Utah Teacher Fellows Program giving educators a voice

Braley Dodson | Guest Writer

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Ben Alvord wanted to be a leader without leaving the classroom. But in the world of education, there are few opportunities to advocate for change without stepping away from students.

“We became teachers because we love being in the classroom; we love working with students,” said Alvord, a history and football coach at Skyridge High School and former member of the Utah Teacher Fellows Program. “This was an opportunity I thought to allow me to have something more in teaching without leaving the classroom.”

Alvord was in the first cohort of the Utah Teacher Fellows Program, which launched in 2017 and asks teachers to serve two-year terms as community leaders.

The program works to amplify teacher voices at both the district and state levels. 

“Sometimes, teachers aren’t asked a lot,” Alvord said. 

As a fellow, he participated in an annual survey sent to thousands of Utah teachers to gather opinions and data, which is presented to lawmakers and the Utah State Board of Education. 

Alvord has been outspoken with legislators, spending a few days a year at the capitol, talking about the teacher shortage and ways to recruit teachers. He also shares what it means for veteran teachers to see new staff brought in with minimal training through alternative licensure programs and the impact of giving teachers coaches and mentors. 

“As teachers, we get asked to do more and more things, and we are often not given any more compensation for that or any more resources for doing that,” Alvord said. “So we wanted to define the impact of that–the impact of trying to get that done without having resources–what it means to try and mentor the person next to you without having any extra time to do it.”

After his term as a fellow ended, Alvord continues to go to the capitol and has retained relationships with his political representatives.

By the time “Educator Day on the Hill” rolls around, he said, most decisions have already been made, and policy already drafted.

“I think by building those relationships we want to emphasize new policy before it’s started, rather than just, ‘hey, vote yes or vote no on this,’” he said. 

With COVID-19 throwing what the new school year will look like in limbo, Alvord said there’s a push from teachers to assure that they’re heard. They would like to know if students will be back in the classroom in the fall, whether school will be online, or if there will be a combination of the two options. 

“That’s a hard thing to do–asking the teachers to prepare for those three scenarios, and we don’t know which one of the three it’s going to be,” Alvord said. “I think teachers would feel more comfortable if a decision was made.”

Danielle Macias, an innovative learning coach for the Alpine School District and a current teacher fellow, has been a part of those discussions at the state level. Macias is currently on a committee with the state superintendent discussing what next year will look like in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The summer school program in which Macias is teaching has had children onsite with a paperless classroom, less than 15 students per class, with masks. Although she knows what her current job has been like, teachers still don’t know what their districts will decide to do in the fall.

“There is definitely a lot of anxiety over that,” Macias said. 

She heard about the fellow program after another fellow posted about it on social media. Macias said she wanted the opportunity to connect with other professionals passionate about education.

“I wanted to surround myself with teachers who cared about the profession and who went out of their way to learn more and be teacher leaders, even though they were still in the classroom,” Macias said. 

She’s returned to the classroom from the district level due to the program. During her time as a fellow, she’s been a part of the Utah Coalition for Educational Technology, has published articles on blogs and for Education Week on topics like how to use technology with COVID-19, and how to give students the opportunity to get back up after failure. She’s started using social media to connect and have discussions with other teachers and has been a part of interviewing teachers and facilitating a focus group to gather data for the state on coaches for teachers. 

Throughout it all, Macias said the focus has been making sure teachers are involved in discussions. “People need to be in the classroom to know what decisions to make,” she said.

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