The Former Teacher Fighting to Give Educators a Voice

Vivienne Flesher

Sydney Morris, cofounder of the nonprofit Educators for Excellence, aims to give educators a leading voice in the policies that affect their work.

In 2007, after graduating from college, I stepped back into the classroom, this time as Ms. Morris, a second-grade teacher in a Bronx public school. I fell in love with teaching for its beautiful small moments—the time I noticed Tiana leaning over to help her friend Monae solve a tough math problem, the day I “caught” Hector reading a chapter book under his desk instead of working on his art project. Teaching is an art, a science, and an act of love and deep humility. It is challenging, emotional, and intellectually rigorous. I went home each night exhausted but proud.

Yet even as I embraced my work, I found myself growing frustrated with the broader system in which I was teaching. When I looked at the 32 bright-eyed six- and seven-year-olds sitting in front of me, I feared the vast majority could become part of a sobering statistic. Only one in ten low-income students graduates from college in the U.S. The result is an opportunity gap along racial and socioeconomic lines that threatens the future of our communities, economy, and democracy.

There was good news too: A large body of research showed that the classroom teacher was the single most important in-school factor in improving student achievement. That finding spurred conversations across America about how to ensure that we had great teachers in every classroom. And yet what I and so many of my colleagues felt was that we—the practitioners brimming with ideas for how to strengthen our profession—were left out of the discussion. Policy makers in Washington, state capitals, city halls, and school districts were talking about teachers but rarely with teachers.

In 2010, my colleague Evan Stone and I founded Educators for Excellence (E4E), in an effort to flip that dynamic and give New York educators a leading voice in the policies that affect their profession. Since then, our group has grown into a national movement of over 27,000 educators across six chapters in Boston, Chicago, Connecticut, Los Angeles, Minnesota, and New York.

Through grassroots organizing, we are mobilizing teachers to create policy recommendations grounded in research and their own classroom experience— and working to put them into practice. Over the past year, E4E teachers have met with a former U.S. education secretary and members of Congress. At the state level, they’ve proposed solutions for how to fund schools more fairly; how to ensure we are recruiting, retaining, and supporting more teachers of color; and how to lift up the teaching profession through improved tenure policies. And in our local communities, E4E members have developed an action guide on school discipline, to keep students in the classroom and learning—and more likely to graduate.

As educators, we have a responsibility to advocate for our students not only inside the four walls of the classroom but outside of them as well. e4e.org