Meet NEA upstart Maddie Fennell

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NCTQ interviewed Maddie Fennell, former president of the Omaha Education Association and 2007 Nebraska Teacher of the Year. Fennell served as Chair of the NEA's Commission for Effective Teachers and Teaching, which recently released a report redefining the role of the unions in shaping the education profession.

How did you get involved with the union?
This is my 22nd year of teaching for the Omaha Public Schools. I was chair of the NEA student program for two years after college; I was a union goon before I became a teacher. And then I came into teaching.

I spent a year and a half as local president, from August 2007 to February 2009. I did not complete my term. I had to resign. There are many reasons - but basically the leadership at the local and state level pressured me to resign.

I was moving faster than union leadership wanted. But the membership wanted it.

What do you think about the reforms happening around teacher evaluations and pay?
I think that a teacher's evaluation needs to be multi-faceted. We know when you triangulate the data that it makes the evaluation stronger. Use principal feedback. Factor in student learning—based on growth models. Allow colleague input.

In every field there are variations in quality and effectiveness. I have to assume my responsibility in ensuring quality in my profession. We've abdicated that role to principals and policymakers and we need to take that role back.

...I think we put too much on principals to know what is going on in their building. Let's face it. I'm going to know differently—or maybe more--of what is going on in the classroom next door to me. If I am working with my colleague, I am going to know what kind of innovation she is doing. The principal can't know--she's dealing with outreach to the community, student behavior, curriculum, and, and, and...

What do you see as the role of unions?
We know our demographics are changing. Teachers coming in are looking for different things; we have to adjust to that.

Nobody listens to teachers. We've demonized teaching and teachers. How many classroom teachers get called to participate in congressional hearings?

Unions know they have to take on a new role and lead the change.

As part of the [NEA] commission we spoke with international experts. One of the interesting pieces of feedback from the OECD was that the U.S. has so many individual systems. But the one unifying piece to education in this country is the union. And the union is something people choose. We have an opportunity here to be a national voice in ways that even the Department of Education can't be. We have an opportunity to bring about subsequent change at the national level.

But we have replicated some of the same inefficiencies in school districts in the union structure.

What are these inefficiencies, these obstacles to reform?
The cultural piece to creating reform is enormous. It is one thing to say you are going to evaluate the teacher next door. It's another to get me to do it. There is no policy in the NEA against peer assistance and review--but everyone thought there was.

In my building this year, we chose to observe each other as our professional development; this didn't require any changes in policy. It required the time to do the observations, reflect on the learning, and the willingness to step outside a comfort zone. The hardest thing was leaving your own classroom and stepping into someone else's room. What happens if you see something? The other component to this is that watching other people teach builds my teaching. Evaluating others either validates what I am doing or I learn what I can be doing better.

How has what you've proposed been met in the rank and file? In senior leadership? With union reps?

I think the opposition comes from people who we trained to be against these reforms. They are doing exactly what we asked them to do. Sometimes when you are in the middle, you can't see...but if you are Dennis [Van Roekel; NEA President] or Randi [Weingarten; AFT President] you can see it from some distance, some perspective. Or from the perspective of a classroom teacher you see change coming through your classroom door--the 21st century learner.

But in the middle level you are busy trying to meet the needs of members.

They [union reps] are doing what we asked them to. Now we are asking them to change course.

Dennis Van Roekel has been one of my greatest mentors since I was a student leader. I don't think he is given the credit he deserves as a reformer. He does it from a system point of view. Reform has to come from the bottom up because if it comes from the top down, it will only last as long as the leader is there.

What do you see as your role moving forward?

I have no desire to be a leader in the union. I want to work from the ground up and be a classroom teacher. The reform movement is just beginning in the NEA. But I think it is doable. Some of us who have remained silent can't remain silent anymore. Silent dissenters have to be loud dissenters. With unions it is change or die--with tremendous challenges but tremendous opportunity to bring about substantive systemic change.