The International Summit on the Teaching Profession was held in Banff, Canada in March. The scenery and hotel in Banff were just as beautiful as what was happening inside its walls. Countries came together from across the globe to collaborate on the teaching profession.

The U.S. Department of Education invited six teachers and one principal to be a part of the official United States delegation this year. Two out of the six teachers chosen were I.E.A. members, Joe Fatheree from Effingham High School and myself. We participated in an international exchange on our life’s work. This year’s theme was leadership, teacher recognition and efficacy, and innovation. What better?

This is a testament to the department’s commitment to teacher leadership. They planted the seeds with the Teach to Lead Initiative and allow it to bloom by modeling what teacher leadership looks like when you cultivate and empower teachers to flourish as visionary leaders.

The invitation of this group of teachers was not just part of the backdrop. Our voices were not only welcomed and heard; our ideas were put into action in the commitments made by the USDOE at the conclusion of the summit.

Secretary Duncan initiated the International Summit in 2011. Little did he know four years ago, when America hosted the first international summit in New York, that it would become an international community of practice dedicated to enhancing the teaching profession to improve learning for all students.

While at the summit, the U.S. teachers convened a meeting with Canadian, Dutch, German and Estonian teachers. We have followed up with this group of teachers to continue our discussions from the summit, build upon them and learn from each other. We are working on creating an international team of teachers exchanging ideas and working to advance teacher leadership and innovation across the globe.

Several countries described teachers as crucial components of change and progress. They spoke of empowering teachers with authority and shifting paradigms in the teaching profession. The idea of a shared vision and distributed leadership were shared. One chief delegate shared, “Education is the key to productivity, and teachers are the key to better education systems.”

Each country makes three commitments to move education forward over the next year in their respective countries. They report back in a year on their progress with their commitments at the next summit.

The teachers and principal representative were invited to the U.S. commitment meeting to share our thoughts on what the three promises our country made should be, which is unprecedented.

Pam Reilly and NEA President Lily Eskelsen García
Pam Reilly and NEA President Lily Eskelsen García

The sense of responsibility I had to our country’s teachers and students during that discussion was not overwhelming to me, it was actually empowering. It was giving voice to those who didn’t have a chair at this meeting. I found my voice to articulate the importance of allowing teachers to not only hold a seat at the table, but to allow them to set the table and hand out the menus. Each of the teacher representatives and principal were engaged in the conversation and I felt that our voices were not only being heard, they were valued.

The three commitments our country made were:

• Continue to work to increase the number of children with access to high-quality early learning;
• Work to increase access for learners of all ages to high-quality career and technical education;
• And, to convene a summit in the U.S. to highlight teacher leadership and expand teacher leadership opportunities.

The Department of Education has asked all of the teachers that attended the summit to be a part of the planning and implementing process of the U.S. summit that will be modeled after the international summit. We will help decide who should be invited from each state and what the agenda will look like. It is refreshing to have someone appreciate our voice and believe in our abilities to contribute to this process.

At the conclusion of the summit, the U.S. delegation and decided we wanted to take a nature walk on the beautiful trails outside of the hotel. We met in the lobby to begin our adventure and Secretary Duncan decided to join us.

It was nice to get to know him on a more personal level while walking. I am 5 feet tall and Secretary Duncan is 6 feet, 5 inches so for every one of his steps, I took four to keep up. I gleaned a few things during this walk; besides the fact that I’m out of shape. I learned that he values teacher voice and appreciates honest conversations. He wanted our thoughts on solutions to the problems being discussed across the nation. I learned that he understands that he doesn’t have all of the answers but he knows to look to the experts, the teachers, for guidance. His advice to teachers; “If there’s a seat at the table, grab it. If there’s no seat at the table, make your own table.”

Secretary Duncan and I might not see eye to eye due to our height difference but we do see eye to eye on teacher leadership and its role in moving our profession forward.

After leaving the summit, I’m excited. I’m excited to know that the work that is being done around teacher leadership is building momentum nationally as well as internationally. I feel empowered knowing there is a global focus on elevating our profession for the success of our students.

Pam Reilly is a second grade teacher at Woodbury Elementary School in Sandwich and was the 2013-14 Illinois Teacher of the Year. She blogs about teacher leaders for IEA.