2020 LETTER FROM KENTUCKY TEACHERS

We teach and learn alongside children and youth across the Commonwealth of Kentucky. We are early-, mid-, and late-career public school teachers and coaches from 23 rural, suburban, and urban Kentucky counties. From July to November 2020, with support from the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, we came together to pool our diverse perspectives, establish a shared vision for teaching and learning, and identify steps teachers and community stakeholders can take to reach this vision during the remainder of this school year and beyond.

With this inaugural annual letter, we reflect on what we are learning during a time of massive disruption, the deep rooted, pre-existing inequities that the disruption has revealed, and articulate our aspirations for teaching and learning in Kentucky. We intend to lead and invite you to join us.

REFLECTIONS ON THE PANDEMIC & BEYOND

The dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice have stretched us further than we imagined in the past year.

  • We have prioritized safety and well-being, redefining how we interact with students and their families, our colleagues, and our communities. Some of us have lost loved ones to the virus, while we have all suffered from the stresses of uncertainty, long hours, conflicting priorities and directives, and barriers to serving our most vulnerable and marginalized students.
  • We have worked for social justice, speaking out to dismantle practices and policies that perpetuate racism and inequity.

As a result of this stretching, we have grown. We have emerged as better teachers and stronger leaders. We have learned from each other; and we seek to advocate for our students and colleagues at the local level while gaining greater understanding of the challenges facing communities across the Commonwealth.

We view our personal growth and our professional strength as a foundation for community growth in the rural communities, small towns, suburban areas, and cities where we live and teach.

Our Priorities for Teaching & Learning

As Kentucky teachers focused on creating high quality instructional experiences for our students, we will lead at local, regional, and state levels to guarantee all Kentucky students equitable access and opportunity to the following:

 

1. High-quality teaching and learning experiences across face-to-face, hybrid, and remote environments.

 

Teachers and administrators must work together to design, deliver, assess, and improve the quality of student learning experiences collaboratively with students, families, and community leaders because quality learning equals lifelong learning and economic mobility for all Kentuckians. All students deserve high expectations and equitable, developmentally appropriate learning experiences, whether they be face-to-face, purely remote, or some hybrid of the two. In turn, all families should be able to access the support they need to ensure their child’s success. 

 

2. Learning environments that secure student and teacher well-being, safety, and trust.

 

Safe, nurturing, and just learning environments serve all stakeholders best when they offer opportunities for students and educators to thrive. Students and teachers alike learn best when physical, social, emotional, and intellectual safety and well-being is assured. We formally acknowledge the relationship between safety, well-being, and trust. For teachers, professional safety and well-being must also be present in learning environments. Consistently safe environments directly contribute to mental, emotional, and physical well-being which increases trust and positive relationships between students, teachers, families, administrators, community leaders, and policy-makers. 

 

3. Resources to reach these aspirational priorities, guided by collaboration among educators, families, and community partners.

 

This school year has revealed what we have known for a long time: School is so much more than a place to deliver knowledge. The school is central to meeting the needs of the local community it serves. All education stakeholders need support from social workers, counselors, family resource centers, mental health professionals, etc. Schools–and the communities they serve–require equitable resources to provide for students’ overall well-being in addition to their academic needs.

We individually and together commit to the following actions that we believe have a direct impact on the quality of instruction and learning experiences in our Kentucky classrooms … to improve our capacity to provide equitable learning opportunities for all students:

 

  • Engage in and lead professional learning relevant to meet the needs and support the potential of students of all backgrounds.

What it looks like in practice: 

Teachers who are skilled at understanding the social-emotional and academic needs of their students and adapting their teaching practices to better engage their students in authentic learning, should formally (and informally) coach, mentor, and/or lead professional development for colleagues.

  • Reflect on our own implicit and explicit biases and address personal biases that impact student learning.

Enabling conditions: 

School climate requires a culture of transparency, trust, & open sharing. School leadership must create the context to encourage and support teachers to reflect on how personal biases impact and influence the student-teacher relationship. All educators, working together, need to gain greater understanding of research-based resources and tools for addressing issues related to explicit and implicit biases.

…to elevate our expertise and capacity to strengthen the quality of teaching and learning:

  • Choose carefully, and with wisdom, how we spend our instructional time.

What it looks like in practice: 

High-quality instruction varies to best meet the needs of every student. What works in one class, may not in another class; what works one year, may not the next. As teachers gain expertise and experience beyond their first years teaching (which often rely heavily on district pacing guides and rote curricula), they are better able to make decisions that improve student learning experiences and outcomes in the classroom. What makes this lesson developmentally appropriate? How can I incorporate community context or the cultural identity of this student or group of students into the lesson or unit? Teachers with expertise and autonomy are able to answer these questions as they diagnose student learning needs and make wise decisions in the classroom.

  • Apply our own expertise to adapt and build on high-quality curriculum.

Enabling conditions: 

Most teachers in Kentucky are multi-degreed professionals who seek greater autonomy and trust to make instructional decisions that best meet the needs of their students, especially during times of increasing disruption. We also acknowledge that 1) Trust must be earned and professionals must have higher expectations for themselves, as well as 2) Not every teacher wants to or should need to build a high-quality curriculum from scratch. The tension between autonomy and expectations, accountability and trust, instructional expertise and access to high-quality curriculum needs to be an open, transparent conversation in every school in every community across the Commonwealth.

…to better engage students, parents and families, and our communities:

  • Use simple, streamlined technology platforms to improve communication and deepen relationships with students and families.
  • Make constant connections between what we teach and our communities, continually revising curriculum based on relevance to community and student needs.
  • Draw on student needs and interest to guide individual growth and progress. Propose and implement more flexible school scheduling models to reduce student-teacher ratios, increase time for teachers to plan engaging instruction, and enhance collaboration among teachers.
  • Lead partnerships among students, families, and communities based on open, two-way communication and a shared mission to support the overall well-being of students.

…and to promote anti-racism and diverse perspectives in instruction:

  • Elevate multiple perspectives that honor a wide array of backgrounds and experiences other than their own.

What it looks like in practice: 

Students have the right to see different backgrounds, cultures, and perspectives in the curriculum. Instructional materials should be “windows and doors” into diverse perspectives and a variety of lived experiences, not merely mirrors of the teacher’s own culture, experience, and perspective
. 

  • Use high-quality, learning-centered instructional materials on anti-racism.
  • Develop working definitions of anti-racism and apply anti-racist practices to teaching and learning within our spheres of influence.
  • Identify and claim personal and institutional racism decisions related to policy and practice.

Enabling conditions: 

Similar to the need for school climate (among teachers) and school leaders to foster reflection on the relationship between personal biases, the student-teacher relationship, and instructional quality, evaluating the degree to which personal and institutionally racist decision-making negatively impacts the student learning experience is the responsibility of all stakeholders in a community: classified and certified teachers, school administrators, Site-Based Decision-Making (SBDM) councils, district administrators, local board of education members, and community leaders.

 

In 2021, we, alongside our education leaders, policymakers, and community stakeholders, prioritize advocacy, funding, and strategic action for the following policies:

  • Expanded student and family support services, intentionally leveraging key community-based organizations when and where available.
  • Support for student and educator mental health, well-being, safety, and trust.
  • Investment in high-quality and relevant instructional materials.
  • Anti-racism teaching and learning policies and practices.
  • High-quality, relevant, teacher-selected, and job-embedded professional learning.

CALLS TO ACTION

For Families

Commit to a collaborative relationship with educators and schools.

  • Shift one’s passion for education beyond one child to all children.
  • Take an active role in school and classroom processes.
  • Prioritize and value student – and adult – learning and growth.
  • Voice both struggles and successes in open two-way communication.
  • Presume good intentions while working towards collaborative solutions.
  • Welcome questions and expanding insights from young people as they gain perspective and empathy.
  • Use your voice with legislators and actively advocate for public education.

For School Leaders

Create an open, intentional, collaborative setting in order to effectively address the necessary steps toward an anti-racist school culture.

  • Understand that anti-racism is not a curriculum or a program – but a mindset that is foundational to all school endeavors.
  • Set a cultural expectation for anti-racism within, across, and outside of the school – for everyone.
  • Create authentic opportunities for everyone to receive relevant support for their own journeys toward anti-racism.
  • Model how to participate in anti-racist work.

Create a culture where teachers feel trusted to implement meaningful learning.

  • Empower and trust teachers to teach in a way that is meaningful for their students.
  • Build a school environment that protects teachers from the burdens of bureaucracy.
  • Allow teachers to be the “teacher researchers” they are and position teachers to guide school practice and policy.
  • Create systems for teachers to share new approaches and ideas with others in the school, in the community, and across the district.
  • Support and help develop teacher leadership.
  • Communicate clearly and establish systems for gathering authentic teacher feedback.

Create systems and processes that authentically support engagement with families and community members.

  • Model positive family engagement that is two-way, consistent, open, and grounded in empathy.
  • Include teachers, staff, students, and parents on all committees and planning teams.
  • Support SBDMs and their ability to empower families and teachers in their schools.
  • Encourage the development of protocols, resources, and tools that are multilingual.
  • Create positive relationships and partnerships between all stakeholders in support of students.

For Community Leaders

Fully invest – time, money, energy, effort, presence, support, and advocacy – in public schools.

  • Commit to partnering with schools to meet the varying needs of students in the community.
  • Place community needs above political needs.
  • Help build the workforce for tomorrow by providing insights, initiatives, programs, opportunities, time, and expertise that bridges the gap between learning currently taking place inside schools and the future service and innovation needs of the community.
  • Take time to learn alongside and engage with neighborhood schools by asking questions, being present, and meeting with educators, families, and students in an effort to know and understand the needs of students in your community.

For Youth Leaders

Value and use your voice, talents, skills, and lived experiences to advocate for learning experiences and school systems that best support the authentic needs of young people.

  • Share your story in order to allow leaders and educators to learn through the experiences of young people.
  • Find partners (other students + adults) who will help amplify the voice of young people. Engage in thoughtful conversations.
  • Develop surveys, feedback systems, and student-inclusive processes within classrooms, schools, and districts.
  • Advocate for the inclusion of young people everywhere decisions about education are made. Find the decision-making tables and pull up a chair.
  • Ask tough questions, rely on your own ideas of justice and fairness, and demand a forum when issues of equity arise in schools and communities.

SUPPORT NEEDED FROM FAMILIES, COMMUNITIES

We are calling on all Kentuckians to join us in working toward these priorities, which will have a direct impact on the quality of instruction in Kentucky classrooms, and a future impact on our workforce, economy and communities, as our students transition into working adults and thriving citizens.

In an effort to co-design a new vision for Kentucky education, we ask for your encouragement to continue learning, and the space and grace to test new approaches and ideas. With your help, we can obtain sufficient resources, and pursue a learner-centered mission and vision in every public school in Kentucky, and realize a big bold future for our Commonwealth.