How Teacher Voice Can Shape School Networks & Districts

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by Sheena Shirakhon
Assistant Principal, Sí Se Puede Academy

Teachers spend more than one thousand hours with their students each year. We make deliberate and conscious decisions for every lesson we teach. Everything in our classrooms – from the anchor charts and desk arrangements to lesson hooks and essay topics – are decisions we make to ensure our kids thrive and realize their incredible potential. It is key for teachers to have the autonomy to make these choices in our classrooms, but it is also imperative that we have a voice in the decision making at the school and network or district level.

I started my teaching career in a New York City middle school in 2008, and while I was new to the profession, I quickly became frustrated by the administration’s decisions that often seemed to go directly against the interests of my students. I remember one day in my first year, my principal barged into my room and announced to the class that she would be taking a handful of “good” students to the movie theater that day. While well-intentioned, the outcome was a room full of students angrily asking “But why don’t I get to go?”

Unfortunately, this moment was indicative of the fact that the school had developed a culture in which decisions were made top-down, often seemingly haphazardly and with utter disregard for the needs and interests of our students. I knew, if I wanted to make a real impact in my students’ lives, I needed a change.

When I eventually transitioned into a different school context I was immediately aware of a shift in the dynamic between school leaders and teachers. First at KIPP in New York, and then here at Rocketship in San Jose, it became clear to me that school leaders valued open and candid conversations with teachers. While not always perfect, it was refreshing and led to a higher degree of cohesion.

Rocketship has utilized a number of practices to gather teacher input (satisfaction surveys, teacher focus groups, etc). However, as a growing and evolving network, there is always opportunity to further infuse teacher voice into school- and network-wide decisions. At the beginning of the 14-15 school year, I joined forces with leadership from Rocketship’s network support team and we began planning what eventually became the Teacher Advisory Group.

With a national teacher shortage threatening the future of public education, we knew increasing the role of teacher voice in Rocketship would help us discover ways to better retain and develop talent and achieve our mission to eliminate the achievement gap in our lifetime.

We set out to bring our most experienced teachers into the group. Ultimately, the teachers who signed on not only brought experience, but also warmth, wisdom and, above all, an ability to thoughtfully and powerfully articulate their ideas, even late into the evening after a long day at school. For anyone who has ever attended a meeting after 5pm on a school night, you know this is no small feat.  

Throughout the year, we tackled a variety of issues, including, but not limited to:

  • The development of the Teacher Professional Development Fund. This fund pays for external PD opportunities ranging from language study abroad to instructional workshops
  • The creation of an internal teacher time study to better understand how teachers currently spend their time to find ways to support efficiency and sustainability
  • Shifts in the assessments calendar to maximize data-driven instruction  

While the group expressed ideas and provided feedback, network leadership both actively listened, responded to ideas and asked follow-up questions to probe a bit further. By participating in this ongoing dialogue, teachers learned more about the various factors that impact network decision-making processes and network leaders were able to get real-time feedback on ideas before rolling them out network-wide.

I am impressed by the progress that the group made in the 2014-15 academic school year and I look forward to seeing what it achieves in the year to come.  

Rocketship is an organization that belongs to all of us, and our mission to eliminate the achievement gap in our lifetime requires that we all play a role in making our schools an excellent place to learn and an empowering place to teach.


After graduating from Columbia University, Sheena began her career teaching in New York City, where she also earned her Masters in Secondary Education and Teaching from City University of New York. She has taught in multiple Rocketship schools in San Jose, including her role as a founding teacher at Alma Academy. In 2013, Sheena moved to Mexico to support teachers in Teach for Mexico’s inaugural cohort. Today, she is an assistant principal at Sí Se Puede Academy in San Jose, CA.

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