By: Heather Gauck

I had been teaching for Grand Rapids Public Schools for 20 years as a resource teacher, when I learned about the Michigan Educator Voice Fellowship. I  had no idea what an exciting journey I was about to begin by applying for the fellowship; it was my first step down the road of Teacher Leadership.

Over the years, I had chosen to be involved in activities within my school that improved student experience; running clubs and pushing into classrooms for special projects helped to accomplish this. For 5 years I had been plugging along, looking for ways to educate myself on the immense possibility that technology held for improving school for my special education students. I knew how many hours it took me to figure things out on my own. I wanted to share this information with other teachers so they didn’t have to repeat all the work I had already done.

This is where being a Fellow and the Teach to Lead initiative compounded my leadership impact. I found out about Teach to Lead and submitted my idea to create a website that would include a user friendly platform, showing how technology integration can push students to higher level thinking skills. I asked another fellow who also had special education experience to join me at the Boston Teach to Lead Summit. There I utilized the logic model process to determine how to take my idea and make it reality.

When I returned from the incredible weekend of professional development I reached out to local press outlets to see who might want to share our story. Fox 17 News, School Network News and West Michigan Woman shared our efforts. I presented to the school board and started my own website/blog to chronicle my journey; this helped to build momentum. The website was featured in the U.S. Department of Education newsletter, Teachers Edition, which goes out to more than 100,000 people! I made sure to share every step of my journey through Twitter and photos.

An important element of working on a Teach to Lead idea is to find those who also see the value and importance of your end goal. From February until October, I was able to gather like-minded educators who enthusiastically championed my vision. At times that took on the appearance of not doing much but still holding onto this dream.

I was given the incredible opportunity to pitch my idea in front of three “sharks” in a shark tank lunch at the GrantMakers conference in San Francisco in October of 2015. I was thrilled when Mark Zuckerberg’s Startup Foundation made a verbal commitment to back my project. After returning to Michigan full of excitement, I began a lesson in patience and persistence.

Much of the school year was spent waiting, knocking over roadblocks and more waiting. I continued to be connected with other educators through Twitter and social media. I started using business cards to share my contact information, which is not a common practice for educators.

My leadership grew exponentially as I became a #TeachStrong Ambassador, a finalist for the U.S. Department of Education Teacher Ambassador Fellowship, a Michigan Department of Education ESSA Action Team member and helped with the Teaching Committee for the State of Michigan Technology Plan. In the long run, all of this connected the dots that I needed in order to have Learning Forward become my non-profit fiscal agent, allowing my project to finally be funded with a $40,000 grant from the Start-Up Foundation!

I stepped into the unfamiliar world of business with much trepidation. While teaching I never had to deal with business phone calls, budgets, contracts or project management. However, I knew that each new experience was helping me grow as a person and an educator. Relying on those around me and taking things one step at a time was my mantra. This journey started as an idea in my head; with an incredible amount of perseverance and support from multiple organizations and stakeholders my vision is beginning to become a reality. As we roll up our sleeves along with GSM Creative to get the real work started we know that the end result is many steps closer to greatly improving education for our students. Providing quality professional development created by educators for educators is a big step in the right direction.

I’m so excited to know that the contracts are signed, logo and branding is underway and the website that was just an idea 16 months ago is actually getting started! We are looking forward to having the creation of Innovation Classroom become public this coming school year.

heather-gauck2Heather Gauck, a special education teacher who has been with Grand Rapids Public Schools for more than two decades, has been making headlines after being recognized by PBS as one of 2015’s digital innovators, chosen as a Lead Fellow for America Achieves 2016-2017 and was picked as one of 90 #TeachStrong Ambassadors across the nation to elevate and modernize the teaching profession. She has been invited to sit on a subcommittee to plan the Statewide technology plan helping Michigan meet the Top 10 in 10 initiative, along with sitting on the State ESSA Action Team for leadership implementation. She was also one of 9 finalists for the United States Department of Education Classroom Teacher Ambassador Fellowship. Most recently she is starting the process of becoming National Board Certified in Exceptional Needs.

An Unexpected but Thrilling Journey