Josalyn Tresvant McGhee was named a 2015-16 Teaching Ambassador Fellow last month by the U.S. Department of Education. One of nine teachers chosen from across the nation, she begins a yearlong fellowship that allows her to remain in her classroom as an instructional facilitator at Kate Bond Elementary in Memphis, while also learning about national policy issues in education and contributing her expertise to those discussions. Chalkbeat spoke with the Memphis native and employee of Shelby County Schools about her opportunity to give a voice to America’s 3 million public school teachers. Here are the highlights.

You are a second-career teacher who came from the banking industry. What brought you to education?

Josalyn Tresvant McGhee
Josalyn Tresvant McGhee

I kind of felt called to come in and support the education system in the city where I was born and raised to help make a difference. I’ve been a special education teacher where I co-taught grades K through 5 and then I taught reading language arts as a a fifth-grade teacher at my previous school.

How will this fellowship affect your work in the classroom?

The fellowship has two types of ambassadors. There are D.C. fellows relocated to Washington. They’ll stay there for a year and they won’t report back to their schools until after that year. I’m doing the classroom piece, which doesn’t require me to move to Washington, so I can do a lot of things remotely and then keep doing my work.

What are your duties as a teaching ambassador fellow?

One of the main expectations is that we are able to provide the Department of Education with on-the-ground perspective of what’s happening in the lives of teachers, what different policies look like in classrooms, or how different policies are translated to classroom instruction or the school environment. And so that may be in the form of roundtable discussions. We may get groups of teachers together with different education partners and facilitate a discussion and get that information back to the Department of Education. There’s a lot of work with the re-authorization of ESEA (the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) and that’s in discussion now. And a lot with equity plans for their higher-need school districts and schools. A lot of time, we’re able to get information out to teachers … to get their feedback. There are also some opportunities for us to travel to different places as representatives of the Department of Education to collect those stories and that information to carry back.

How will you use your experience here in Shelby County in your fellowship? Is there anything unique about Tennessee, or Memphis specifically, that you want your other fellows and the Department of Education to know?

I think a lot of the work that we’ve done in the state with changing our state standards to be more aligned with college and career readiness and the various teacher leadership opportunities that we’ve had in our district, where teachers have been allowed to function in hybrid roles and still remain in the classroom. Within the state, we are five years in to a very comprehensive evaluation process that we have a lot of data to support what’s working, what’s not working; and then there’s teacher’s perspectives on the impact it’s had on their practice. So I think in Shelby County and also in Tennessee, we’ve just been ahead in a lot of policies like teacher evaluation, how we evaluate teachers and provide support. I don’t think we’ve figured that out 100 percent, but we definitely have lots of perspective that would be helpful.

What does it mean to you to be one of nine teachers chosen for this fellowship?

I consider it to be a great professional development opportunity to learn about how education policy affects down to the schools. It also gives me an opportunity to help the Department of Education really understand teachers’ voices on a lot of issues. A lot of the time, they don’t get a chance to visit different sites, cities and schools, and so I have a great opportunity to share that insight and that viewpoint with them.