SANDY — As teachers from around the state gathered Thursday for the annual Utah Education Association Convention, the message passed down from leaders was a call for greater collaboration.
UEA President Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh opened the convention by urging educators to take an active role in their local school communities and cultivate partnerships with fellow teachers, administrators, parents and policymakers.
"It’s time to stand up. It’s time to be candid about the power of working together," she said. "We are the solution. We have an unprecedented opportunity to come together as education stakeholders to engage in positive conversations about what we’re doing in Utah."
The convention at South Town Exposition Center includes vendor demonstrations of educational resources and technologies, workshops and hands-on teacher training. The event, which runs through Friday, is free to members of the UEA and their families, and $10 for the general public.
During one workshop, featured guest Jerry Weast, a former superintendent of the Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, led a panel discussion on building effective partnerships between teachers, teachers associations and district administrators.
During his tenure as superintendent, Weast achieved the highest graduation rate of the nation's largest school districts and worked with teachers union leaders to implement one of the country's first peer review programs.
Weast challenged educators to disrupt the organization and bureaucracy of their schools and school districts. Schools will continue to see the same outcomes if they are unwilling to restructure, he said.
Weast also said there is a need to invest and support teachers, adding that half of teachers nationwide leave the profession within their first five years.
"If half the doctors walked out of your hospital in the first five years, you probably wouldn’t be checking in," he said. "And if the poor kids were going to your hospital and 80 percent of them weren’t doing well, you probably wouldn’t check in either."
JoDee Sundberg, a member of the Alpine School Board, said the district has worked to support the practice of teachers working together in professional learning communities or teams. She said the board recognized that allowing educators to come together and collaborate would result in greater outcomes than working in isolation.
Sundberg said teachers meet together regularly in teams with four questions in mind: What do we want the children to know? How will we know when they know it? What do we do with those who don't know it? And what do we do with those who do?
"We believe in professional learning communities. That’s our culture," she said. "We had to come together as a school board to determine what was best for our teachers."
Sixth-grade teacher Cheryl Parkinson said she was encouraged by the discussion on collaboration.
"It's so important to be able to get out of your own realm and get the support and hear the ideas of other teachers," Parkinson said. "We don't really get the opportunity to benefit from each other's experiences."
Marjean Wayment, a fifth-grade teacher, similarly said that teachers have been asking for more collaborative time for years, and it's encouraging to hear state education leaders discussing the issue.
"Schools have wanted it. We just get so pressed down with other responsibilities," Wayment said. "There seems to be a lack of time and an exhaustion we're dealing with."
Weast said that part of the struggle in public schools is the pull that comes from several directions. While everyone is concerned with helping students, teachers associations have their eyes toward a school's teaching staff, and an elected district school board has its eyes toward the local community.
"The best thing we’ve got to understand is we don’t have the answer," he said. "It’s working together to find the answer. And the answers today may not be the answer tomorrow, because the world is changing."
First-grade teacher Jay Fleming said the changing world is one of the reasons he chose to attend the convention. Fleming said he was hoping to come away with new ideas for his classroom, particularly in regard to new technologies.
"The classroom has changed so much," he said. "You really need to look for technology and ways to integrate it."
The bulk of the convention focused on the classroom and resources for teachers, but some talk of politics did find its way into the exposition center. In her opening remarks, Gallagher-Fishbaugh mentioned actions by lawmakers — including pressure to teach to a test, efforts to curb the power of teachers unions and the state's new school grading system. She told educators that "silence is consent," and by not speaking up, they are tacitly approving of being told what to do.
During the panel discussion, Gallagher-Fishbaugh praised Utah's teachers as some of the best in the nation for achieving what they do considering that the state has the lowest per-pupil funding in the country.
"We have to elevate our teachers. We have to respect our teachers. We have to hold them to high standards," she said. "It is time that we stop the association bashing and the teacher bashing, because we are about kids."