March 30, 2023
Teach for America’s 2021 National Teaching Award Winner, Anna Li, almost quit the teaching profession 5 years ago…but then she joined RPIA and everything changed. This is Anna’s story, a powerful reflection on the impact of RPIA on teacher and student empowerment.
RPIA was a formative turning point for me as a teacher. I felt that I plateaued with my craft of teaching and didn’t know how to take it to the next level. I was starting to question if the field of education was for me.
RPIA presented a shift in my mentality. Everything in RPIA places students at the center. I felt that I truly learned how to shift my instruction as a “transformative teacher,” planning lessons from the student perspective, reflecting on student voice and empowerment, and giving students more ownership of the classroom.
I had never experienced development like RPIA before. Instead of passively absorbing content in professional development by a facilitator, we actively participated in peer-to-peer learning—some of the most profound insights came from my fellow teachers. In one session, I shared that I struggled to engage my students the first 10 minutes of class due to my repetitive structure of bellringers. Our cohort immediately jumped into brainstorm mode. We did a root cause analysis of my students’ actions, and then ideated possible solutions. Not only did I feel supported in coming up with solutions to my problems, I felt safe enough to share areas of improvement. While many people say they respect teachers, I had never felt more respected as an educator than at RPIA.
In particular, I learned about responsive frameworks, such as Beyond Discipline. I was compelled by this book because I was struggling with one student in particular, Kayla, who would frequently disrupt class with attention-seeking behaviors. Through RPIA, I began recording my class, tracking teacher and student actions, and evaluating trends according to RPIA pillars. After the first video, I immediately understood why Kayla continued to interrupt me: she wanted to be actively engaged in learning. When I watched the video, I realized that much of my instruction was guided by my responses, rules, and questions. Students like Kayla craved to be active participants.
In an effort to implement more student-centered approaches to our class, I started making Kayla the “teacher” every day for the first 10 minutes of class. She was an amazing teacher! Kayla encouraged students to answer and asked thoughtful questions in response. When Kayla had moments of disruption, I applied the Beyond Discipline ideas and consistently emphasized that we were there to support her as a community. At the end of the year, Kayla sent me an email explicitly calling out how these changes impacted her: “Thanks for all the talks and lessons and letting me be the leader everyday. You never gave up on me and even with my horrible attitude you always stood by my side… you love students better than any teacher I have ever met.”
RPIA helped me find the sustainable path in education that I was looking for. Not only did I find a community of teachers—who I continue to collaborate with, even years after the program—but I also found my authentic identity as a teacher by placing students at the center of instruction. After seeing the impact that RPIA’s practices had on classrooms of students, I knew that I wanted to remain in education.
Even years after completing RPIA, I still feel its impact. The teacher and administrator that I am today is a result of this program. As I have started to coach teachers, I use many of the student empowerment and ownership principles that I first learned in RPIA. I am so grateful to RPIA, which gave me a path to fully embrace the field of education, which is now my life’s work.
Check out Anna’s Teach for America feature to see how the RPIA pillars of student voice, ownership, and empowerment shine through in her award announcement.