic achievement.

This is a clear example of teachers positively impacting school policy through research and aligned professional development.

From teacher leader to leading activist

Voucher supporters are once again reinventing the movement, and I feel empowered to join other union members to fight the corporate takeover of public education — a takeover that treats our students as test scores. I’m energized to advocate for education policies and programs that are developed with educators as decision-makers and implemented under the control of education practitioners, school teachers and support staff.

The Teacher Leaders Program was a catalyst for me, and has helped me have a more reflective professional practice. I now believe that I can be a part of positive change.

I’m energized to advocate for education policies and programs that are developed with educators as decision-makers.

When I ask myself, “How can I reach all my students, the English Language Learners, the newcomers with interrupted instruction, and those experiencing poverty?,” I apply what I practiced in TLP: I envision my students’ future overcoming obstacles with the support of their teachers, parents and the community. This is one of the most important things I learned from participating in the AFT Teacher Leaders Program, the ability to engage in a vision of hope for the future of my students and my community, and to collaborate with others toward the fulfillment of that vision.

According to research, empowerment is the motivation that reflects the drive for responsibility for problem solving, the need to affiliate with others and the urgency to have influence on the benefit of others.

Today, I don’t feel disappointed. I feel empowered.

Republished with permission from AFT Voices.