How two state Teacher of the Year award winners are using their Walden degrees to mold the future of education

Dr. Derek Olson
Dr. Derek Olson

A lot is changing in government as the new federal administration outlines its policies and priorities for the next 4 years, particularly in education policy. Significant changes in the approach to how public schools are funded, evaluated, and run are on the horizon. Many of those projected changes have educators, parents, and students concerned about the ramifications these new policies will have. To ensure policymakers understand the potential consequences and create policies that allow teachers to teach and all students to learn, many teachers—including two of our own Doctor of Education (EdD) graduates—are stepping outside their classrooms to share their experience and expertise with policymakers.

Speaking Truth to Power

When Dr. Derek Olson ’15 was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year in 2008, he realized he had been given a unique opportunity. He would soon be able to make a difference not only for the sixth-graders in the Stillwater Area School District where he's taught for 17 years but also for students across the state and the country.

“At the beginning of my teaching career, my approach was to close my classroom door and teach, putting 100% of my focus and effort on my students,” Olson says. “My goal was to make a difference in the world one child at a time through teaching. But being Teacher of the Year thrusts you onto a different stage and gives you the chance to speak truth to power.”

Since 2008, Olson has testified on numerous occasions at the Minnesota Senate and House on a range of issues, including teacher evaluation, the subject of his dissertation.

“I have had the opportunity to advocate with policymakers and give them a glimpse into the trenches where their policies play out,” he says. “They need teachers at the table to ensure that the policies they create will work in the real world of our schools and have the desired effects. They need to hear our voices.”

At one hearing on a plan to institute a new teacher evaluation tool he had researched for his dissertation, Olson knew the way the policymakers planned to implement it was not the way it was intended to be used. The Minnesota Teacher Development and Evaluation Plan (TDEP) is based on the Framework for Teaching, an instrument created by internationally recognized teacher effectiveness expert Charlotte Danielson that is used around the world.

Danielson and the creators of the Minnesota TDEP intended for their tools to help teachers become better teachers.

The plan provides a common language for educators and the administrators and instructional coaches who evaluate and work with them to identify specific areas where a teacher’s skills are weaker. Those areas can then be targeted and improved through professional development and with the support of trainers, mentors, or administrators. The policymakers, however, planned to use the tool to make high-stakes decisions about hiring and firing teachers.

During his doctoral research, Olson had been in contact with Danielson, so when the opportunity to testify came up, he called her to explain how the state intended to use the instrument. She was not comfortable with this use of the tool and affirmed that was not why she created it.

“The tool simply doesn't have the reliability or validity to compare the results of one teacher to another without a significant amount of training for the policymakers, administrators, and teachers,” Olson says. “That training—and the funding for it—wasn’t being considered by policymakers.”

When Olson testified, he shared both Danielson’s input and his perspective based on his research. The flawed bill did not pass.

In addition to lobbying and testifying to state legislators, Olson continues to contribute to the body of research on effective teacher evaluation and development, which, in turn, influences policy.

He co-authored a study on the subject, “From Good to Great: Exemplary Teachers Share Perspectives on Increasing Teacher Effectiveness Across the Career Continuum.” One of the key findings of the study was that not only do programs such as mentoring and instructional coaching help novice teachers become better, but they also help the experienced teachers providing the mentoring or coaching improve their practice. The study, which was named one of Education Week’s top 10 educational research studies of 2014, resulted in policy recommendations to support funding for mentoring and coaching programs across the country.

Olson is also a co-author of the larger follow-up study, “Great to Influential,” which focuses on the supports and barriers teachers encounter as they progress in their careers from great classroom teachers to influential teacher leaders. He was recently asked by the American Institutes for Research to co-author a new study with Educational Testing Service (ETS), the nonprofit organization that develops and administers educational tests, including Praxis, the industry standard for teacher evaluation. One of the things that makes Olson such an effective advocate is his EdD.

“It opens doors and adds credibility,” he says. “When I’m in front of policymakers, I can speak with real authority and confidently state, ‘This is what the current research says.’ I have evidence-based support for what I’m saying and am able to keep research in the forefront of how policy decisions are being made at the state level. That will make a big difference in the lives of the students in my state.”

Dr. Maryann Woods-Murphy
Dr. Maryann Woods-Murphy

Helping Educators Find Their Voices

There are a lot of places you might find Dr. Maryann Woods-Murphy ’16. She could be teaching gifted and talented students how to become 21st-century thinkers and doers at five public elementary schools in Nutley, New Jersey. Maybe she’s sitting down with former U.S. Secretary of Education John King and Sens. Cory Booker and Bob Menendez to discuss the Every Student Succeeds Act. Perhaps she’s chairing a session on education innovations as one of the teachers selected to sit on the National Education Association Foundation (NEAF) board of directors. Or she could be giving a keynote speech to achievement coaches for the New Jersey Department of Education.

“We need teachers in every decision-making situation that impacts how we educate students, what resources we have access to, and how we measure our students’ growth,” says Woods-Murphy, the 2010 New Jersey Teacher of the Year. “Teachers know the most about students and how to successfully run schools. It’s their knowledge that should be the driving force to lift up students and create energy in the classroom. But that doesn’t happen as often as it should.”

Woods-Murphy takes every opportunity to make sure that state and national policymakers do get the benefit of teachers’ perspectives and experiences. She also works to ensure her fellow teachers get opportunities to take on leadership roles, such as mentoring colleagues, designing curriculum, or leading professional or strategic committees.

In addition to her work on the NEAF board, Woods-Murphy was also a U.S. Department of Education Teaching Ambassador Fellow, in Washington, D.C., where she honed her policy advocacy skills and traveled around the country gathering input on key educational issues from other teachers and sharing those insights with policymakers. An additional fellowship at America Achieves from 2011 to 2015 led her to expand her extensive teacher leader network.

“When I was a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow from 2011 to 2012, we traveled all over the country talking to groups of teachers about what they cared about most,” she says. “They raised a wide range of issues, such as having the chance to use their skills to solve problems their schools faced, making sure policymakers were aware of their underserved students’ needs and the solutions that could help them, and having the confidence to do what they believed would benefit their students most. “In every group, one of the participants cried,” Woods-Murphy recalls. “When I asked why, they answered that nobody had ever asked for their opinion or input on their profession before. They were overjoyed to finally have their voices heard.”

Woods-Murphy was also involved with the groundbreaking RESPECT Project, which became Teach to Lead, a joint initiative of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, and the U.S. Department of Education. Now supported by 146 key organizations, Teach to Lead brings together educators in regional teacher leadership summits and local teacher leadership programs. Woods-Murphy also gives presentations throughout New Jersey about teacher leadership, the subject of her dissertation, and leads workshops and webinars on the topic. She has even shared her insights on local and national television.

“Under the past federal administration, there was a shift in policy,” she says. “Policymakers started to recognize and harness the power of teachers’ voices and expertise. With a new administration in place, we need to work hard to make sure that our voices continue to be heard and valued.”

She believes that earning her EdD has put credibility behind her ideas. “We’re frequently influenced by trends and buzzwords in education,” Woods-Murphy says. “But now, with a researcher’s mindset and skills, I look beneath the buzzwords at all sides of the story to form my own opinion and advocate for teachers to have the opportunities and support needed to become leaders.

“After more than 30 years in public education, I have seen too many initiatives fall flat because implementation was top-down,” she says. “Teachers who work side by side with their students every single day need to finally be treated as professionals who are ready, willing, and able to use their power to help students achieve. Successful educational policy and reform cannot emerge from corporate boardrooms or politicians’ offices. It must come directly from those who serve our children, our educational experts—the teachers.”

SPEAK UP

Your voice has the power to inspire change

Derek Olson and Maryann Woods-Murphy agree that one of the most powerful resources for change is grassroots advocacy. Whether you’re working to effect change in education policy, areas of social justice, or any other issue that has an impact on you and your community, making your voice heard by local, state, and national policymakers can make a real difference. “There’s always a way to get involved,” Olson says. “You just have to look for it.”

Olson and Woods-Murphy share their suggestions from the education policy front lines. You can adapt these suggestions to help you become an effective advocate on the issues that matter to you.

LEARN ABOUT THE ISSUE. Talk with other teachers, administrators, parents, and students in your local schools, and find out what challenges they face. Engage in productive conversations to learn how these issues are affecting teaching and learning, and find out what you can do to help. That may mean speaking at town hall or PTA meetings, testifying to policymakers, or helping create programs to address the root causes.

BE A RESEARCHER. The more teachers who do research, the more opportunities there will be to add the teacher perspective to educational research, which often becomes the foundation for legislation. “Rigor is extremely important in both research and public discourse,” Woods-Murphy says. “What we say must be embedded in fact to develop best practices and move them forward.”

SPEAK THE POLICYMAKERS’ LANGUAGE. Policymakers don’t want to just hear you complain about what’s wrong in your school system; they want to hear the problem logically described with a succinct, effective solution offered.

BE FEARLESS. For some people, speaking out and being an advocate feels a bit scary. You worry what others will think: Will your family disagree with you? Will your co-workers think you’re out of line? But if you’re sincere and admit you don’t have all the answers but care very much and want to make a difference, you may be surprised by the opportunities and encouragement that come your way. If you need to start small, you can expand your reach by using your social media presence to advocate for the issues you’re passionate about and see who else agrees with you and might want to help.

ENGAGE WITH YOUR NETWORKS. Meet with other stakeholders who are interested in the issue to talk about next steps and potential solutions. That could be talking with two or three other teachers or bringing the topic to the attention of the school administration, local school board, or a professional association or national advocacy organization.

SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING. Don’t keep your thoughts and ideas to yourself. Write a one-page document that sums up your best thinking on the topic so you’re ready to succinctly and persuasively share your thoughts when the opportunity arises. Your thoughts should be expressed in accessible, non-emotional language and supported with research whenever possible.

BUT DON’T WAIT FOR A BIG AUDIENCE. Look for that opportunity to speak up, whether it’s at a community meeting, your place of worship, or a staff meeting or in a school or community newsletter. There are often more opportunities to share your point of view, advocate, and start building solutions at the local level. Just because you’re not testifying in front of Congress doesn’t mean you aren’t making a difference.

HONOR ROLL

Celebrating Walden’s impressive roster of State Teacher of the Year award winners

Derek Olson and Maryann Woods-Murphy are in great company among Walden’s 45 graduates who have received State Teacher of the Year honors. We applaud them for their continued dedication to the future of our schools.

Class of 2017

Karen Toavs – 2011 North Dakota

Class of 2016

Megan Allen – 2010 Florida

Luajean Bryan – 2009 Tennessee

Stacey Donaldson – 2009 Mississippi

Diana Fesmire – 2011 New Mexico

Paul Gray – 2008 Arkansas

Louise Lindskov – 2014 South Dakota

Elizabeth Miner – 2014 Colorado

Karen Morman – 2012 Texas

Jennifer “Buffy” Murphy – 2007 South Carolina

Beth Oswald – 2008 Wisconsin

Melanie Park – 2012 Indiana

Carol Scholz – 2008 Idaho

Maryann Woods-Murphy – 2010 New Jersey

Class of 2015

Holly Boffy – 2011 Louisiana

Allyson Chick – 2013 Tennessee

Cara Heitz – 2012 Alaska

Eric Langhorst – 2008 Missouri

Nanette Lehman – 2013 Oregon*

Derek Olson – 2008 Minnesota

Shannon Shanning – 2013 Maine

Ryan Vernosh – 2011 Minnesota

Barbara Walton-Faria – 2009 Rhode Island

Class of 2014

Charity Campbell – 2012 Iowa

Byron Ernest – 2010 Indiana

Pamela Harman – 2008 Alabama

Andrew Mogle – 2008 Iowa

Katy Smith – 2011 Minnesota

Class of 2013

Alvin Davis – 2011 Florida

Chandra Emerson – 2008 Kentucky

Murali Gopalan – 2009 American Samoa

Laurie Graves – 2011 Wyoming

Eric Kincaid – 2008 West Virginia

Alice King – 2009 Wyoming

Daniel Leija – 2011 Texas

Kelly Nalley – 2011 South Carolina

Lori Neurohr – 2009 Wisconsin

Mary Schlieder – 2008 Nebraska

Ann Marie Taylor – 2008 South Carolina

Deborah Tonguis – 2009 Louisiana

Class of 2012

Steve Gardiner – 2008 Montana

Kristi Luetjen – 2010 Connecticut

Class of 2008

Kim Zeydel – 2015 Idaho*

Class of 2007

Laura Drake – 2013 Wyoming*

Class of 2006

Melyssa Ferro – 2016 Idaho*

*Lifelong learners who have earned more than one degree from Walden or are currently enrolled in a second degree program.

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