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I had the opportunity to attend a conference out-of-state this past week. It was a wonderful experience, and I walked away from it feeling valued and inspired.

Why valued? Because, in my 26 years as a teacher, this was only the second time that a school district has paid for my travel on a plane to send me to a conference outside of the state where I teach. I was traveling with a group of 18 teachers and administrators, and many of the teachers on the trip had never been sent anywhere on the district’s dollar.

Not only did we get to travel out of state, but everything was paid for, including our own private rooms. Every other time I’ve traveled for work, which usually has meant staying overnight in a nearby town after driving myself there and paying for my own meals and gas, if the district was paying for lodging, we were expected to share a room with someone. It was, of course, cheaper that way.

Being teachers, who are usually the type to go along with anything that might help their students in some way, we partnered up in rooms even though it was awkward, and if we didn’t have a close friend on the trip, it could be extremely uncomfortable, especially if one of you snored loudly, or had some other issue that created discomfort.

Finally, our district has changed that policy. I heard that one our past female central administrators put her foot down and said, “We are adults. We will not be sharing rooms on trips.” I’m grateful that she stood up and pushed for that policy change. It was so nice to sleep in my own room, manage my own schedule without bothering anyone else, and call in the evenings and talk on the phone to my husband without having to step out of my room so as not to intrude on someone else’s time and space. I felt like a respected adult – as it should be in any profession.

Why did I feel inspired on this trip? My district has been focused on something called Personalized Competency-Based Learning in the last few years, and this was my first chance to get to see it in action. Before the trip, I wasn’t buying into the idea 100 percent. So far, it had been a lot of work and a lot of what I felt were pointless meetings revamping and restructuring everything I thought we had been doing well. I felt like this was just the latest educational push, and it would be something that would go away when the pendulum swings as it always does in education.

While I still might not be 100 percent onboard with the whole idea, I did see some great things on this trip that inspired me to want to be a better teacher. I saw students being allowed to be in charge of their learning. And they weren’t just sort of involved. In the schools I visited, students were leading the groups of adults on tours. Students were even on the hiring committee when the middle school that I visited hired a new vice principal. And the student on the committee got a vote that was equal to the votes of the other adult members of the committee. That fact impressed me. Imagine the message those students are receiving when they know that their input is sought out and respected. I’ve been on hiring committees in the past. I got to do the work, but when it came time to vote, my vote didn’t really matter. They would take a vote, but then the administrators would decide who to hire based on what they thought. I walked away from the experience feeling that my time would have been better spent in my classroom with my students where I really could make an impact.

Something that also inspired me on this trip was just the overall feel of the campuses I visited. At the high school, students applied for the job to be parking lot monitors. They wore special vests and greeted cars as they came in. Then, when you got to the front entrance of the building, there were more student greeters as you entered. Everywhere I went, students oversaw the management of the building. You could tell the jobs they did mattered, and there was such a sense of school pride in the students there.

There was no garbage on the ground on these campuses. There were garbage cans placed everywhere, and students were managing all of it. I’m not quite sure how that was organized, but it seemed to work well.

I heard no swearing coming from the students as I walked through three different campuses on their first day back after Christmas break. No one was running or yelling, and I didn’t see anyone who appeared to be in extreme violation of any dress codes. It felt like a nice, professional environment. I’m not sure how the schools have pulled this off, but I’m guessing it has something to do with the level of involvement students have in the making and management of school policies. Everyone had smiles on their faces and greeted us – secretaries, students, custodians, cafeteria staff. It made me teary. This is how school should feel, I thought to myself.

The cafeteria felt like a restaurant. They had beautiful spreads of fruits and vegetables, muffins and pastries, a breakfast burrito bar, and one of my colleagues asked the superintendent if the food we were eating was the same as what the students eat. He said, “Yes, of course.” And then he introduced us to the school “chef” who wore his own chef’s jacket with his name embroidered on it. The cafeteria had booths, high tables, and low tables for seating, and the students just had breakfast and lunch in that room at the same time we did, and it did not feel chaotic. They clearly respected the space and were proud to be there and show it off to us, their guests.

The schools just felt nice. There were no posters of rules or suicide hotlines posted on the walls. The students’ artwork was on display everywhere we went, and some artwork was permanent, like the ceramic tile mosaic on an entire wall at the center of campus that said, “Be Kind.”

I’m sure some things were in place because there was a large group of educators there visiting, but there is no way to fake the feel that had been created at those schools, and that was truly inspiring.

So, what did I learn from my trip to Arizona to visit a school district that was doing some great things? I learned that teachers should have these opportunities much more often. On this trip, I got to collaborate and laugh and bond with high school and elementary teachers and administrators with whom I rarely get the chance to interact. I got to see, firsthand, examples of educational procedures and strategies that my administrators are trying to bring to our school district. And I learned that teachers, and students, and custodians, chefs, counselors, administrators, and everyone who works in education need to be inspired and respected and treated like professional adults.

I have a daughter who is working her way through college to potentially become a high school or middle school English teacher. I hope, for her sake and that of other future educators, that there will one day be a shift in how we view the teaching profession in America. With proper respect, funding, and more of a focus on inspiring those who do such important work, the impact on the future of our students would be great.