When teachers tell their authentic stories it can lead to powerful insights and spark discussions about how to solve the many problems facing school communities.
That’s the premise of the Voices of Change Writing Fellowship, which EdSurge kicked off last year. We brought together a group of diverse educator writers from across the country—representing a wide range of identities, experiences, backgrounds and perspectives—to share their experiences navigating the school year.
Three of the educators from our inaugural cohort of writing fellows recently shared the lessons they learned and some challenges they faced—and they encouraged other educators to raise their voices as well. The discussion took place during a panel at the ISTE Live conference in New Orleans last month.
The panelists were:
Aisha Douglas, an academic dean at Achievement First Brooklyn High School, where she focuses on teacher development and curriculum adaptation in the humanities. As a writing fellow, she explored the need for more radical approaches to building school communities that foster innovation, creativity, and empowerment and the importance of teacher voice in decision-making.
Deitra Colquitt, co-principal at Pershing Elementary School in St. Louis. Throughout the fellowship, she shared about the power of school redesign and rethinking leadership models, reflected on her experience “finding herself” as a teacher and explored the responsibility of educators to critically examine research and standards to ensure that they serve all students.
Jennifer Yoo-Brannon, a teacher and instructional coach in El Monte, California. During her time as a fellow, Yoo-Brannon explored the intersection of her personal identity and experiences and her professional life—highlighting how teachers are humans too—with lives and a lot of hats.
The goal of this session was to demonstrate how personal narrative essay writing can help learners and leaders reshape our world.
Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a portion of the transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: The stories that you’ve published are so deeply personal. What advice do you have for educators when it comes to being vulnerable in their writing?
Jennifer Yoo-Brannon: I want to start by saying that writing is hard. I have this Ibsen quote that I always think about that says, “to write is to sit in judgment of one’s self.” And it’s this kind of reflective, solitary act, which is difficult to do when you’re a busy educator. Especially if you’re a parent and it feels selfish to take time to write because it’s something for you.
But the more I did it, the more I realized that, no, I have to do this. And it’s such an empowering feeling. So any advice I would give is like, it’s okay, you can do this. You can take time to reflect and think and write. You deserve that.
And I would also say that you might not think that your stories matter. Every time I sat down to write, I thought, okay, there are smarter people, more well-researched people, people with higher degrees who are kind of saying similar stuff. Who am I to write this? But I always tell my students that their stories matter—that every story matters. So I really had to sort of coach myself that my story matters. And I had to keep telling myself that and believing in that to keep going.
Deitra Colquitt: I would say reflecting on this opportunity, don’t get caught up in the grammar and all of that. Get the words on the paper. There will be somebody there to help you get it crafted and get it to the audience. But sometimes we’re so much in our head because we want to be perfect the first time. All the things we tell our students [about not always being perfect], we’re not following that when it comes to us.
Aisha Douglas: Something that I learned is there is so much power in controlling our narratives. And I think as educators and leaders, right now, the narrative is created for us. And the power in this fellowship, and something that made me so excited to be a part of the fellowship, was that finally I could be in control of the story—the story of my experiences, the story of my students, the story of my school.
I’m in the charter world, and there are a lot of narratives around that. It was really powerful to be able to say, you know, these narratives have been created, but this is what I’ve experienced. This is what my students experience every single day. And this is how we are working to change what education looks like and feels like.
So any advice that I would give is just believe in the power that writing has to change the narrative for yourself and for your students and for your community.
How have you seen change from the writing you’ve done, and what do you see as the potential other educators can have by sharing their stories?
Douglas: The change that I’ve seen isn’t necessarily something explosive—that suddenly my school or my community is just like, ‘we’re winning.’ The change that I’m seeing is that I realize that I was not being my authentic self. I was trying to be very politically correct and adapt to what was expected. And so I think the change that I’ve seen is in the work that I’m doing now. I feel braver. I feel okay to be my authentic self and I feel okay with people not necessarily being okay with my truth. I’m hoping that that shows up in the way that I develop teachers and develop curriculum and work with my students.
Colquitt: When you think of change, it’s not overnight. There are people who are going to read the article maybe a year from now, maybe two years from now, who reach out to say, ‘I think the same way.’ You’re putting yourself out there.
If you’re looking for instant gratification, it’s not gonna come. You cannot do this for that reason. You have to do it because you believe what you say has an impact and is gonna touch somebody—even if you never know what that impact is.
Yoo-Brannon: Teacher friends have reached out to me on social media, and I had a teacher friend in Minnesota who said, “I showed up for my administrative credential class, and the professor gave us all a copy of your article, “We Need to Make Schools Human Again,” and told us all to read it in her training principals course at a college level.” So that was crazy to me.
And I’ve had other friends who said, “We had a meeting with admin and everybody dropped this article in their inboxes.” Like teachers just putting my article in their admin inboxes saying, “Please read this—this is my experience too.”
So I think there’s power in just affirming each other’s experiences.
What were the unexpected challenges that came up with putting your ideas in the public sphere, and how have you navigated those?
Yoo-Brannon: One piece of advice is: don’t read the Facebook comments.
After my first piece was published online, one of my administrators said, very condescendingly, “that was good and all, but I don’t really think it’s about teachers needing trust.”
There is a section in that piece where I say, “administrators, here’s what I’m saying to you—I’m speaking to you now.” And I think they took it as a personal attack on them. And they were very offended by that. And there was not a lot of acknowledgement or congratulations from my district or my site admin. There was a lot of support from my teacher friends. But that was my first taste that if I’m gonna put myself out there, I am…